Friday, April 02, 2010

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I remember the first person I knew who visited the Soviet Union. That was pretty exotic, but any high school Model UN student could get a subscription to Soviet Life, so it wasn't as big as all that, but it was definitely something.

Then my wife's cousin went to China in 1976, back when the only way you could go was to be a member of the U.S.-China People's Friendship Association. He brought back slide shows of stuff that nobody here had seen, and I chuckle to think that, when I was wearing my Mao hat to law school, the student sitting next to me remarked that she had never actually seen or held in her hands something that came from China.

This all pales next to North Korea. In the West we know essentially nothing about life there, except that they don't seem to mind starving their people to fund their military. Who knew they were followers of Ronald Reagan?

The author is a journalist who provides a detailed account of everyday life in North Korea based on extensive interviews with a handful of North Koreans who managed to defect to the South. The author's novelistic technique, and her focus more on the lives of a few individuals than on the statistics, provides the reader with a vivid idea of what it must be like to live in North Korea, where you are spied on relentlessly, your apartment is inspected to see if you have been properly dusting your government-issued portraits of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il, and you are forced to continue to go to work years after they have stopped paying you.

I recommend Nothing to Envy as a great introduction to life in this strange, closed society.

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