Thursday, December 23, 2010

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (book)

I got this book out of the library a few of months ago. It's both fascinating and heartbreaking. The author follows the stories of six different people, all from the city of 청진 up on the northeast coast, who managed to escape and make it to Seoul. The research was all done through interviews (with translators--though there are only a couple of places where it's obvious that the author doesn't really speak Korean). It's definitely the most detailed account I've read about what everyday life there is like for regular people.

The title is from a song, used in this propaganda video which you can watch on the book's official site--"세상에 부럼 없어라."  (The video takes a while to load.)  I followed most of the song fairly well but was curious about the word "넋" and had to look that one up.  Apparently it means spirit or soul.  I don't remember ever hearing this before.

There were a lot of things about North Korea that I hadn't realized. I expect everyone's seen that picture of North Korea at night, where the entire country is blank except for the bright spot in 평양, but it hasn't always been like that. At one point the North was doing better than the South. The descriptions of deterioration and starvation were quite eye-opening. (As well as people's inventiveness in finding ways to make money in a country that officially bans private enterprise.)

This book also answered a few questions that I had wondered about, like what is North Korea's name for South Korea (남조선). One woman hears the name 한국 and doesn't know what it is.

I think this would be an interesting read for just about anybody, but especially meaningful to those who have a personal interest in Korea, of course. I even suggested it for our ward book club (though it does have one F-bomb). They didn't go for it but we are going to read Year of Impossible Goodbyes for February.

(And I'd like to close with a thought for the Christmas season...)

The year that the Berlin wall came down, a couple sang "O Holy Night" in sacrament meeting and mentioned that this verse seemed particularly appropriate:

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.

우리 나라 만세!


  1. I was watching the propaganda video with Andy on my lap, and he just loved it and wanted to watch it over and over. It was pretty surreal, seeing my toddler giggling at all these happy smiling North Korean children. Perhaps Andy will be a missionary in North Korea some day.

  2. I also just read this book and still cannot stop thinking about the people. I hope this regime comes to a swift end soon!


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