Nothing to Envy

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (2009), by journalist Barbara Demick, chronicles the lives of ordinary people living in the destitute totalitarian environment of Chŏngjin, North Korea's third-largest city. Although she interviewed over 100 defectors, she focused on six for the book, giving us a deeper understanding of a representative few and their heart-rending hardships over a number of years. This is the 1990s, when Kim Il-sung is the nation's Supreme Leader, countless North Koreans are starving to death, and Kim Jong-il starts filling his father's merciless shoes. Since the country has remained impervious to change, and many analysts today suspect it's currently facing yet another severe food shortage, Demick's book doesn't at all feel dated.

Every year I visit a port town in the prefecture of Niigata, where I've often gazed out at the Sea of Japan and found it hard to believe that a country of such brutal deprivation lies just across the water. Demick's book is effective for how it gives us a clearer picture of that suffering and its causes and short- and long-term impacts. You won't look at North Korea and its people with the same perspective after this one. It's the kind of book that compels us not just to know but also to act.