‘Nothing to Envy’: Or is there?

We all know about North Korea. For example, how secretive it is; how closed off its citizens are; how foreigners are restricted to Pyongyang, where they only see what the government wants them to see. But what’s the reality behind the whole charade the North Korean government presents to the outside world? What is life really like for ordinary North Koreans who are not members of the elite in Pyongyang?

For many of us to get some level of insight, Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy arguably goes some way in providing it. The book makes reference to individual case studies to highlight North Korean life. It includes details about North Koreans’ responses to the death of Kim Il-Sung, the famine of the 1990s and the overall oppression. The book shows us how individuals dealt with their starvation, deaths of family members and the constant threat of the labour camps if they absentmindedly – or intentionally – spoke or acted against the North Korean elite.

Nothing to Envy is a book that I believe to be hugely significant. It highlights the human side of North Korea from a North Korean perspective. We frequently see or hear about foreigners having ‘minders’ in Pyongyang or the treats of Kim Jong-Un, but we hear far less about the ordinary citizens themselves. And in order to gain a better understanding of the secretive state, who better to consider than the people who have experienced it first-hand?

The book is also a reminder that we have comparatively much more freedom than those in North Korea. We can openly express our opinions, criticise those in authority and protest without fear of being put in a labour camp or killed. North Koreans have repeatedly been given this idea that they are the lucky ones, that they are better off than the rest of the world. But are they? Do they really have absolutely nothing to envy?

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