‘Nothing to Envy’ by Barbara Demick. Publ. by Granta, 2010. 316 pages. Paperback.

All the terrible things you’veever seen and read and heard about North Korea are borne out by this book ‘Nothing to Envy’ by veteran US reporter Barbara Demick. Unless of course it’s all reverse propaganda? The US and most of its citizens are not inclined to favour N.Korea in any way. It was branded as one of the Axis of Evil byBush and Blair, remember, and every month that goes by we learn how much their declarations about ‘evil states’ were worth. Not much, it would appear.

So are we to believe the horriffic accounts of persecution, starvation, and brainwashing given in this book? Particularly as the accounts are from those who fled the country and (therefore) cannot be expected to have anything good to say about the North Korean government. Admittedly, Demick did try to get information first hand by getting into North Korea (after much difficulty), but found herself tracked everywhere by minders and really could not get close enough to the ordinary people to find out what was actually going on. Still, her informants for this book are those who escaped and as such, as said above, surely a little suspect?

I am always willing to find that our overbearing western capitalist culture has once again overlooked the fundamental good in another, foreign, system. But I have to say my skepticisms wore off quickly enough as I forged through this (very well written) book. The accounts given by Demick’s informants are harrowing and all those cliched comparisons made between this communist state and Orwell’s 1984 seem proved to be not just cliches but extremely relevant.

Demick adopts an open style that lets people tell their stories about the miseries they suffered ‘back home’ and the miseries their relatives are still suffering there. She tells of the privations and indignities they had to endure on their dangerous routes of escape through China into South Korea (and the Chinese do not make it easy for them). I was even more convinced of the truth of their stories by reading of their often expressed love of their unfortunate country and their desire to go back if things showed any sign of improvement.

The title ‘Nothing to Envy’ apparently comes from a song taught to children in school which contains the lines: ‘Our father is here / we have nothing to envy in this world’ — the ‘father’ being Kim Jong-il’. I know we have our own ‘Our Father’ in the West, but at least he’s supposed to be God.

Good book.

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