This weekend I traveled to a place I know very little about: North Korea. It was not a journey I’d expected to take. In fact, it was on a whim that I downloaded Barbara Demick’s affecting nonfiction book, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, to my Kindle on Saturday night. Earlier in the day, I’d watched the latest edition of the BBC’s “Culture Show”, which covered the nominees for the broadcaster’s most prestigious award for nonfiction, The Samuel Johnson Prize, worth £20,000 ($30,000). Of the books and authors discussed–all of which were fascinating looks at mathematics, human evolution, a personal account of the power of fly fishing, the reign of William II and an intricate look at the latest financial crisis, respectively–Demick’s book was the one that grabbed my attention when, in announcing Demick as this year’s winner, chair judge Evan Davis of Radio 4 said that one of the survivor accounts in the book, “actually moved me to tears.” It helped that the short interview conducted with the author, who is an American foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times now based in China, moved me with her reading of a short passage from the book.
Chronicling the lives of a doctor, a school teacher and her much richer secret lover, a fervent communist mother, an orphaned boy, and a rebellious daughter (all having defected to South Korea), Nothing to Envy takes its title from a children’s song taught throughout North Korea with the lyric, “We have nothing to envy in the world.” From the opening chapter the irony of the song is firmly established. Not soon after, it becomes nearly impossible not to compare the direct, affecting prose unspooling before your eyes to George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece, 1984. There are all the tell-tale signs of totalitarianism: neighbors enlisted and entreated to rat out neighbors, the banning of all forms of art unsanctioned by the government, the secret police, the gray unmitigated stench of oppression and starvation, and at its core, a love story that moves forward and often trips over the figurative and literal darkness that is life in North Korea. It is a gripping read; detailed and unflinching in its parade of revelations about the resilience of human beings, as well as the effectiveness of propaganda, indoctrination and demagoguery. I literally only put it down to eat, shower and sleep.
Off the six accounts Demick researched over a ten year period, the journey of Dr. Kim–educated by the state in her profession–was the most affecting. Filled with gratitude with the opportunity to “pay back the Great Leader” for giving her the opportunity to practice medicine, Dr. Kim bears witness as her city’s functioning hospital crumbles under the weight of a famine that grips the country in the mid-1990s. Already barely able to serve the community with its lack of medicine, Dr. Kim is forced to helplessly watch small children in her care die of hunger. When asked if she remembers the children, she says, “All of them.”
Just as harrowing as the details of life under the demigod Kim Jong-sun and his equally despotic son, Kim Jong-Il, are the stories of flight and eventual settlement in South Korea. Our six eyewitnesses are wild-eyed, naive, and just as frightened when presented with freedom of choice as when they had none. The “overwhelming” is palpable and it comes as little surprise that some of them initially yearn to return to the familiar absence of independence.
When I finished reading Nothing to Envy, I was seized with a choking gratitude for my life as it is now. I climbed out of bed, having set my Kindle solemnly aside, and walked into my kitchen, opened the fridge and stared at the abundance of food that crowded it. I made a meal that did not need weeds, pine bark or stolen dog meat to stretch it. I sat in my spacious living room and marveled at my right to criticize the policies of my government without fear of being sent to a detention camp for the rest of my life; sat, grateful to my parents who did not have to cross a freezing river in the dead of night to get us here; sat, grateful for the luxury of my own boredom; sat, grateful for the freedom to walk to my desk, sit down, write and express anything I want and then share it with the world.