The North Korean’s in Barbara Demick’s 2009 Nothing to Envy call themselves “frogs in a well” referring to a third-century Tao parable in which the frog at the bottom of the well is perfectly happy living in his dank and dark pit until he meets a sea turtle that tells him of the glories of the ocean. Nothing to Envy chronicles the lives of six defectors: a kindergarten teacher, a university student, a middle-aged factory worker and her daughter, a pediatrician, and an orphan from Chongjin, an industrial and mining center in the north.
At the books opening, Demick shows us a night-time satellite photograph of North and South Korea. South Korea is lit up, a glowing example of twenty-first century consumerism. North Korea is almost entirely dark. You would think it an undeveloped country, rather Demick writes “it is a country that has fallen out of the developed world.” North Korea “faded to black” with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early nineties.
Life deteriorated for North Korean’s after the death of leader Kim Il-sung in 1994; after a scorching summer and an unusually cold winter, followed by torrential rains that flooded the rice paddies, the country had a food shortage. By 1996, the country was in the midst of one of the worst famines in history, killing over a million people. By 1998, the worst of the famine was over but only because, as one of Demick’s defectors tells her, “Everybody who was going to die was already dead.”
It’s a tragic story, felt like a punch to the gut when told through the lives and deaths of the real people chronicled in Nothing to Envy. Mrs. Song is a loyalist, a factory worker who espouses the regime’s propaganda, until she loses her job and is forced to forage for weeds and bark, and her husband and son starve to death. Dr. Kim, a pediatrician, is faced with the impossible task of saving starving children. “How do you tell a mother her child needs more food when there is nothing more to give?” She wonders.
In 1996, Kim Il-sung’s son, his successor Kim Jong-il complained that the “food problem” was “creating anarchy.” North Korean citizens, who were “bequeathed” everything they needed by the government, were resorting to black market trade, threatening the Workers’ Party collapse. Cabbages, radishes, lettuce and potatoes were being grown in secret gardens and sold at the market. Forty-kilo burlap sacks of white rice appeared, imprinted with the United Nations symbol and the US flag. North Korea had developed a system for keeping track of its citizens; everyone had an apartment and a work unit and both were tied to food rations. “All that changed with the famine,” Demick writes. With the demise of jobs and food distribution, there was nothing to keep people in place. Those who sat still, starved to death. By the end of the decade, an underground railroad had developed to help people escape. Most defectors crossed the Tuman River to China, and some were fortunate enough to eventually make their way to South Korea. Defectors were consumed with fear and worry for any surviving family members they left behind; they feared that speaking out would endanger their lives or land them in prison. A sobering reminder, Demick writes that one can leave but never completely escape the terror that is North Korea.
I recommend Nothing to Envy for fans of Pachinko by Min Jin Lee and The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson.