Nothing to Envy | Barbara Demick

Summary of: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
By: Barbara Demick


Welcome to the gripping world of ‘Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea’ by Barbara Demick, where you will find an insider’s look into the lives and struggles of ordinary citizens living under the oppressive regime of North Korea. Journey through the book’s crucial events, including the division of Korea, the establishment of communist rule, and the indoctrination of its population. Explore the challenges faced by North Koreans as they grappled with a failing economy, a devastating famine, and a government that prioritized the development of nuclear weapons over the welfare of its citizens. An eye-opening account of a society known for its secrecy, this book sheds light on the resilience and resourcefulness of the North Korean people in the face of overwhelming adversity.

The Korean Peninsula’s Struggle for Independence

The Korean Peninsula’s history was shaped by the post-war power struggles between the United States and the USSR. To appease both powers, the US established an arbitrary dividing line at the 38th parallel, giving the northern half to the USSR and taking the southern half. Koreans had no say in this division, leading to the emergence of two republics in 1948. In 1950, the Korean War broke out, with the two sides fighting for legitimate governance. The United States and a United Nations coalition fought for the South, while China backed Kim Il-sung’s forces in the North. The war ended in an armistice, with the border remaining at the 38th parallel, and millions of lives lost. Koreans saw themselves as victims of a struggle between superpowers, with their quest for independence remaining elusive.

North Korea’s Caste System

After Kim Il-sung established a communist government in North Korea, he classified society into three categories according to political loyalty: the loyal core, the wavering and the undesirable hostile classes. These classes determined one’s social status and privileges, which were hereditary. Even though classification wasn’t official, it was almost impossible to improve one’s social status. Food and housing were distributed according to one’s social rating, or songbun, which was determined by background checks. The higher the songbun rating, the better goods and housing one received. Kim Il-sung implemented various strategies to ensure absolute control, including food distribution, which was only available on designated days, and punishment for bad behavior.

Kim Il-sung’s Juche Philosophy

Kim Il-sung, the leader of post-war North Korea, introduced the ideology of juche, which advocated for self-reliance and the creation of a new kind of human being. He blended Marxist and Leninist ideas with the belief that North Koreans were special and didn’t need the help of others. This ideology was incorporated into daily life, requiring attendance at ideological training sessions and the internalization of Kim Il-sung’s ideas. The media was also tailored to fit juche, portraying the outside world as nothing to envy. Neighborhoods were organized into self-surveilling groups, and spying on and reporting others became a national pastime. With this social structure and constant monitoring, Kim Il-sung successfully indoctrinated North Koreans into being faithful to his ideology.

The Cult of Personality in North Korea

The book explores how Kim Il-sung used religious-style narratives to create a god-like personality cult of himself and his son.

Despite being a communist leader, Kim Il-sung drew inspiration from Christian traditions to assert his power. He employed religious-style narratives to present himself as a god-like father and his son, Kim Jong-il, as a Christ-like figure. The media actively participated in creating supernatural myths about the leaders; for instance, when Kim Jong-Il was born, a double rainbow and radiant star appeared.

Kim used his image aggressively both publicly and privately. Only portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il were permitted to hang on walls of private homes, and newspapers even told stories of people who ventured into fires and floods, saving the portraits. Statues of the fatherly leader were used as part of marriage ceremonies. Moreover, the leaders were thought to be experts in every field, from farming to engineering, and often visited factories to offer advice.

When Kim Il-sung died in 1994, his death was mourned for ten days across the country. Mourning was conducted with religious fervor, and any drinking, dancing and music were prohibited. A similar mourning period was observed upon the death of Kim Jong-il in 2011.

The book uncovers how Kim Il-sung successfully created a cult of personality, using religious-style narratives. It highlights the power of the media in shaping public perception of leaders and their personalities.

The Consequences of Self-Reliance

Despite North Korea’s philosophy of self-reliance, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 left the country without its main supplier of raw materials, equipment, and energy. The resulting economic collapse led to frequent electrical shortages, scarcity of water and heating, and a shortage of food. As electricity became increasingly scarce, workers were assigned special projects instead of factory work, and many opted to search for food instead of going to work. The government’s insistence on developing nuclear weapons further alienated international aid donors. The United States offered to help with the country’s energy needs if the country gave up its nuclear weapons program, but later canceled the deal. In present-day Pyongyang, many buildings on main streets have all their lights turned off.

The North Korean Famine

North Koreans were forced to find inventive ways to survive following a series of events that caused an unprecedented famine. The devastation left the government unable to provide food for its people, which led to illegal private business and black market activities. The state allowed people to grow vegetables in their gardens and sell them; a move that marked the beginning of a black market trade. Farmers started storing their yields in their homes, and the government blamed the United States for ongoing blockades. Food distribution stopped entirely, which led to people selling and swapping their homes to raise funds for food. The forbidden sale of grain became a crime punishable by public execution, and rice became a luxury. The devastation was so severe that by the early 90s, people became homeless and lived in train stations, begging and stealing. Eventually, the catastrophe destroyed millions of lives by the time Kim Jong-il assumed power following his father’s death in 1994.

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