Monday, June 17, 2013

Nothing to Envy

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

I read this book after reading Meredith's great review of it.  The title is ironic: it's taken from a song North Korean children learn to sing from an early age that declares that the great kindness and wisdom of their beloved leader means they have nothing to envy in the whole wide world.  The stark reality is grief-inducing.  The book follows the lives of six North Koreans all of whom eventually escape.  It covers the period of severe famine in the 1990s when so many North Koreans died that it is estimated they lost up to a fifth of their population.  However, the book is not gloomy or self-righteous in its tone.  Fairly easy to read, I flew through it and found it a fascinating glimpse into such an oppressive regime.  But a few days later, I realized the stories were echoing around and around my mind as I tried to make sense of what I had read.  Although the stories present themselves to you calmly and methodically, they are powerful on a number of levels.
One of the aspects that I struggled with was the ethics of survival.  It's noted in the book that often the kind-of-heart were the first to die.  Those that wouldn't dream of stealing or disobeying orders suffered and died.  Those that who were prepared to do anything to survive, did.  Survival in conditions that desperate required a level of self-preservation that some individuals later struggled to reconcile with.  The situation that touched me the most was the kindergarten teacher whose class slowly disappears during the course of the year as the young children starve, fall ill and finally die.  And yet she knows she still has to eat her lunch each day if she is to live.
Another aspect that I found thought-provoking was the issue of refugees.  All North Koreans have automatic citizenship in South Korea if they can find a way there via another country.  But the numbers of those seeking asylum is rapidly increasing and South Korea has the difficult task of providing for these citizens and helping them to assimilate in a culture that is utterly different to life north of the border.  Most North Koreans struggle in their first few years in the South.  Their accent, appearance and lack of marketable skills set them apart from their South Korean contemporaries and the dream of a new glamorous life in the south does not always work out as they hope.  It spawned a whole raft of comparisons in my mind with the difficulties faced by many refugees arriving in Australia.
I also wondered what responsibility we have in the international community when we see the suffering of people in a foreign state.  History has shown us that the various avenues of aid, sanctions and military intervention have at times made no difference at all or made the situation worse.  When is the right time to go in with guns blazing?  How do we help those who are oppressed?  If we stand by and watch people die, what responsibility do we bear for their suffering?
And finally, it was interesting to observe people's commitments to an ideology even in the face of its bankruptcy.  There was a fascinating moment when a university student sat in a packed lecture theatre fearing that his own doubts about the regime would be found out.  Then he realises that every single one of them probably felt the same and yet they were all in a conspiracy of silence.  There were a number of points when the nature of "faith" and the need to be seen as a "true believer" when you no longer believe that "truth" were explored.
Well worth a read and, if you're local to me, you'll find a copy at our local library.


Karen said...

This is a great book. I read it a few years ago now but I wouldn't mind reading it a second time. When I later read George Orwell's 1984, there were lots of things that reminded me of what I had read in Nothing to Envy.

You should check out Four Corners tonight too Deb, I think it's about North Korea as well.

Deb said...

Oh, Karen! Thanks so much for the tip off. I didn't know that was on.

Meredith said...

Yes, thanks Karen. I can't watch it tonight but I guess I will be able to track it down again later this week. I remember a fantastic Foreign Correspondent programme on North Korea where they sent in some people with mobile phones to film material on the quiet...very eye opening. Looking forward to watching this.

Meredith said...

Oh, and that bit about the kindergarten undid me. That was the moment when the book was becoming a little hard to read. So sad.

Deb said...

Yep. Know what you mean.

Deb said...

That was an interesting piece. Again, it made me think of parallels to our own situation with refugees. And the ambiguity of whether or not "Dragon" was a goodie or a baddie is something to ponder too.