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Literature / Nothing to Envy

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Our father, we have nothing to envy in the world
— North Korean Children's Song and an ironic one at that.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea is a 2009 novel written by Barbara Demick. The book is partly a novelization of interviews with refugees from Chongjin, North Korea. Demick interviewed more than one hundred defectors, but she chose to focus on those from Chongjin because it was more likely to be an honest representation than the capital city, Pyongyang. The interviewees are of both genders and of various ages, backgrounds and social standing.


The book covers the lives of the interviewees during their time in North Korea and events that occurred in that time. Those events include the death of Kim Il-sung, the crash of the North Korean economy and the mass famine of the 1990s. The final chapters are about the various ways the refugees defected and fled the country, finally arriving in South Korea, and adjusting to the modern world.

The main characters/interviewees of the book are:

  • Mrs. Song — A pro-regime housewife.
  • Oak-hee — Mrs. Song's eldest daughter. She is stubborn and rebellious and never fully loyal to the regime her mother adored.
  • Mi-ran — The teenage daughter of an abducted South Korean POW. This background holds them to one of the lowest social standings. She and Jun-sang dated in secret.
  • Jun-sang — A student born to ethnic Korean returnees from Japan. This greatly lowered the family's social standing and Jun-sang was pressured to work hard so he could move way up and away from it. (As much as that was possible.) He dated Mi-ran in secret.
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  • Kim Hyuck — A boy who was originally born to a well-off family but a series of misfortune lead to his father giving him and his brother to an orphanage and later ending up on the streets.
  • Dr. Kim — A female doctor loyal to the regime. She has relatives in China.

Provides examples of:

  • All There in the Manual: Not quite. But reading/learning about North Korea and South Korea's history gives a better context to the story. The book does give a brief history when it's necessary.
  • Anyone Can Die: During the famine, such things as rank and background no longer matter.
  • Arranged Marriage: Still very common in North Korea.
  • Aw, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other: Mrs. Song and Oak-hee's mother/daughter relationship is this
  • Big Brother Is Employing You
  • Big Brother Is Watching: And sometimes Big Brother is employing you and watching you and employing you to watch everyone else.
  • Bittersweet Ending: All of the interviewees were able to safely reach South Korea, but all have suffered.
    • Mrs. Song and Oak-hee lost their husband/father and son/brother to the famine. Oak-hee left also behind her two children of which she deeply regrets.
    • Mi-ran's two older sisters were taken away to prison camps due their families defection and likely died there.
    • Jun-sang left his parents behind in North Korea and may never see them again.
    • Kim Hyuck lost his father and believes his older brother in the famine.
    • Dr Kim's father died of starvation in his grief over Kim Il-sung's death. She also left behind a son and her mother.
  • Broken Pedestal: Many of the characters start out as patriots who believed in North Korea and the Kims. The famine and defecting changed that.
    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.
  • Crapsack World: Averted at first. Life in North Korea while repressive and heavily socially stratified, was nevertheless livable and even comfortable. Most people had adequate food, housing, clothing and appliances. The gulags and prisons were a vague fear. (This is consistent with the history of North Korea where due to both Soviet/Chinese aid and heavy industrialization, the first few decades were successes). The fall of the Soviet Union coinciding with flooding tipped the balance.
  • Chastity Couple: Mi-ran and Jun-sang never went beyond holding hands and kissing (occurring only after dating a few years).
  • City in a Bottle: Most grew up believing that no nation in the world was better off than North Korea and, if anything, were worse off.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Mi-ran's father. He was a South Korea solider captured and never allowed to return. His past, as per Korean practice, also affected his daughter's social prospects and made his family a target for surveillance.
  • Death of a Child: Given the setting...
  • Defector from Commie Land: All the interviewees, eventually.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: Jun-sang
  • Domestic Abuse: Oak-hee was a victim.
  • Double Speak: Everywhere. The Arduous March is itself a euphemism for the famine.
  • Dramatic Irony: Readers can see past much of the North Korean propaganda even if the characters fully believe it.
  • Eat the Dog: Kim Hyuck admits to killing and eating dogs during the famine.
    • Jun-sang's mother raises dogs and is heartbroken after one puppy is stolen and likely killed for food.
  • Fantastic Caste System: The songbun system which organizes the population into classes based on how "loyal" a family is to the Korean Workers’ Party. Party members, family members of those who fought in the revolution are the core class, the middle class are ordinary North Koreans and the lower classes South Korean, Japanese and Chinese, those with family members outside North Korea etc. Songbun affects everything from the jobs you can hold, where you can live, the rations you get, the punishments you get for breaking a law and the prospects for you and your children. It is near impossible to move up a caste and in the book only Jun-sang (as the son of returnees from Japan who came close to joining the Party) was able to.
    • One theme in the book is how the caste structure fractured during the Arduous March. Mi-ran was able to attend college and become a school teacher because of the lack of willing educated people with good songbun. On a less happy note, songbun did not help Mrs. Song and her family during the famine.
  • Foregone Conclusion: The fact that you know the major characters survive and are living in Seoul helps make some the the descriptions of death and starvation a bit easier.
  • From Bad to Worse: As the Arduous March dragged on, already bad situations slowly become worse and worse.
    • Kim Hyuck survived a life on the streets as a orphan. He starts making money smuggling only to get arrested and sent to prison.
    • Mrs. Song loses her job and is forced to worked in illegal markets even if that goes against her beliefs. Then the famine drags on, her family gets poorer and her mother-in-law, son and husband die.
  • Greater-Scope Villain: The Kims. They never personally appear in the story (even if their presence is everywhere) and the main characters are more concerned with survival that any attempts at overthrowing them but as the dictators of North Korea, every decision they make has enormous consequences.
  • Happily Married: Mrs. Song
  • Heroic Safe Mode: A common coping mechanism. Mi-ran and Dr. Kim both learned to ignore the suffering of their schoolchildren and patients in order to survive.
  • Highschool Sweethearts: Jun-sang and Mi-ran in secret.
  • Ironic Nursery Tune: We Have Nothing to Envy in the World. At one point, a starving beggar child is singing it for money.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: When he learns that Mi-ran is married after his arrival in South Korea, Jun-sang decides not to contact her.
  • Jerkass: Oak-hee's husband
  • Mood Whiplash: One chapter starts with Min-ran happily working as a kindergarten teacher then goes in the declining heath and eventual disappearance of her students.
  • Morton's Fork: For many of the people in Chongjin. During the famine when food rations were stopped completely, most people turned to illegal markets and jobs or petty theft to try to survive. However, the punishment if you where caught was at best imprisonment, at worst execution.
  • One Steve Limit: There are two Kims, and to prevent confusion they are always addressed as Dr. Kim and Kim Hyuck (or just Hyuck).
  • Older Than They Look: Due to starvation, Kim Hyuck and Dr. Kim ended up looking younger. It is even stated that by the time of her defection, Dr. Kim, a woman in her thirties, looked more like a twelve-year old.
  • Orphan's Ordeal: Kim Hyuck has one.
  • Orphan's Plot Trinket: Though she isn't a orphan at that point, Dr. Kim is given a list of her relatives in China by her dying father in hope that she'll use it to leave.
  • Parental Abandonment: Dr. Kim and Oak-hee left children behind in North Korea. Dr. Kim had previously lost custody of her son due to divorce.
    • Kim Hyuck and his brother were left in a orphanage by their father.
    • The book describes the kotchebi, homeless orphans whose parents abandoned them or died.
  • Public Execution: Jun-sang witnesses the execution of a man arrested for stealing.
  • Room101: The North Korean prisons, re-education centers and gulags. Every single character lived in fear of getting caught for subversive thoughts and actions.
    • We get a first hand description of a camp when Kim Hyuck and Oak-hee gets sent to prison.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: When the famine broke down the social order, anyone with enough money can bribe officials to look the other way. Mi-ran's family for example, bribes officials to help them cross the border to China
  • Screw the Rules, It's the Apocalypse!: A running theme in the book is the societal and governmental breakdown during the famine. Previously illegal activities like private markets and prostitution sprung up. Criminals thrown into the prisons (supposedly for life) were often let out after a few months to accommodate a new influx of prisoners. And anyone could bribe an official to look the other way.
  • Secret Relationship: Mi-ran and Jun-sang, because Mi-ran's low family rank would badly affect Jun-sang's future if it became known they were involved together. Jun-sang's parents also wanted him to focus on school, not girls.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Jun-sang and Mi-ran
  • Stranger in a Familiar Land: North Koreans are automatically citizens of South Korea, but defectors often suffer culture shock due to South Korea being so radically different. For example, although South Koreans have adopted phrases like "email" into their vernacular, North Koreans still use the same sort of speech patterns they've used since the 1950s. It would the equivalent of someone in the U.S. today saying, "Gee whiz, that sure is swell" without a hint of irony.
    • Some of the defectors in the story adjust better than others. Mi-Ran with relatives in South Korea to help her had the easiest time. Jun-sang in contrast floundered as his degree was useless and he didn't have any relevant skills.
  • Thoughtcrime: Mrs. Song's husband nearly got thrown into prison for making a sarcastic remark about the lack of shoes. Every defector seems to know someone sent to a camp or executed for criticizing the regime.
  • Titled After the Song: The book is titled after a propaganda song about how great life in North Korea is because of Kim Il-sung.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: It's noted that some of the people who died first in the famine were the honest principled ones who could not lie or steal or resort to illegal activities to survive.
  • Uptown Girl: Inverted with Jun-sang and Mi-ran.
  • Unable to Support a Wife: Most husbands and men were forced to work unpaid during the famine, so wives and daughters had to earn money in illegal markets. Mi-ran's mother and Mrs. Song started various businesses to feed their family.
  • Worthless Foreign Degree: The degrees of Jun-sang, Mi-ran and Dr. Kim become useless after defection.
  • You Can't Go Home Again: After leaving North Korea, the refugees can't return for fear of death.