Non-Fiction Prose Study: Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

Free choice / originally written in English / C21st / NOrth America / USA

The overwhelming impression one gains from Barbara Demick’s book is of a country mired in poverty and repression – but also of resilience and a will to survive… The stories it recounts are moving and disturbing, and it surely tells us far more about real North Korean lives than a fleeting tourist visit to the Stalinist-kitsch theme park that is Pyongyang.

Michael Rank, writing for Reuters, 2010
In 2012 Barbara Demick was invited to BYU Kennedy Center to give this talk on her 2010 book, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.


The DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, commonly called North Korea) is notoriously hostile toward journalists. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, outsiders, when they were allowed to visit at all, were shepherded to the showcase capital of Pyongyang, sheltered from the poverty and famine found in most of the rest of the country. But writers and journalists have nevertheless managed to write about North Korean society using interviews with defectors and refugees to help uncover what life is really like there. Barbara Demick is an American reporter who worked for the Los Angeles Times and was bureau chief in South Korea. She interviewed over 100 North Korean survivors and defectors, choosing six stories from people who lived in the industrial city of Chongjin to represent the experiences of the ordinary people of the country. Through recounting the testimony of Mi-ran and her boyfriend Jun-sang, Mrs Song and her daughter Oak-hee, Dr.Kim, and orphan boy Kim Hyuck, Demick gives her readers a glimpse of life inside a place that, to this day, suffers under the most repressive, isolationist and secretive regime in the world.

The timeline of Nothing to Envy charts the lead-up to the devastating North Korean famine (euphemistically called The Arduous March in the DPRK), a period of mass starvation that lasted from 1994 – 1999 in which between 2 and 3.5 million North Koreans lost their lives. As money and jobs dried up in the years before the famine, people started to fear the worst. Even the government regime, so reluctant to accept anything might be wrong in their workers’ paradise, instigated a propaganda campaign exhorting people to eat less food. Not that the people had much choice. By the mid-1990s, the countryside was stripped bare and mothers resorted to making soups out of grass, and porridge out of tree bark, rice husk and sawdust.

Eventually, even the stoutest of Demick’s interviewees turn their thoughts to plans of defection. Through following their interlacing stories, and seeing life in North Korea from different vantage points (Jun-sang is a relatively privileged student, Mi-ran the young daughter of a lower class miner; Mrs Song was an ardent government supporter while Oak-hee was a dissenter from a young age), the reader is encouraged to see how all eventually become victims of a regime who’s only purpose is to keep hold of power by any means – even though the cost will be counted in millions of lives.

IB Learner Profile: Risk-taker

We approach uncertainty with forethought and determination; we work independently and cooperatively to explore new ideas and innovative strategies. We are resourceful and resilient in the face of challenges and change.

To a greater or lesser extent, all six of Barbara Demick’s interviewees are risk-takers, particularly once they began to seriously consider the idea of defection. For example, Jun-sang, even though he lives a comparatively comfortable life in Pyongyang, risks his position to listen to South Korean radio broadcasts and Oak-hee is prepared to marry a man she barely knows for a chance at escape. Demick is not shy about recounting the consequences for those caught breaking the law: years in forced labour camps, re-education, social ostracism and even execution are all punishments detailed at various points in the work. Despite the risks, though, all six major characters stake their lives to secure not just their own freedom, but sometimes that of their family members too. As you read their stories, think about what you might be prepared to risk if you were born into circumstances as unfortunate as those you read about in this work.

Lang and Lit Concept: Identity

Western perceptions of North Korean people tend to emphasise their collective identity. Stereotypes include the cruel military underling, the unthinking bureaucrat, and the stoic peasant, willing to bear suffering uncomplainingly. Incredible images of the Arirang Mass Games, depicting tens of thousands of participants acting in harmony, may be impressive – but they also serve to perpetuate the idea that North Korean people are automatons, passively accepting orders and doing what they are told. One achievement of Demick’s work is it takes us inside the lives of six ordinary North Korean citizens. The reader is able to see that, far from being unthinking, North Koreans are acutely aware of their situation and options. They practice ingenious and inventive ways of earning money and putting food on the table, just to stay alive during the worst of the mid-1990s famine. Far from being robotic and joyless, North Koreans – in common with people all around the world – have vivid inner identities, private hopes and secret dreams of their own.

1. A Fraught History

[In 1948] Kim Il-sung… quickly declared his state the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – North Korea. The line along the 38th parallel would quickly solidify into a 155 mile long, 2.5 mile wide thicket of concertina wire, tank traps, trenches, embankments, moats, artillery pieces and land mines.

Mrs Song stands by her portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il in her Chongjin apartment. This image was taken from an animated pilot for a feature based on Nothing to Envy, led by Salvador Maldonado. You can find more stills from this project – and watch a demo – here.

In the opening chapters of Nothing to Envy, Barbara Demick introduces a few of her subjects: Mi-ran, the ambitious schoolgirl who’s family rank low in the rigid North Korean class system; Jun-sang, her boyfriend of higher status who’s father is ambitious for him to be admitted to university in Pyongyang; Mrs. Song, a ‘true believer’ in the North Korean regime. Mi-ran and Jun-sang’s relationship was sweetly romantic, confined as the two of them were by strict social expectation, they content themselves with walks after dark and sweetly written letters. They met at the cinema – a popular pastime in North Korea – where Jun-sang saw Mi-ran and was immediately attracted to her. Demick explains that the pair were always uncertain about their futures owing to the fact that marrying Mi-ran would harm Jun-sang’s chances of a prosperous life in Pyongyang.

While the fraught tragedy of famine and starvation has not yet struck the people of North Korea, these few chapters nevertheless foreshadow the hardship to come. Demick opens by commenting on how dark North Korea looks in satellite imagery, given the lack of electricity there for much of the year. And Mrs Song, such a model citizen living a comfortable life in Chongjin owing to her husband’s good job, has to cope with the stresses of family members who speak against the regime at times, even as a joke. When her husband is briefly arrested for commenting about the difficulty of buying new shoes for his children, Mrs Song remains steadfast in her commitment to the system’s correctness and infallibility.

culture clash: juche

North Korean society is organised around a strange principle called juche, a word which has no direct English translation, although it is similar to ‘individuality’ or ‘self-reliance’. Born out of North Korea’s difficult history of occupation by the Japanese, the country’s leader’s chose to emphasise juche as a way of ensuring the country will never again be subjugated by another nation. From a young age, people are instilled with the value of juche so they accept the country’s isolation from the rest of the world.

Learner Portfolio: The History of North Korea

After reading chapters 1 – 3, conduct your own research into the history of North Korea. Create a timeline that runs up to the present day. Include major events such as the Japanese occupation, World War Two, the partition of the Korean Peninsula, the Korean War, the mid-1990s famine, the deaths of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il and any other significant historic and political events. You can use some of the wider reading and viewing in this section to help.

2. The Approaching Storm

If North Koreans paused to contemplate the inconsistencies and lies in what they were told, they would find themselves in a desperate place. They didn’t have a choice.

A disheartened Mi-ran returns to Chongjin after her illegal visit to Jun-sang in Pyongyang.

As North Korea’s economic failings become more obvious, even ardent believers like Mrs Song begin to doubt all they are told in this section of the work. All the families who we have met so far have to find ways to feed themselves as money becomes tighter, pay packets get smaller, and government supplies begin to run low. However, not is all doom and gloom. Over the course of these chapters, Mi-ran and Jun-sang’s relationship begins to blossom. Even though he is admitted to a university in Pyongyang, they manage to communicate through letters. It was during this time that he encouraged Mi-ran to remain ambitious despite the lack of opportunities in Chongjin; so she studied hard and was accepted into a teacher’s college. Though the college was barely able to feed its students, Mi-ran actively sought to better herself so she could become a teacher, seeing Jun-sang as often as possible all the while.

Life is thrown into turmoil in Chapter 6, though, with the unexpected death of the country’s leader, the ‘Great Marshal’ himself, Kim Il-sung. This moment was even more shocking to many ordinary North Koreans, who had been educated to believe that Kim Il-sung was more than a simple man – he was supposed to be all-powerful, how could he simply up and die? Grief engulfed the country as neighbour vied with neighbour to outdo each other in displays of mourning and devastation. Others, like Mrs Song’s daughter Oak-hee and Jun-sang, discover that they are not as devastated by Kim’s death as they ought to be – instead, they suspect that the leadership of the son (Kim Jong-il) might be worse than that of the father, and they worry about what the future might bring.

culture clash: songbun

Not to be confused with ‘songun’ (which is North Korea’s ‘military-first’ ideology) the like-sounding ‘songbun’ is the rigid, unchangeable system of social hierarchy of North Korea. Bearing many similarities to a caste system, a person’s songbun derives from their ancestors’ political, social and economic standing. Songbun determines educational and work opportunities, how much food one is allocated, and other important aspects of life.

Learner Portfolio: Practise for Paper 1 (Literature students only)

If you are a Language A: Literature student, at the end of your course you will sit Paper 1: Guided Literary Analysis. This paper contains two previously unseen literary passages. SL students write a guided analysis of one of these passages; HL students write about both passages. The passages could be taken from any of four literary forms: prose, poetry, drama or literary non-fiction. Each of the passages will be from a different literary form.

Here are two passages taken from Nothing to Envy: the literary form is ‘prose: non-fiction’. Each passage is accompanied by a guiding question to provide a focus or ‘way in’ to your response. Choose one passage and complete this Learner Portfolio entry in the style of Paper 1: Guided Literary Analysis.

3. Famine and Desperation

By 1995, North Korea’s economy was stone-cold dead. The collapse had an organic quality to it, as though a living being were slowly shutting down and dying.

Dr Kim does the best she can with limited resources. You can find more stunning images from Salvador Maldonado’s project based on Nothing to Envy here.

In Chapter 7, a new figure enters into the book; Dr. Kim Ji-eun, a pediatrician at a hospital in Chongjin. Demick describes the excitement with which Dr. Kim entered the medical profession and the great pride she and other doctors took in serving North Korea and its citizens through their work. Yet, as the economic system downturned, hospitals in Chongjin – already so isolated from the rest of the country – were struggling to help their patients. Dr. Kim recalls seeing starving and emaciated children and adults, working without access to medicine and supplies, and having to sacrifice her marriage and family life for the hospital.

All the people Demick interviewed now sense that something is not right. As Mi-ran graduates from college and begins her life as a schoolteacher, her joy is short-lived as she witnesses her students coming to school emaciated, lacking in protein, with extended bellies and changing hair colour – gradually vanishing from class. Other children stayed slumped over their desks all day: Mi-ran recognised the conservation of energy as a survival tactic – the less they moved, the less calories they lost – and by 1995 with food scarce, floods ravaging the country, and the economy “stone-cold dead,” they could afford to lose almost none.

culture clash: inminban

Literally meaning ‘people’s groups’, the inminban can be understood as a system of neighbourhood watches. Groups of up to 20 families were meant to co-operate to help each other, but also to keep each other under surveillance. The families are able to elect the leader of the inminban who is to report suspicious activities to the police.

Learner Portfolio: Understanding Juche

An understanding of juche is crucial to understanding the North Korean famine, and understanding how the nation might so blindly accept the conditions that led to famine. While historically juche was an ideology that united the North Korean people against its enemies, in the modern day juche is used cynically by the regime to keep the country isolated from the outside world and extol the benefits of self-reliance. When it comes to the famine, the reader can see factors undermine the ideals of juche , as they were outside the control of ordinary people. Firstly, extreme weather conditions (floods and droughts) destroyed crops, revealing that North Korean arable land was not enough to sustain the population by itself. Secondly, other Communist nations (such as the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia) began to collapse, meaning there was little support from traditional allies. Thirdly, when the government finally did accept food aid from the UN, they siphoned it off to support the military (or profiteered by selling it on the black market). What good is a policy of self-reliance when the basic necessity of life – food – is widely unavailable?

Create an infographic or chart containing notes on juche. As well as defining juche in your own way, include some of the following information, and find two or three good quotations about juche as well:

  • Historical origins of juche;
  • Juche as a propaganda tool;
  • Juche as a factor in famine.

4. Thoughts of Escape

As the food shortage stabilized, King Jong-il felt he had been too tolerant during the crisis and that he had to reverse the tide of liberalism.

Kim-hyuck spent twenty months in one of North Korea’s most notorious detention centers.

Demick’s focus shifts again in this section of the novel and the reader meets Kim-hyuck, a boy who was orphaned during the famine. Initially life at the orphanage was fine, until food shortages began to take effect and the boys soon had to fend for themselves. Kim-hyuck finds himself caught up in a life of petty crime as he steals to survive. However, despite his illegal behaviour, the reader undoubtedly begins to admire Kim-hyuck. Like other characters in the novel, he has been abandoned by the system and lives according to his wits and ingenuity. It’s easy to see how he might fall into bad ways, if the alternative is starvation and death.

However, by the mid-1990s, Kim Jung-il is becoming increasingly worried about the lawlessness he sees in the country and begins a harsh campaign cracking down on smugglers, black marketeers, thieves, and those who cross the border to China to make money. More and more people are taken away to forced labour camps and re-education camps; some will never return. Public executions are expanded. It’s becoming harder and harder for ordinary people to hide the truth from themselves: something has gone very wrong with their country. Even those who had previously been loyal followers of the government begin to harbour secret thoughts of escape and make plans for a dangerous crossing into China from where they can defect to South Korea.

Culture clash: kochebi

Translated as ‘wandering swallows’ this euphemistic name was, at the height of the famine in the mid-1990s, given to orphan children who flocked together like birds for protection, scavenging for crumbs of food and organising into gangs of thieves and beggars.

Learner Portfolio: Coping strategies

As Demick interviews defectors about their experiences struggling to survive the North Korean famine, the reader is immersed in descriptions of physical starvation and social breakdown. By recounting these painful descriptions of a country wasting away, Demick reveals how starvation can force people to do desperate things, and endure terrible suffering, out of the sheer will to survive. For example, Kim Hyuck, at the height of the famine in the mid-1990s, took to the streets to beg, barter, and steal food. He first stole from a stranger when he was just 10 years old — he soon graduated to stealing from orchards, taking snacks from people at train stations, and even killing a stray dog to survive. In 1997, Hyuck began crossing the Tumen river illegally into China, bringing goods to sell back and forth across the border and risking arrest, torture, and even death. Hyuck’s story shows how some people were pushed into a life of crime in order to cope with the threat of starvation.

Choose two or three of the six interviewees whose stories comprise Nothing to Envy. What coping strategies did your chosen characters develop in order to cope with starvation, famine and suffering? Write a paragraph for each character.

5. New Lives, Old Memories

One can leave but never completely escape the terror that is North Korea.

Oak-hee manages to escape North Korea by marrying a Chinese farmer. Eventually she finds her way to South Korea, from where she arranges the escape of her mother, Mrs Song. But she is haunted by the knowledge that her remaining family members have most likely been punished in her place for her defection.

As Demick’s work of reportage reaches its conclusion, one by one, the people she interviews reveal how they finally managed to escape from North Korea, by crossing the river into China and making their way to South Korea to begin new lives. On reaching the south, refugees are brought first to Hanawon, a kind of transition and re-education center where they spend the first few months learning about the outside world and the basics of modern South Korean society. However, no amount of cultural acclimatisation can truly erase the traumas of their past lives.

Therefore, the end of the novel, while providing an uplifting conclusion to many of the harrowing stories we have been following so far, also explores the theme of survivor’s guilt. For example. both Mi-ran and Mrs Song are unable to fully enjoy their new lives as memories of starvation and powerlessness remain potent. A poignant scene is one where, on seeing bowl upon bowl of steaming fresh food served by smiling waiters, Mrs Song is reminded of her husband’s last words, “Let’s go to a good restaurant and order a nice bottle of wine,” and cannot hold back her tears.

Culture Clash: Arduous march

Although the story may be apocryphal, The Arduous March refers to an incident in 1938-39 when Kim Il-sung commanded a small platoon of soldiers against thousands of Japanese. In the 1990s, the media seized upon this story as a propaganda tool, urging citizens to think of themselves as honourable soldiers whereby enduring hunger was a patriotic duty. Later, the great famine would euphemistically be called ‘The Arduous March’ by people inside North Korea.

Learner Portfolio: Practise for Paper 2

Write this Learner Portfolio in the style of a practice Paper 2 response. You can use one of the prompts below, or another prompt given to you by your teacher. Although Paper 2 requires you to write about two literary works, for the sake of this exercise you could focus only on your response to Nothing to Envy, or you could try to compare your ideas to another literary work you have studied (visit this post for more help with Paper 2).

Choose one of the following prompts (or use another prompt you have been given), talk with your teacher about how to approach and structure your writing, then complete your portfolio entry:

  1. In works you have studied, discuss the means as well as the effectiveness with which power or authority is exercised.
  2. A good life means different things to different people. Consider how a good life is represented in literary works you have studied.
  3. Sometimes a crisis creates a positive change. Consider this idea with reference to literary works you have studied.
  4. What makes you admire any of the individuals encountered in the literary texts you have studied?

Towards Assessment: Higher Level Essay

Students submit an essay on one non-literary text or a collection of non-literary texts by one same author, or a literary text or work studied during the course. The essay must be 1,200-1,500 words in length (20 marks).††

Please find suggestions here; but always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own programme of study when devising your assessment tasks.

Nothing to Envy offers many possibilities for completing this assessed activity. Although it is a work of non-fiction, Demick employs many of the same artful techniques as any writer of fiction you may have studied on your course. Of particular interest might be the idea of authorial intrusion: to what extent is your view of North Korea mediated by Demick’s own conclusions on the country she has studied for so many years? Questions you could profitably pursue include, but are not limited to:

  • Discuss the importance of setting and how North Korea is depicted in Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Stories of North Koreans.
  • How does Barbara Demick explore the effects of the past on the present in her work Nothing to Envy?
  • What is the effect of shifting points of view in Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick?
  • Explore the symbolism of ‘darkness’ in Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy.
  • What is the role and importance of ‘food’ in Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick?
  • To what extent is Barbara Demick’s own voice a feature of her writing in Nothing to Envy?
  • Explore the portrayal of family in Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives of North Koreans.
  • To what extent is personal re-invention necessary for integration in the closing chapters of Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick?
  • What characterisation methods are most important to Demick when reimagining the lives of her interviewees in Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea?

Towards Assessment: Individual Oral

Supported by an extract from one non-literary text and one from a literary work (or two literary works if you are following the Literature-only course), students will offer a prepared response of 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions by the teacher, to the following prompt: Examine the ways in which the global issue of your choice is presented through the content and form of two of the texts that you have studied. (40 marks)

Please find suggestions here; but always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own programme of study when devising your assessment tasks.

Nothing to Envy provides a wealth of issues to discuss in your oral assessment. While the starvation of the 1990s is now thankfully a distant memory, famine and depravation still play a large part in the experiences of people all around the world. While I’ve expanded on a couple of ideas below, other themes such as having to live with trauma, the effectiveness of propaganda, repressive government regimes and more can all form the basis for interesting Global Issues and you shouldn’t be afraid to follow your own thoughts arising from your work and class discussions. Now you have finished reading and studying the novel, spend a lesson working with the IB Fields of Inquiry: mind-map the play, include your ideas for Global Issues, make connections with other Literary Works or Body of Works that you have studied on your course and see if you can make a proposal you might use to write your Individual Oral.

Here are one or two suggestions to get you started, but consider your own programme of study before you make any firm decisions about your personal Global Issue. Whatever you choose, remember a Global Issue must have local relevance, wide impact and be trans-national:

In the last few chapters of Nothing to Envy, Demick’s interviewees experience an awakening when they are re-educated about modern society and geopolitics in Hanawon. However, it is not easy to let go of a lifetime of brainwashing and indoctrination. As in many totalitarian regimes, North Korean government propaganda conjures imaginary enemies, both inside and outside North Korea, in order to distract people from the real concerns of everyday life.

The last few chapters of Nothing To Envy also highlight the difficulties of social integration in a new country and uses North Koreans in South Korea as an example of this struggle. Demick writes about how, after decades of living separately, North and South Koreans have little in common beyond their native language. Mrs. Song and the other defectors Demick interviews find it difficult being accepted by their neighbours in South Korea, and that getting into the country was only the first step towards truly integrating in a new place. Exploring this issue might make for a very interesting Individual Oral talk.


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