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Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea - Barbara Demick This is what school children sing in North Korea:

Our father, we have nothing to envy in the world.
Our house is within the embrace of the Workers’ Party.
We are all brothers and sisters.
Even if a sea of fire comes toward us, sweet children do not need to be afraid, Our father is here.
We have nothing to envy in this world.

These are some of the few propaganda slogans written everywhere in North Korea:


Sounds familiar? It may if you have read "1984" by George Orwell and/or “This Perfect Day” by Ira Levin. But even these two dystopias are nothing compared to the real North Korea. In “1984” and “This Perfect Day” at least the people got enough to eat in order to survive. On the other hand, “Kims of Korea” were/are incompetent enough to let their masses go hungry, everyday.

Now I am sure that none of us are crazy enough to visit North Korea (on second thoughts, I can’t vouch for some of you here). So for the rest of my friends here on GR, let’s just assume for the rest of this review that we are living in Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

So now that we are officially North Korean citizens (yay!), what should we do first? How about watching a movie? Now that we are all adults here, let’s go and watch an equivalent of R-rated movie. (There are movies in DRPK, yup). OH MY GOD! SUCH VULGARITY! LOOK, THEY ARE KISSING! ON SCREEN! WHAT? Ya I know we can’t actually see them kissing but still.. Don’t believe me? Read along:

Some movies were deemed too risqué for children, such as the 1985 film Oh My Love in which it was suggested that a man and a woman kissed. Actually, the leading lady modestly lowered her parasol so moviegoers never saw their lips touch, but that was enough to earn the film the equivalent of an R rating.

Boy, was that a crazy movie! So, let’s just go home and make fun of it. Nope, can’t do that. Because, comrade, you would be watched the whole time, even in your house.

People would be closely watched by their neighbors. North Koreans are organized into what are called the inminban— literally, “people’s group”—cooperatives of twenty or so families whose job it is to keep tabs on one another and run the neighborhood. The inminban have an elected leader, usually a middle-aged woman, who reports anything suspicious to higher-ranking authorities.

Ah, but we can at least read the newspaper peacefully, right? Nope.

North Korean newspapers carried tales of supernatural phenomena. Stormy seas were said to be calmed when sailors clinging to a sinking ship sang songs in praise of Kim Il-sung. When Kim Jong-il went to the DMZ, a mysterious fog descended to protect him from lurking South Korean snipers. He caused trees to bloom and snow to melt. If Kim Il-sung was God, then Kim Jong-il was the son of God. Like Jesus Christ, Kim Jong-il’s birth was said to have been heralded by a radiant star in the sky and the appearance of a beautiful double rainbow. A swallow descended from heaven to sing of the birth of a “general who will rule the world.”

Ahhhhh…. Damn it! Okay, let’s just do something else. Hey, we are a crowd here, right? So it is possible that today might be someone’s birthday. Hell, let’s just celebrate this day because your birthday comes on the same day after six months. Nope, can’t do that either!

North Korean children, they didn’t celebrate their own birthdays, but those of Kim Il-sung on April 15 and Kim Jong-il on February 16. These days were national holidays and they were often the only days people would get meat in their ration packages.

Okay people, let’s not get excited here. Let’s just procure a radio (equivalent of a high end music system in DPRK which only plays North Korean stations) and have a party. WHAT? A RADIO? DO YOU HAVE A PERMISSION?

There was a food shop, a stationery shop, a clothing shop. Unlike in the Soviet Union, you seldom saw long lines in North Korea. If you wanted to make a major purchase—say, to buy a watch or a record player—you had to apply to your work unit for permission. It wasn’t just a matter of having the money.

How in the hell such a country survive for such a long time, you ask? Because it was not like this all the time. Read on:

Merely to feed the population in a region with a long history of famine was an accomplishment, all the more so given that the crude partition of the peninsula had left all the better farmland on the other side of the divide. Out of the wreckage of a country that had lost almost all of its infrastructure and 70 percent of its housing stock in the war, Kim Il-sung created what appeared to be a viable, if Spartan, economy. Everybody had shelter and clothing. In 1949, North Korea claimed to be the first Asian country to have nearly eliminated illiteracy. Foreign dignitaries, who visited in the 1960s, often arriving by train across the Chinese border, gushed over the obviously superior living standards of the North Koreans. In fact, thousands of ethnic Koreans in China fled the famine caused by Mao Zedong’s disastrous “Great Leap Forward” to return to North Korea. North Korea put tile roofs on the houses and every village was wired for electricity by 1970. Even a hard-bitten CIA analyst, Helen-Louise Hunter, whose reports on North Korea from the 1970s were later declassified and published, grudgingly admitted she was impressed by Kim Il-sung’s North Korea.

So what happened really? For one, communism in USSR failed and countries like China also made some reforms. Majority of aid and loans came from these two countries which dried up after the fall of USSR. And there was famine in North Korea in the 90’s which was fueled by some crazy ideas of “Kims of Korea”.

“Kim Jong-il’s on-site instructions and his warm benevolence are bringing about a great advance in goat breeding and output of dairy products,” the Korean Central News Agency opined after Kim Jong-il visited a goat farm near Chongjin. One day he would decree that the country should switch from rice to potatoes for its staple food; the next he would decide that raising ostriches was the cure for North Korea’s food shortage. The country lurched from one harebrained scheme to another.

So, comrades, there is a food shortage in our most advanced and richest country in the whole world. So let’s ask our government the reason for us being going hungry even though we are the richest country (yoohoo!)in the whole world.

The North Korean government offered a variety of explanations, from the patently absurd to the barely plausible. People were told that their government was stockpiling food to feed the starving South Korean masses on the blessed day of reunification. They were told that the United States had instituted a blockade against North Korea that was keeping out food.

What now? You all are still hungry? You filthy little imperialistic pigs! You all are a disgrace to the fatherland! I hope your stomach bursts, you gluttonous pigs!

Enduring hunger became part of one’s patriotic duty. Billboards went up in Pyongyang touting the new slogan, “Let’s Eat Two Meals a Day.” North Korean television ran a documentary about a man whose stomach burst, it was claimed, from eating too much rice. In any case, the food shortage was temporary—agricultural officials quoted in the newspapers reported that bumper crops of rice were expected in the next harvest.

Ah whatever. But you ask, there is still one thing nobody can deny you right? Sex. Whao! WHAT? YOU WILL HAVE SEX ONLY WITH SOMEONE WHOM YOUR BOSS CHOOSES FOR YOU! AND EVEN THAT AFTER MARRIAGE ONLY!

The country doesn’t have a dating culture. Many marriages are still arranged, either by families or by party secretaries or bosses. Couples are not supposed to make any public displays of affection—even holding hands in public is considered risqué. North Korean defectors insist that there is no premarital sex.

But comrades, whatever its follies, you can proudly say that North Korea abides by communism like none other, right? Wrong! Why? North Korea holds the record for the first hereditary succession in the Communist world.OH MY GOD BUT THAT MEANS OUR FATHER IS DEAD!

Those waiting in line would jump up and down, pound their heads, collapse into theatrical swoons, rip their clothes, and pound their fists at the air in futile rage. The men wept as copiously as the women. The histrionics of grief took on a competitive quality. Who could weep the loudest? Who was the most distraught? The mourners were egged on by the TV news, which broadcast hours and hours of people wailing, grown men with tears rolling down their cheeks, banging their heads on trees, sailors banging their heads against the masts of their ships, pilots weeping in the cockpit, and so on. These scenes were interspersed with footage of lightning and pouring rain. It looked like Armageddon.


The North Korean propaganda machine went into overdrive, concocting ever weirder stories about how Kim Il-sung wasn’t really dead. Shortly after his death, the North Korean government began erecting 3,200 obelisks around the country that would be called “Towers of Eternal Life.” Kim Il-sung would remain the president in title after death. A propaganda film released shortly after his death claimed that Kim Il-sung might come back to life if people grieved hard enough for him.

Excerpt: When the Great Marshal died, thousands of cranes descended from heaven to fetch him. The birds couldn’t take him because they saw that North Koreans cried and screamed and pummeled their chests, pulled their hair and pounded the ground.

Ah but we can still live properly even in a country like N. Korea if we studied hard enough and become something like, say, a doctor. Right? Wrong.

Because of a shortage of X-ray machines, North Korean doctors often must use crude fluoroscopy machines that expose them to high levels of radiation; many older North Korean doctors now suffer from cataracts as a result. They not only donate their own blood, but also small bits of skin to provide grafts for burn victims.

Making one’s own medicine is an integral part of being a doctor in North Korea. Those living in warmer climates often grow cotton as well to make their own bandages. Doctors are all required to collect the herbs themselves; Dr. Kim’s work unit took off as much as a month in spring and autumn to gather herbs, during which time the doctors slept out in the open and washed only every few days. Each had a quota to fill. They had to bring their haul back to the hospital pharmacy, where it would be weighed, and if the amount was insufficient, they would be sent out again. Often, the doctors had to hike far into the mountains because the more accessible areas had already been scoured by ordinary citizens who sought to sell the herbs or use them for themselves.

Darn it. Let’s eat something shall we? That is, if you are not too picky. And if you can “pick” the food out of anything to eat!

North Koreans learned to swallow their pride and hold their noses. They picked kernels of undigested corn out of the excrement of farm animals. Shipyard workers developed a technique by which they scraped the bottoms of the cargo holds where food had been stored, then spread the foul-smelling gunk on the pavement to dry so that they could collect from it tiny grains of uncooked rice and other edibles. On the beaches, people dug out shellfish from the sand and filled buckets with seaweed. When the authorities in 1995 erected fences along the beach (ostensibly to keep out spies, but more likely to prevent people from catching fish the state companies wanted to control), people went out to the unguarded cliffs over the sea and with long rakes tied together hoisted up seaweed. Nobody told people what to do—the North Korean government didn’t want to admit to the extent of the food shortage—so they fended for themselves. You woke up early to find your breakfast and as soon as it was finished, you thought about what to find for dinner. Lunch was a luxury of the past. You slept during what used to be lunchtime to preserve your calories. Ultimately it was not enough.

Let’s catch something filthy that nobody would eat in normal circumstances but at least we won’t go hungry, right? Sorry, no such luck Comrade.

By 1995, virtually the entire frog population of North Korea had been wiped out by overhunting.
BY 1998, AN ESTIMATED 600,000 to 2 million North Koreans had died as a result of the famine, as much as 10 percent of the population. In Chongjin, where food supplies were cut off earlier than the rest of North Korea, the toll might have been as high as 20 percent. Exact figures would be nearly impossible to tally since North Korean hospitals could not report starvation as a cause of death.

And comrade, while you are at it, look carefully before you eat. There might be human flesh in your bowl. Ok. WHAT?!

There were strange stories going around about adults who preyed on children. Not just for sex, but for food. Hyuck was told about people who would drug children, kill them, and butcher them for meat. Behind the station near the railroad tracks were vendors who cooked soup and noodles over small burners, and it was said that the gray chunks of meat floating in the broth were human flesh.

But at least it is better than Auschwitz right? Comrades, one defector of our fatherland, Hyuck, does not believe so! THAT FILTHY BASTARD!

Afterward he toured Auschwitz and noted the parallels with his own experience. In his labor camp, nobody was gassed—if they were too weak to work they were sent to another prison. Although some were executed and some were beaten, the primary means of inflicting punishment was withholding food. Starvation was the way the regime preferred to eliminate its opponents.

Okay Comardes, ENOUGH! I will take you all to China to show you how poor they are! And then we will come back, right? RIGHT?

Dr. Kim staggered up the riverbank. Her legs were numb, encased in frozen trousers. She made her way through the woods until the first light of dawn illuminated the outskirts of a small village. She didn’t want to sit down and rest—she feared succumbing to hypothermia—but she knew she didn’t have the strength to go much farther. She would have to take a chance on the kindness of the local residents. Dr. Kim looked down a dirt road that led to farmhouses. Most of them had walls around them with metal gates. She tried one; it turned out to be unlocked. She pushed it open and peered inside. On the ground she saw a small metal bowl with food. She looked closer—it was rice, white rice, mixed with scraps of meat. Dr. Kim couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen a bowl of pure white rice. What was a bowl of rice doing there, just sitting out on the ground? She figured it out just before she heard the dog’s bark. Up until that moment, a part of her had hoped that China would be just as poor as North Korea. She still wanted to believe that her country was the best place in the world. The beliefs she had cherished for a lifetime would be vindicated. But now she couldn’t deny what was staring her plainly in the face: dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea.


On a more serious note, North Korea invites parody. We laugh at the excesses of the propaganda and the gullibility of the people. But consider that their indoctrination began in infancy, during the fourteen-hour days spent in factory day-care centers; that for the subsequent fifty years, every song, film, newspaper article, and billboard was designed to deify Kim Il-sung; that the country was hermetically sealed to keep out anything that might cast doubt on Kim Il-sung’s divinity. Who could possibly resist?

This book follows the events of six defectors and their families. It is very well written and it reads like a novel rather than a non-fictional account. There is love, sacrifice and liberty in their tale. Let us hope that someday North Korean regime would fall and its people would be liberated from one of the cruelest totalitarian regimes in the history of the world.

Liberty and love,
These two I must have.
For my love I’ll sacrifice My life.
For liberty,
I’ll sacrifice My love.