Latest Reading: “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea”

During the fall break holiday, I completed Barbara Demick’s book about North Korea. Demick. She is the Los Angeles Times Beijing bureau chief. Nothing to Envy focuses on the lives of six North Korean defectors over 15 years. They are all from the city of Chongin, an industrial port city near the border with Russia and China. She goes into detail about their lives before they left, their escape and how they got on in South Korea.

I am fascinated with North Korea’s totalitarian regime. I can’t believe that a family can maintain control over an entire country in this century. Nadia and I watched a documentary in 2001 about a North Korean family living in the rural north, who had to send their 5-year old child away to the capital because they couldn’t feed him. It broke my heart then, before I had kids, and seeing it today I would have a stronger reaction.

When I hear of government repression, I always think about the men that are actually doing the repression. Why do they agree to round up ordinary citizens, interrogate them, hold them prisoner in work camps, etc? And to do so just because of one man (Kim Il-Sung) and his descendants?  I understand human nature and resistance to change and their limited experience and perspective, and I marvel at the ability of humans to adapt to circumstances so that almost anything can be regarded as normal. The book made me angry at the North Korean government. The people featured in the book understood the lies, and fought against them, but they were the minority.

It would be nice for the US and other rich nations to help them, but with nuclear capability and a 1-million strong armed force, it would be crazy to interfere too much. Everyone sees eventually the influences of the outside world breaking down the government and them losing control and I predict that it will happen in my lifetime. It will be extremely tough on South Korea, but with economic help from neighbors China, Japan, Russia, and the west, I think they will eventually work it out. Not as fast as Germany because of how low North Koreans are, but they will get there.

I highly recommend the book. I have been reading a lot about Japan and the region and hope to get to both South and North Korea in my time here. Demick also wrote a book about life in one street in Sarajevo during the siege that I would also like to read.

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