Nothing To Envy By Barbara Demick

Nothing To Envy focuses on the chaos of living in North Korea told by six defectors who over the course of the book realize their government has betrayed them.

Rating: 4.2/5

Recommended for: Anyone who wants to hear the inside scoop from defectors about how fucked up ordinary life in North Korea actually is.

Key Takeaways:

  • The division between north and south was an entirely foreign creation, cooked up in Washington and stamped on the Koreans without any input from them. One story has it that the Secretary of State at the time, Edward Stettinius, had to ask a subordinate where Korea was.
  • Even if you were in the core class – reserved for relatives of the ruling family and party cadres – you could get demoted for bad behavior. But once in the hostile class, you remained there for life.
  • Under a system that sought to stamp out tainted blood for three generations, the punishment would extend to parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, cousins.
  • When North Koreans left the country on official business, they had to leave behind spouses and children who were effectively held hostage to assure their return.
  • Some of the early immigrants who arrived in North Korea wrote letters home warning others not to come, but those letters were intercepted and destroyed.
  • Toys and bicycles clutter the background of propaganda images-– Kim Il-sung didn’t want to be Joseph Stalin; he wanted to be Santa Claus.
  • Like other 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.
  • North Korea was chronically short of chemical fertilizer and needed to use human excrement since there were few farm animals. Each family had to provide a bucketful each week.
  • In 1989, televisions cost the equivalent of three months salary, about $175, and you weren’t allowed to buy a new one without special permission from your work unit.
  • Spying on one’s countryman is something of a national pastime. By the accounts of the defectors, there is at least one informer for every 50 people.
  • In North Korea, if you skipped work, you wouldn’t get the coupons you needed to trade in for food. And if you stayed out a whole week without good reason, you could get sent to a detention center.
  • The most famous stores in the country were Pyongyang‘s two department stores—Department Store No. 1 and Department Store No. 2
  • A U.N. relief team that was permitted to visit in September 1995 was told that the floods had caused $15 billion worth of damage that affected 5.2 million people; that 96,348 homes had been damaged, displacing 500,000 people; and 1.9 million tons of crops had been lost.
  • If somebody stamped out a cigarette on the pavement, somebody else would pick it up to extract a few flakes of tobacco to roll again with newspaper.
  • All teachers were required to play the accordion.
    When the public distribution system was cut off, they were forced to tap their deepest wells of creativity to feed themselves:
    1. They devised traps out of buckets and strings to catch small animals in the field, drape nets over their balconies to snare sparrows.
    2. They stripped the sweet inner bark of pine trees to grind into a fine powder that could be used in place of flour.
    3. They pounded acorns into a gelatinous paste that could be molded into cubes that practically melted in your mouth.
    4. They picked kernels of undigested corn out of the excrement of farm animals.
    5. Shipyard workers developed a technique by which they scraped the bottom of the cargo holds where food had been stored, then spread the foul-smelling gunk on the payment to dry so they could collect from it tiny grains of uncooked rice and other edibles.
  • In the cold winter of 1997-98 when the temperatures drop below freezing, Nam-oak caught a bad cold that turned into pneumonia. A doctor wrote a prescription for penicillin, but when his sister got to the market she found it cost 50 won—the same price as a kilo of corn. She chose the corn. Nam-Oak died in March 1998.
  • By 1998, and estimated 600,000 to 2 million North Koreans had died as a result of the famine, as much as 10% of the population.
  • A human being needs at least 500 calories per day on average to survive; a person subsisting on a diet made up of what could be forged in the woods will not survive more than three months.
  • A survey of 250 North Korean households conducted in the summer of 2008 on that two thirds were still supplementing their diets by picking grass and weeds in the countryside.
  • Even in the best of times North Korea can produce only about 60% of the food needed for its population.
  • Any private endeavor fell under the rubric of an “economic crime” and the penalties could include deportation to a labor camp and, if corruption was alleged, possible execution.



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