Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

I am delighted to tell you about my book Nothing to Envy because I wrote it with students in mind. I was, at the time, on a fellowship at Princeton University where I also taught an undergraduate journalism course called “Covering Repressive Regimes.” My students were curious about North Korea, a country they knew almost nothing about.

When I started telling them the stories—about a country where televisions and radios were locked on government propaganda, where you couldn’t travel to the next town without a permit, where you were required to wear the portrait of the founder Kim Il Sung at all times on your clothing and that you celebrated the birthdays of the leadership rather than your own—the students were incredulous. It was not that they doubted my word; they were unable to grasp that a state as repressive as this one could persist into the 21st century.

Born in the mid-1980s, they didn’t remember the Berlin Wall or the Soviet Union. Totalitarianism was a subject of history books and of works of literature like George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. When they asked for recommendations for reading about North Korea, or about Korea in general, I was stumped. I knew many suitable books about China, Iraq, Bosnia, Vietnam, Rwanda. But Korea? The military histories were too long and dense for my busy, multi-tasking students; many other books got bogged down in the great polemic debates of the Cold War period, reading like anti-Communist screeds or else denunciations of U.S. policy in Asia.

My students needed a book that was even-handed enough to let them make their own judgments. I wanted to engross students with people they could relate to. Could they imagine themselves like Hyuck, losing their parents, roaming alone in a city gripped by famine, scrounging for food to steal? Would they identify with Jun-sang, the indecisive intellectual, torn between his infatuation with a young woman and his father’s desire for him to join the Workers’ Party to succeed? And what about his girlfriend, Mi-ran? Should she confide in him her most dangerous secret, her plans to escape from North Korea?

Over 15 years as a foreign correspondent, I learned that in order to interest American readers in faraway places with unpronounceable names (remember all the jokes about Bosnian and Slavic names having no vowels?), they needed to relate to the people. Writing for newspapers, I also worked under the assumption that readers had little or no prior knowledge, that each story had to contain all the information needed to comprehend the situation being covered. This is especially true of Korea. Not just students—many educated Americans draw a blank when you start talking about the divided Korean peninsula and the horrific war of 1950-1953 that set the stage for the conflict in Vietnam and decades of animosity between the United States and China. The Forgotten War is the apt title of one of the books on my shelf about the Korean War. My hope is to give students a pleasurable reading experience, while helping them to fill in the blanks.

Among the more gratifying emails I’ve received in recent months, one was from high school senior in El Segunda, California, who wrote to me that he had become obsessed with North Korea since reading Nothing to Envy. “The lives of all the people in your book were so fascinating. The way you described their stories makes me feel as if I have met them. The fact that such a strange and terrifying country exists baffles me!’’

—Barbara Demick