Nothing to Envy

“We have nothing to envy in the whole world.”

This phrase belongs to a song known by every North Korean old enough to sing. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick takes issues with this song as she interviews six North Korean defectors and paints a picture of North Korea so bleak that it makes Orwell’s 1984 look like a colorful paradise.

It is a study in a totalitarian regime but takes on a surprising quality of personal touch as the author follows six lives.

Some examples from the book:

When the famine of the 1990’s hit the hardest, the regime told its citizens that, “Their government was stockpiling food to feed the starving South Korean masses on the blessed day of reunification.”

I had always known that Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-Il were dictators in every sense of the word, but I hadn’t realized the extent to which they have gone to not only establish themselves as the Stalin of North Korea–where fear begets submission–but also as the father and god of the people. Every year on the leaders’ birthdays, kids are expected to bow and pray to the portraits hanging in every room in every house. An offhand remark about Kim’s height got a man sent to a labor camp for life. He is their father, their bread-winner, their god, their everything. Or so the propaganda says.

“For history class, the children went on an excursion. All of the larger elementary schools had one room set aside for the purpose of teaching about the Great Leader, called the Kim Il-sung Research Institute. The children from the mining kindergarten walked to Kyong-song’s main elementary school to visit this special room, which was housed in a new wing and was clean, bright, and better heated than the rest of the school. The Worker’s Party conducted periodic spot checks to make sure the school janitors were keeping the place immaculate. The room was like a shrine. Even the kindergartners knew they were not permitted to giggle, push or whisper when in the special Kim Il-sung room. They took off their shoes and lined up quietly. They approached the portrait of Kim Il-sung, bowed deeply three times, and said, ‘Thank you, Father.'”

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