Cover of Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy book on North Korea

So much to envy: Reading about North Korea

Last updated on March 21, 2022

As one dictator fell this weekend, I was reading about another, very different one. A friend recently recommended Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, which I started and finished in two days. Yes, it’s that good. I didn’t realize until now just how little we know about North Korea. The book follows the lives of six North Korean defectors from the war through to the present, most notably the last twenty-some years, since the power effectively went out across the country. Demick is an American journalist who was posted to Seoul by the Los Angeles Times in 2001; she’s currently the Beijing bureau chief.

Inevitably, after a book like this, the next few days take on a different tone, every conversation coloured by what I’ve just read: Our obsessive food chatter set against a famine and chronic starvation; an artisanal, handmade, DIY ethic, set against a complete absence of manufacturing; fear-mongering about obese babies, set against perpetually stunted malnourished children.

“Inside the city, he also noted the unusually large number of people squatting in a position that is almost emblematic of North Korea, knees bent up to the chest, balancing on the balls of the feet. ‘In other places in the world people are always doing something, but here they were just sitting.’ It is a North Korean phenomenon that many have observed. For lack of chairs or benches, the people sit for hours on their haunches, along the side of roads, in parks, in the market. They stare straight ahead as though they are waiting…Maybe they are waiting for nothing in particular, just waiting for something to change.”

North Korea tends to bubble into consciousness as little more than an armed and dangerous nuclear state whose leader is but a caricature, joining the growing ranks of dictators to mock. I think it’s safe to say that most of us don’t think about the place much beyond that.

We know shockingly little about life in North Korea

Certainly I was surprised at how much I didn’t know about life for ordinary North Koreans. My impressions are a bit scattered, so instead, I give you a list of musings and ramblings. Please bear with me.

  • That in this day and age an entire country can go off the grid is a shocking realization. A pointed reminder. How easy it would be for any nation to slip off the grid. Having lived and travelled in Asia, it’s hard for me to even imagine an Asia without technology, whether it’s the robots being developed in Japan, the ubiquitous cell phones or the flashing neon signs. But there it is, right in the middle of all that bustle and commotion and life. Layers of irony result—the night sky above North Korea has been reclaimed from the clutches of modern living. The night sky is perfection. I kept thinking about The World Without Us (admittedly, I haven’t read it), and how North Korea has, in some ways, become a twisted, dystopian version of that vision—the machinery has stopped, the buildings are crumbling, the copper wiring has disappeared and yet the people have remained. And what a nightmare that has turned out to be.
    • Hospitals must do without, and do without, and do without. Imagine, for a moment, a hospital without electricity. Imagine doctors who donate their own blood and skin for grafts. IVs only available for patients who brought in their own bottles, usually empty beer bottles.
    • There is no respite from the regime—mobile police units not only roam the streets checking things like the length of men’s hair (no more than 5cm, and 7cm for balding men), but may enter your home at any moment to check that your lightbulbs aren’t brighter than 40 watts (pre-blackout), or that guests, even relatives, don’t staying overnight without a permit.
    • There aren’t enough farm animals to manufacture chemical fertilizer, so human shit is used instead. Each family is expected to provide a bucketful each week, for which they receive a chit they can trade for food. What is there, really, to think or say after that? It boggles the mind, and it makes a mockery of our glib tumblr-esque mockery of Kim Jong-Il, who has brought his people to such a point.

“Kim Il-Sung didn’t want to be Joseph Stalin; he wanted to be Santa Claus. His dimpled cheeks made him appear more cuddly than other dictators.”

  • “North Koreans tended to rank themselves by the number of wardrobes in their home, and five meant that you were prosperous indeed.” In North America in 2011, the iPhone is our wardrobe. When I was a child, my mother packed jeans and other clothes to send our family in the USSR. When my grandparents came to visit in 1988, they took back stereos and walkmans. It was a big deal. Of the facts ingrained in me about my parents’ childhoods is that my mother’s family owned a telephone. We forget so quickly that our status toys were once status appliances that completely altered the way we could spend our time and live our lives. Again, in that light, things like urban homesteading become an odd historical anachronism.
  • South Korea runs a program specifically for defectors, to teach them to live in a modern country. It’s a model for how the entire population might be able to adjust, should that day ever come. Lessons include using ATMs, paying bills, and classes in human right and the mechanics of democracy. Across the world, how many people make that transition every day, from the developing world to our world? How many people in Toronto are right now trying to learn the same basics, like banking, just to function?
  • Defection takes different forms for different people. A first-class defection (yes, there is such a thing), includes a vehicle (itself a rarity in North Korea) to the Chinese border, a holiday-like transition period in China, followed by a leisurely flight to Seoul, where you declare yourself at the airport. On the opposite end is a lot of walking, running and hiding, all the way to Mongolia, where the South Korean embassy so far seems willing to take in defectors. People will die along the way. You will get thrown into foreign jails. It will take an unspecified length of time.

Demick’s North Korea is a desolate country. It seems devoid of colour. Or, at least, it should be. It’s hard to envision anything other than monochrome. But the internet fixes all, including these slideshows from the New York Times, in full colour, of course. Two in particular stand out: This one of a woman who bought Chinese laundry detergent on the black market so she can wash her clothes by hand in the river, and this one showing the distance between Chinese and North Korean border towns. No distance at all, really.

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