Nothing to Envy (North Korea)

Nothing to Envy book coverby Barbara Demick

Sometimes when I’m depressed I like to read stories about people in other places who are worse off. About halfway through this book, I happened to be walking down the street by the STA plaza in Spokane and saw a banana peel on the sidewalk. Just for a moment, I wanted to scoop it up and eat it!

That’s how bad things were in North Korea during the famine. (Communist countries have always had a strange relationship with bananas. I don’t know why, but you could not get bananas in East Germany while the Berlin Wall stood. Other fruit yes, but not the banana. Don’t they grow in Cuba?)

Anyway, this book blew doors off Simon Winchester’s Korea book. It detailed the lives of six North Koreans who defected to the West eventually – one “true believer” who was tricked by her rebellious daughter during a “visit” to China. Two high school sweethearts who could not trust each other enough to confide that their families were each getting out. One former South Korean soldier whose visits from distant relatives in Japan (and the money they brought with them) were all that kept his family from starvation. Until the day his grandfather died and his cousins stopped coming. A teenage boy whose father dropped him and his brother off at an orphanage because he could no longer feed them – and who then became orphaned for real.

Perhaps even more poignant was the section of the book detailing the struggles of the survivors – to fit in with South Korean society – the materialism and shallowness of the South Koreans, who have not gone through what their Northern cousins have. The struggle to reconcile the guilt at having survived the famine and the camps when so many died. The struggle that Mrs. Song, the “true believer” faces daily when she imagines the harsh punishments likely being inflicted on the daughters and grandchildren she was forced to leave behind. The horror of anyone who has had to sacrifice some family members in order to save others.

It was objective and chilling. Five red stars – or maybe multicolored stars, in honor of all the poor people of North Korea who must live in a world that is virtually without color. Oh yes, and if I could I would punch the Dear Leader right in his fat, evil face. And Dennis Rodman as well.