Ordinary lives in North Korea



We have come across all the ridiculousness going on in North Korea through awesome documentaries such as VICE put through and hype the movie “The Interview” created. But something always made me wonder actually what was going on in the bubble the North Koreans were stuck in , apart from Kim Jong Un’s “iconic” haircut. Nuclear weapons, Communism and propaganda: some words that comes to our mind when the name is brought on. Recently one of my favorite pod-casters Jocko Willink did a review on this book and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it . It was just well written, the exceptional details and solved almost all the questions that I had about North Korea. My initial reaction was ” Damn , didn’t thought MAD MAX was real”. So I took my time and read the book and here’s my thoughts on the book by The Los Angeles Times journalist, Barbara Demick.

The book centers around six North Korean defectors in 1990s. I was really fascinated by the fact that all characters, differ from each other and came out of different walks of life. Mi-ran, a young girl who grows up to be a teacher, Jun-sang : Mi-ran’s lover and an engineering student , Mrs Song a factory worker , Kim-hyuk an Orphan child ,Dr Kim a young doctor, Oak-hee: Mrs Song’s rebellious daughter. The Author manages to give life to the characters through super detailed descriptions. Nevertheless all the character’s mentioned above were real people. Struggle, sadness, helplessness, innocence and bravery was embedded deeply in each an every character in a way that the reader would really embrace it . The story is mostly set on a coastal city in North Korea, Chongjin, fairly far away from the Capital Pyongyang.

“He wasn’t merely the father of their country, their George Washington, their Mao, he was their God.” – Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy


Kim il sung, and his propaganda machine shines through out the book, dragging people to hell while they grew their wealth and comfort into a surreal amount. The communism and the dictatorship of the regime, manages to take away the freedom and brainwashes them to believe in the inevitable propaganda. The author goes to explain how they all thought the purpose of living was serving their fatherland the and the great Marshall Kim il sung. All the media from books to movies were just one more glorification of Kim il sung. And as the book says people even takes the pleasure of believing he’s some kind of a super human being.

“But the dark has advantages of its own. Especially if you are a teenager dating somebody you can’t be seen with.”  – Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy

Mi-ran and Jun-sang’s innocent romance is captivated through out the book till the very end with picturesque descriptions. and Mr. Song’s ability get on her feet every time a road block shows up and her kindness impersonates almost an anchor character in the book . After the death of Kim il sung North Korea suffers from a famine that shook downs to the core. Even before, the author explains food wasn’t ever the strongest suit of general public except the elites. And everything the North Koreans had to go through, the Americans were to blame according to the regime, the death of Kim il sung and the treacherous food shortage. And like wise the hatred that the population had towards US was mind boggling. And here’s an example of a math question that was mentioned in the book.

“Three soldiers from the Korean People’s Army killed thirty American soldiers. How many American soldiers were killed by each of them if they all killed an equal number of enemy soldiers?”  – Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy


“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.”  – Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy

The brutality of the famine that each character experiences makes you appreciate your life more. Each character escapes North Korea in unique ways bribing their ways through and hurdling million challengers. After they get out of North Korea, all the things that they have been missing and the realizing the propaganda that regime put through was priceless. Mr Songs reaction to a rice cooker to Jun-sang seeing Mi-ran drive a car , made a faint smile on my face, berried by the empathy I felt towards them for all the things they went through.

On a high note I can’t recommend this book enough to anybody, a great work of art depict beautifully yet simply reflecting on lives of North Koreans and their struggle.

4,7/5 stars

                           Buy Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea on Amazon
Buy Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea audiobook on Amazon