Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

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Overview

A National Book Award finalist and National Book Critics Circle finalist, Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy is a remarkable view into North Korea, as seen through the lives of six ordinary citizens
 
Nothing to Envy follows the lives of six North Koreans over fifteen years—a chaotic period that saw the death of Kim Il-sung, the unchallenged rise to power of his son Kim Jong-il, and the devastation of a ...

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Overview

A National Book Award finalist and National Book Critics Circle finalist, Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy is a remarkable view into North Korea, as seen through the lives of six ordinary citizens
 
Nothing to Envy follows the lives of six North Koreans over fifteen years—a chaotic period that saw the death of Kim Il-sung, the unchallenged rise to power of his son Kim Jong-il, and the devastation of a far-ranging famine that killed one-fifth of the population.

Taking us into a landscape most of us have never before seen, award-winning journalist Barbara Demick brings to life what it means to be living under the most repressive totalitarian regime today—an Orwellian world that is by choice not connected to the Internet, in which radio and television dials are welded to the one government station, and where displays of affection are punished; a police state where informants are rewarded and where an offhand remark can send a person to the gulag for life. 

Demick takes us deep inside the country, beyond the reach of government censors. Through meticulous and sensitive reporting, we see her six subjects—average North Korean citizens—fall in love, raise families, nurture ambitions, and struggle for survival. One by one, we experience the moments when they realize that their government has betrayed them. 

Nothing to Envy is a groundbreaking addition to the literature of totalitarianism and an eye-opening look at a closed world that is of increasing global importance.

Winner of the 2010 Samuel Johnson Prize

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Editorial Reviews

Dwight Garner
Ms. Demick's book is a lovely work of narrative nonfiction, one that follows the lives of six ordinary North Koreans, including a female doctor, a pair of star-crossed lovers, a factory worker and an orphan. It's a book that offers extensive evidence of the author's deep knowledge of this country while keeping its sights firmly on individual stories and human details.
—The New York Times
Stephen Kotkin
As a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, Demick discovered that the country isn't illuminated any further by traveling there. So she decided to penetrate North Korea's closed society by interviewing the people who had gotten out, the defectors, with splendid results…Nothing to Envy conveys the emotional riptides and overall disintegration of stopped factories, unpaid salaries and piled-up corpses.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Following six North Koreans over the course of 15 years, Demick offers a haunting portrait of life in North Korea. Her subjects are instantly relatable—they fall in love, raise families—but as their country grows increasingly isolated, totalitarian, and repressive, and is ravaged by unemployment and famine, they risk everything to leave. Karen White delivers a stunning reading; her character interpretations are confident and well-rounded, and she forges a strong bond with the audience. Powerful without becoming overwrought, White handles the harrowing material with sensitivity and intelligence. An unforgettable listening experience that will resonate long after the final sentence. A Random hardcover (Reviews, Sept. 28). (Jan.)
Library Journal
For most Americans, North Korea, one of the last Communist dictatorships, is a totalitarian menace but socially a great blank space. Demick, a Los Angeles Times reporter based first in Seoul and now in Beijing, fills this void with well-rounded life stories based on seven years of interviews with individuals who escaped to South Korea or China. Mi-ran, for instance, as the daughter of a political outcast, could meet with her young man only after dark, when they would take advantage of the complete absence of electric lights to walk for miles and miles unobserved—without, however, going even so far as to hold hands. She could not let him know of her plans to leave for fear that the authorities would hold him responsible or that he would need to inform on her to protect his family. This and other life stories form a welcome portrait of "ordinary" lives in an extraordinary society. VERDICT Recommended for readers interested in North Korea who want to supplement their political studies or simply enjoy the personal approach.—Charles W. Hayford, Northwestern Univ., Evanston, IL
Kirkus Reviews
A detailed, grim portrait of daily life under the repressive North Korean dictatorship, where schoolchildren are taught to sing anthems in praise of their leader asserting that they "have nothing to envy in this world.'Los Angeles Times foreign correspondent Demick bases her account on seven years of interviews with North Koreans who escaped to South Korea. She focuses on individuals whose stories began in the 1990s and continue to the present, including Mi-ran, a lower-class girl who became a teacher; Jun-sang, a university student who eventually got a glimpse of outside life through books, radio and television; Mrs. Song, a middle-aged true believer, and her defiant daughter Oak-hee; Dr. Kim, an idealistic female physician; and Kim Hyuck, an orphan boy surviving alone on the streets. Along with their personal stories, Demick includes background information on the Korean War and the dictatorships of Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il. The author also examines the great famine that killed millions of North Koreans in the 1990s. She paints a stark, vivid picture of reality in an industrial city with no electricity and almost no industry, where workers no longer get paid, men are conscripted into military service for ten years, grass, bark and corn husks are considered food, and death by starvation is all too common. In one unforgettable scene, Dr. Kim, having crossed a river into China, sees that dogs in China eat better than human beings in North Korea. In addition to the physical hardships is the psychological stress of living under a rigid totalitarian government where a chance wrong word overheard and reported by a neighbor can mean imprisonment or death. Demick shows the state ofmind of each of her subjects, what their daily life was like, how they coped and eventually how each escaped. She also reveals her subjects struggling, sometimes unsuccessfully, to adapt to life in South Korea. Meticulous reporting reveals life in a country that tries hard to keep its citizens walled in and the rest of the world out. Agent: Flip Brophy/Sterling Lord Literistic
Publishers Weekly
Following six North Koreans over the course of 15 years, Demick offers a haunting portrait of life in North Korea. Her subjects are instantly relatable—they fall in love, raise families—but as their country grows increasingly isolated, totalitarian, and repressive, and is ravaged by unemployment and famine, they risk everything to leave. Karen White delivers a stunning reading; her character interpretations are confident and well-rounded, and she forges a strong bond with the audience. Powerful without becoming overwrought, White handles the harrowing material with sensitivity and intelligence. An unforgettable listening experience that will resonate long after the final sentence. A Random hardcover (Reviews, Sept. 28). (Jan.)
From the Publisher
"Strongly written and gracefully structured...[Demick] vividly and evocatively portrays courageous individuals and a tyrannized state within a saga of unfathomable suffering punctuated by faint glimmers of hope." —-Booklist Starred Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385523912
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/21/2010
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 38,592
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Barbara Demick is the Beijing bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times. Her reporting on North Korea won the Overseas Press Club's award for human rights reporting as well as awards from the Asia Society and the American Academy of Diplomacy. Her coverage of Sarajevo for The Philadelphia Inquirer won the George Polk Award and the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in international reporting. Her previous book is Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

If you look at satellite photographs of the far east by night, you'll see a large splotch curiously lacking in light. This area of darkness is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Next to this mysterious black hole, South Korea, Japan, and now China fairly gleam with prosperity. Even from hundreds of miles above, the billboards, the headlights and streetlights, the neon of the fast- food chains appear as tiny white dots signifying people going about their business as twenty-first-century energy consumers. Then, in the middle of it all, an expanse of blackness nearly as large as England. It is baffling how a nation of 23 million people can appear as vacant as the oceans. North Korea is simply a blank.

North Korea faded to black in the early 1990s. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had propped up its old Communist ally with cheap fuel oil, North Korea's creakily inefficient economy collapsed. Power stations rusted into ruin. The lights went out. Hungry people scaled utility poles to pilfer bits of copper wire to swap for food. When the sun drops low in the sky, the landscape fades to gray and the squat little houses are swallowed up by the night. Entire villages vanish into the dusk. Even in parts of the showcase capital of Pyongyang, you can stroll down the middle of a main street at night without being able to see the buildings on either side.

When outsiders stare into the void that is today's North Korea, they think of remote villages of Africa or Southeast Asia where the civilizing hand of electricity has not yet reached. But North Korea is not an undeveloped country; it is a country that has fallen out of the developed world. You can see the evidence of what once was and what has been lost dangling overhead alongside any major North Korean road—the skeletal wires of the rusted electrical grid that once covered the entire country.

North Koreans beyond middle age remember well when they had more electricity (and for that matter food) than their pro-American cousins in South Korea, and that compounds the indignity of spending their nights sitting in the dark. Back in the 1990s, the U.S. offered to help North Korea with its energy needs if it gave up its nuclear weapons program. But the deal fell apart after the Bush administration accused the North Koreans of reneging on their promises. North Koreans complain bitterly about the darkness, which they still blame on the U.S. sanctions. They can't read at night. They can't watch television. "We have no culture without electricity," a burly North Korean security guard once told me accusingly

But the dark has advantages of its own. Especially if you are a teenager dating somebody you can't be seen with.

When adults go to bed, sometimes as early as 7:00 p.m. in winter, it is easy enough to slip out of the house. The darkness confers measures of privacy and freedom as hard to come by in North Korea as electricity. Wrapped in a magic cloak of invisibility, you can do what you like without worrying about the prying eyes of parents, neighbors, or secret police.

I met many North Koreans who told me how much they learned to love the darkness, but it was the story of one teenage girl and her boyfriend that impressed me most. She was twelve years old when she met a young man three years older from a neighboring town. Her family was low-ranking in the byzantine system of social controls in place in North Korea. To be seen in public together would damage the boy's career prospects as well as her reputation as a virtuous young woman. So their dates consisted entirely of long walks in the dark. There was nothing else to do anyway; by the time they started dating in earnest in the early 1990s, none of the restaurants or cinemas were operating because of the lack of power.

They would meet after dinner. The girl had instructed her boyfriend not to knock on the front door and risk questions from her older sisters, younger brother, or the nosy neighbors. They lived squeezed together in a long, narrow building behind which was a common outhouse shared by a dozen families. The houses were set off from the street by a white wall, just above eye level in height. The boy found a spot behind the wall where nobody would notice him as the light seeped out of the day. The clatter of the neighbors washing the dishes or using the toilet masked the sound of his footsteps. He would wait hours for her, maybe two or three. It didn't matter. The cadence of life is slower in North Korea. Nobody owned a watch.

The girl would emerge just as soon as she could extricate herself from the family. Stepping outside, she would peer into the darkness, unable to see him at first but sensing with certainty his presence. She wouldn't bother with makeup—no one needs it in the dark. Sometimes she just wore her school uniform: a royal blue skirt cut modestly below the knees, a white blouse and red bow tie, all of it made from a crinkly synthetic material. She was young enough not to fret about her appearance.

At first, they would walk in silence, then their voices would gradually rise to whispers and then to normal conversational levels as they left the village and relaxed into the night. They maintained an arm's-length distance from each other until they were sure they wouldn't be spotted.

Just outside the town, the road headed into a thicket of trees to the grounds of a hot-spring resort. It was once a resort of some renown; its 130-degree waters used to draw busloads of Chinese tourists in search of cures for arthritis and diabetes, but by now it rarely operated. The entrance featured a rectangular reflecting pond rimmed by a stone wall. The paths cutting through the grounds were lined with pine trees, Japanese maples, and the girl's favorites—the ginkgo trees that in autumn shed delicate mustard-yellow leaves in the shape of perfect Oriental fans. On the surrounding hills, the trees had been decimated by people foraging for firewood, but the trees at the hot springs were so beautiful that the locals respected them and left them alone.

Otherwise the grounds were poorly maintained. The trees were untrimmed, stone benches cracked, paving stones missing like rotten teeth. By the mid-1990s, nearly everything in North Korea was worn out, broken, malfunctioning. The country had seen better days. But the imperfections were not so glaring at night. The hot-springs pool, murky and choked with weeds, was luminous with the reflection of the sky above.

The night sky in North Korea is a sight to behold. It might be the most brilliant in Northeast Asia, the only place spared the coal dust, Gobi Desert sand, and carbon monoxide choking the rest of the continent. In the old days, North Korean factories contributed their share to the cloud cover, but no longer. No artificial lighting competes with the intensity of the stars etched into its sky.

The young couple would walk through the night, scattering ginkgo leaves in their wake. What did they talk about? Their families, their classmates, books they had read—whatever the topic, it was endlessly fascinating. Years later, when I asked the girl about the happiest memories of her life, she told me of those nights.

This is not the sort of thing that shows up in satellite photographs. Whether in CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, or in the East Asian studies department of a university, people usually analyze North Korea from afar. They don't stop to think that in the middle of this black hole, in this bleak, dark country where millions have died of starvation, there is also love.

by the time I met this girl, she was a woman, thirty-one years old. Mi-ran (as I will call her for the purposes of this book) had defected six years earlier and was living in South Korea. I had requested an interview with her for an article I was writing about North Korean defectors.

In 2004, I was posted in Seoul as bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. My job was to cover the entire Korean peninsula. South Korea was easy. It was the twelfth-largest economic power, a thriving if sometimes raucous democracy, with one of the most aggressive press corps in Asia. Government officials gave reporters their mobile telephone numbers and didn't mind being called at off-hours. North Korea was at the other extreme. North Korea's communications with the outside world were largely confined to tirades spat out by the Korean Central News Agency, nicknamed the "Great Vituperator" for its ridiculous bombast about the "imperialist Yankee bastards." The United States had fought on South Korea's behalf in the 1950–1953 Korean War, the first great conflagration of the Cold War, and still had forty thousand troops stationed there. For North Korea, it was as though the war had never ended, the animus was so raw and fresh.

U.S. citizens were only rarely admitted to North Korea and American journalists even less frequently. When I finally got a visa to visit Pyongyang in 2005, myself and a colleague were led along a well-worn path of monuments to the glorious leadership of Kim Jong-il and his late father, Kim Il-sung. At all times, we were chaperoned by two skinny men in dark suits, both named Mr. Park. (North Korea takes the precaution of assigning two "minders" to foreign visitors, one to watch the other so that they can't be bribed.) The minders spoke the same stilted rhetoric of the official news service. ("Thanks to our dear leader Kim Jong-il" was a phrase inserted with strange regularity into our conversations.) They rarely made eye contact when they spoke to us, and I wondered if they believed what they said. What were they really thinking? Did they love their leader as much as they claimed? Did they have enough food to eat? What did they do when they came home from work? What was it like to live in the world's most repressive regime?

If I wanted answers to my questions, it was clear I wasn't going to get them inside North Korea. I had to talk to people who had left— defectors.

In 2004, Mi-ran was living in Suwon, a city twenty miles south of Seoul, bright and chaotic. Suwon is home to Samsung Electronics and a cluster of manufacturing complexes producing objects most North Koreans would be stumped to identify—computer monitors, CD-ROMs, digital televisions, flash-memory sticks. (A statistic one often sees quoted is that the economic disparity between the Koreas is at least four times greater than that between East and West Germany at the time of German reunification in 1990.) The place is loud and cluttered, a cacophony of mismatched colors and sounds. As in most South Korean cities, the architecture is an amalgam of ugly concrete boxes topped with garish signage. High-rise apartments radiate for miles away from a congested downtown lined with Dunkin' Donuts and Pizza Huts and a host of Korean knockoffs. The backstreets are filled with love hotels with names like Eros Motel and Love-Inn Park that advertise rooms by the hour. The customary state of traffic is gridlock as thousands of Hyundais—more fruit of the economic miracle— try to plow their way between home and the malls. Because the city is in a perpetual state of gridlock, I took the train down from Seoul, a thirty-minute ride, then crawled along in a taxi to one of the few tranquil spots in town, a grilled beef-ribs restaurant across from an eighteenth-century fortress.

At first I didn't spot Mi-ran. She looked quite unlike the other North Koreans I had met. There were by that time some six thousand North Korean defectors living in South Korea and there were usually telltale signs of their difficulty in assimilating—skirts worn too short, labels still attached to new clothes—but Mi-ran was indistinguishable from a South Korean. She wore a chic brown sweater set and matching knit trousers. It gave me the impression (which like many others would prove wrong) that she was rather demure. Her hair was swept back and neatly held in place with a rhinestone barrette. Her impeccable appearance was marred only by a smattering of acne on her chin and a heaviness around the middle, the result of being three months pregnant. A year earlier she had married a South Korean, a civilian military employee, and they were expecting their first child.

I had asked Mi-ran to lunch in order to learn more about North Korea's school system. In the years before her defection, she had worked as a kindergarten teacher in a mining town. In South Korea she was working toward a graduate degree in education. It was a serious conversation, at times grim. The food on our table went uneaten as she described watching her five- and six-year-old pupils die of starvation. As her students were dying, she was supposed to teach them that they were blessed to be North Korean. Kim Il-sung, who ruled from the time the peninsula was severed at the end of World War II until his death in 1994, was to be revered as a god, and Kim Jong- il, his son and successor, as the son of a god, a Christ-like figure. Mi-ran had become a harsh critic of the North Korean system of brainwashing.

After an hour or two of such conversation, we veered into what might be disparaged as typical girl talk. There was something about Mi- ran's self-possession and her candor that allowed me to ask more personal questions. What did young North Koreans do for fun? Were there any happy moments in her life in North Korea? Did she have a boyfriend there?

"It's funny you ask," she said. "I had a dream about him the other night."

She described the boy as tall and limber with shaggy hair flopping over his forehead. After she got out of North Korea, she was delighted to discover that there was a South Korean teen idol by the name of Yu Jun-sang who looked quite like her ex-boyfriend. (As a result, I have used the pseudonym Jun-sang to identify him.) He was smart, too, a future scientist studying at one of the best universities in Pyongyang. That was one of the reasons they could not be seen in public. Their relationship could have damaged his career prospects.

There are no love hotels in North Korea. Casual intimacy between the sexes is discouraged. Still, I tried to pry gently about how far the relationship went.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 17 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 19, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    What an amazing book! Written by a journalist living in South Ko

    What an amazing book! Written by a journalist living in South Korea, it follows the lives of six North Korean defectors from childhood to present day. It weaves a story of loyalty, honor and personal conviction while tossing in some rebellion and acceptance. It’s not a happy story and at parts can be hard to stomach (reality often is), but it is definitely worth reading.




    What I liked most about this book is that it tells the story from the point of view of the North Koreans, leaving out judgment, American politics and every preconceived notion one might have going into  the book. It is not a book designed to paint North Korea as anything but what the people involved believe it to be. The reality can be, at times, unnerving, but it is refreshing to read about North Korea without the brackets of international judgment around it.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted April 22, 2012

    I love North Korea as a last vestige of the Cold War. However, a

    I love North Korea as a last vestige of the Cold War. However, after reading this book, I find it much more difficult to joke about it. Incredible read. Great, great book! I recommend it to anyone who wants a dramatic non-fiction read. Well done!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 26, 2012

    A very rewarding experience!

    Curiosity added this book to my order. I'm so glad! The stories are interwoven and personal to a level that you cannot put this book down. Completely engrossing and enlightening!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 9, 2013

    A truly haunting read that I couldn't put down. For the first ti

    A truly haunting read that I couldn't put down. For the first time I heard the voices of North Koreans, not the judgements of outsiders.

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  • Posted June 2, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Engrossing, enlightening, and horrifying ¿ all at the same time.

    Engrossing, enlightening, and horrifying – all at the same time. North Korea is a land removed from society and probably even time itself, so to speak.. I found this a difficult book to get through but well worth the read! A great book if you want to understand a little better what you see in the news.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 12, 2012

    By far this is the best written book I've read in years & it

    By far this is the best written book I've read in years & it is obvious the author put a lot of thought & effort into her work. Very easy to follow & well written. I now understand how the masses could have been so easily seduced by the idea that "Dear Leader" was only concerned for their welfare & North Korea's greater good. I thank the author for bringing a greater understanding
    about a country that most know little about.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 12, 2012

    Very informative about an unknown part of the world

    This book is difficult to read at times. Sometimes it feels like a college textbook with an incredible amount of information about North Korea. Also the extremely sad situation of its citizens makes it emotionally draining. But it is worth the effort as the reader follows the engrossing stories of the lives of several of its citizens who have defected. It was a definite "thumbs up" in my book club. The main comment from several members was that they had no idea this was all happening in North Korea in our modern times.

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  • Posted March 18, 2012

    A true and accurate documentation of the lives of North Korean r

    A true and accurate documentation of the lives of North Korean refugees.
    This non-fictional piece of literature was genuine and real. Nothing to Envy, by Barbara Demick, is told by 6 North Korean refugees who were interviewed years after escaping N.K. and making it into South Korea. Demick explains early in the book how she had originally made it into North Korea(something that is extremely difficult to do for an American journalist), but that the information revealed to her there was not enough and seemed to be far from the truth. By focusing her interviews in South Korea, she was able to gain much more information and create a piece of literature that revealed more than we have ever known before about the social, political and private lives of the North American people.
    What I enjoyed most about this book was its organization. It is divided into 6 sections, each told by a different refugee narrator. What made this so interesting was that each narrator focused primarily on different aspects of life. For example, one told stories of the difficulty she and her boyfriend had had in N.K. because they were of different social classes. Another focused on explaining what it was like to have her father arrested for saying something negative about Kim Jong-Il. Demick could have easily combined all the stories of the people she had interviewed and relayed the information all together, but instead she chose to go about it in a much more personable and easy to follow fashion.
    Overall I really enjoyed reading this book. I look forward to reading more of Barbara Demick’s work as well as finding other books to read that are about the lives of North Korean citizens.

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  • Posted December 29, 2011

    Highly Recommended

    Good book about the people and how the country has regressed from the twentieth to the 19th century in less than 5 years. Also, timely with the recent death of Kim Jong-il. The book is a picture of how fragile our society and culture isand how reliant we are energy to maintain our lifestyle. Once gone, a century is lost. Most poignant was when some of the North Korean's interviewed knew the first time when they went hungry all day. Yet, they still believe in their leader. Whoever that may be.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 28, 2011

    Excellent

    A fascinating of the personal history of North Korea. There is so little information about the lives of individuals and this book is amazing.

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  • Posted May 14, 2011

    GREAT!

    THIS BOOK IS HARD TO PUT DOWN.KIM JONG-IL IS A DEMON.

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  • Posted March 31, 2011

    Absolutely absorbing a great insight from a brilliant journalist.

    I happened to come across an excerpt from the New Yorker that details the life of a devoted Socialist who eventually defected from North Korea and is now living in South Korea. "Nothing to Envy" written by Barbara Demick gives great detail through several ordinary citizen of North Korea the sacrifices that was made and the misery they endured living in a totalitarian society that is notoriously known as the "Hermit Kingdom". It is very sad for the unfortunate event that they had went through, in a society that is built on stalinist foundation of juche idealogy of Kim Il Sung. The two country in the Korea Peninsula are vastly different. The average height of North Korean's are significantly shorter than their South Korean counterpart. Technology have completely stopped since the dissolution of the Soviety Union. Economy of the North Korea have traveled backwards in time whereas it reminds us of Goerge Orwell's 1984. This book gives us great detail and the most humane literature I have read in a long while.

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    Posted March 18, 2012

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    Posted November 14, 2011

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    Posted December 31, 2010

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    Posted December 30, 2012

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    Posted July 29, 2012

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