Travel literature review: Nothing to Envy

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick


Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Review by Rachel Berg

At the beginning of Barbara Demick’s book, Nothing to Envy, there is a satellite image of North and South Korea, taken at night. The bottom half of the photo is pock-marked by lights, the tell-tale signs of modern civilization. The top half is a 'mysterious black hole,' barely distinguishable from the seas surrounding it. This empty top half perfectly demonstrates the enigma that is North Korea.

During my time in the travel industry, I’ve come to know people who have been to places I never imagined on a tourist brochure. But I’ve never met a soul who has actually been to North Korea. For the intrepid traveller, it’s in many ways an unattainable grail, one of the last corners of the developed world largely forbidding to tourists, save for highly controlled and publicised visits from national symphonies or sports figures (hello Dennis Rodman).

As a Los Angeles Times journalist living in Seoul, South Korea, Demick’s personal experience of what lay northwards of the demilitarised zone was limited to very restricted press junkets operated by the North Korean regime. These so-called tours were designed to showcase only cherry-picked country monuments through wildly rose-coloured glasses. In Demick’s experience, she and other journalists were assigned 'handlers' who watched their every move. They even were confined at night to a hotel on a tiny island, ensuring that none could stray and search for stories, interviews or sights on their own.

Back in South Korea, Demick began seeking out people in the Seoul area who could give a first-hand account of what life on the ground in North Korea was really like. To get to where they were in South Korea, they all had to leave North Korea illegally, and the book follows the unique chains of events that led each of them to make the extraordinary decision to defect. In doing so, they had to sever ties with the only country, leader and family they’d ever known and loved.

Through the interwoven stories of the subjects she interviews, and through recounting North Korea’s turbulent history around the time of transition between Kim Il-Sung and his son Kim Jong-Il, Demick paints a grim and utterly fascinating psychological portrait of a totalitarian regime so closed off from the rest of the world that when the electrical grid started to fail and the food supply dwindled, no one even imagined that life could be better elsewhere. No one could imagine that there were cities filled with grocery stores and cars, let alone something called the internet.

It makes for fascinating (and sometimes horrifying) reading to see what leads each interview subject to his or her breaking point, and I had trouble putting this book down. Sometimes the narrative shifted back in forth in time in a confusing manner, but was done so in the aim of assembling humanising portraits of what life was actually like for North Korean citizens, not just on a practical but an emotional level.

For those of us with stamp-filled passports, it’s hard to imagine the difficulty of overcoming a lifetime of relentless propaganda — not to mention the paralysing fear of being sent to die in a labour camp should you be caught — to leave your country. In books like Nothing to Envy, writers are starting to crack through the layers of a country determined to reveal as little of itself to outsiders as its leadership can get away with. There are signs that North Korea’s shroud of mystery may be crumbling, and as more people defect each year, more stories will be told.

Based in San Francisco, Content Producer Rachel enjoys exploring places ranging from Iceland to Indonesia. When she’s not actually travelling, then she’s doing so vicariously through her battered-up Kindle. 

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