Nothing to Envy

July 26, 2011

When you escape North Korea, many hardships are over, but many more are just beginning.

Nothing to Envy blends a modern history of North Korea with the stories (collected from interviews) of six North Koreans who escaped and defected to South Korea. The author explores the famine, ideological absurdity, and tragic depths of physical and spiritual deprivation to which the North Korean people have been subject; but, true to the book’s subtitle, she also shows a side of North Korea that most never consider: the lives of ordinary individuals, struggling to build and maintain lives for themselves and their families, pursuing what dreams they can.

The book opens with Mi-ran and Jun-sang, childhood sweethearts whose relationship was frustrated by the latter’s higher social standing. Still, they would sneak out together at night and go for walks beneath a sky clearer and more brilliant than any other in the world, thanks to North Korea’s lack of electricity and industry at the time. When they reached college-age, Jun-sang was sent to a privileged engineering school in the capitol of Pyongyang, while Mi-ran became a schoolteacher in the remote city of Chongjin in which they grew up. Ironically, both had dreams bigger than the stifling political and emotional atmosphere of North Korea could support, but even though they’d known each other for most of their lives, neither dared share dreams of escape with the other–such is the depth of distrust cultivated by the Orwellian regime. So when Mi-ran escaped with her mother and unmarried siblings, it was a crushing surprise for Jun-sang. If only he had told her, they might have escaped together! When he finally did escape and met up with Mi-ran in South Korea, she had already married. The author was there, and her account of this meeting is heartbreaking.

Mi-ran is one of six escaped North Koreans whom Barbara Demick profiles in Nothing to Envy. She calls her work “an oral history,” and the stories are pieced together from interviews and contextualized with historical information. I found myself consistently surprised when Demick would break in with world history. While reading these stories, one forgets that there is a world outside North Korea, which seems rather what it’s like to live there. In the end, I feel like I know these people–Mi-ran, Jun-sang, Mrs. Song, Oak-hee, Dr. Kim, and Kim Hyuck. I learned in a high school creative writing class that characters are made real by how they react to conflict, and there’s little but conflict in the six stories herein.

And while all six stories end with their teller’s escape from North Korea (they couldn’t tell their stories otherwise), these are not happy endings. Mi-ran’s married sisters, who had families and declined to escape with her, were sent to prison camps when word got out of their family’s defection. And this isn’t Mi-ran’s only regret. Like many who survived the famine in North Korea, she credits her survival to selfishness. As a schoolteacher, she saw her students come in weaker every day, until some ominously, but inevitably, stopped showing up. Mi-ran was barely getting by and had nothing to share, but still feels guilt over this. Demick explains a common theme:

Yet another gratuitous cruelty: the killer targets the most innocent, the people who would never steal food, lie, cheat, break the law, or betray a friend. As Mrs. Song would observe a decade later…“(the) simple and kindhearted people who did what they were told–they were the first to die.” (141-2)

South Korea welcomes Northern defectors with open arms. Their constitution establishes their government as the rightful government of both Koreas, so all North Koreans are automatically granted South Korean citizenship. The South even provides defectors with a stipend (up to $20,000) to help them get settled, and educates them about how to get by in the modern world (such as how to use an ATM, etc). But their arrival in South Korea isn’t the end of the defectors’ hardships.

The qualities most prized in South Korea–height, fair skin, affluence, prestigious degrees, designer clothes, English-language fluency–are precisely those that the newly arrived defector lacks, which accounts for the low self-esteem typically found among North Koreans in the South, such as Oak-hee. (256)

And of course there are the issues (which, like everyone I know, I take for granted) with adjusting to life in the modern globalized world:

North Korean defectors often find it hard to settle down. It is not easy for somebody who’s escaped a totalitarian country to live in the free world. Defectors have to rediscover who they are in a world that offers endless possibilities. Choosing where to live, what to do, even which clothes to put on in the morning is tough enough for those of us accustomed to making choices; it can be utterly paralyzing for people who’ve had decisions made for them by the state their entire lives. (283)

On which note I’d like to end this response. What I’ll take away from Nothing to Envy, first and foremost, are the stories and the people within its pages. But also, the confirmation that I don’t know the meaning of hunger, or hardship, or what it really means to be free of these things. These are moving stories, but, true as they are, they’re just stories to me. I feel like it’s a good thing that I know a little more about North Korea than I did before, but the net effect of this knowledge is an increased awareness of just how little I can understand.