Bookmarks Issue: 

Ordinary Lives in North Korea

A-NothingtoEnvyDemick is currently the Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. Her first book was Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood.

The Topic: News out of North Korea is alternately terrifying and comic: on the one hand, a nuclear rogue state and reporters held hostage; on the other, Potemkin villages and Kim Jong-Il’s passion for films starring Elizabeth Taylor. Beneath the myths and grand gestures are the daily lives of more than 22 million people. Reporting those people’s everyday experiences is extraordinarily difficult for Western journalists, who, when they are allowed in the country at all, are kept under strict controls. Barbara Demick opted for a different approach, relying on extensive interviews with an array of defectors, many of them from the northern port city of Chongjin. Extrapolating from these experiences, Demick relates how North Koreans coped with the post–Cold War famine years and how some of them chose to flee the totalitarian state.
Spiegel & Grau. 336 pages. $26. ISBN: 9780385523905.

San Francisco Chronicle 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Barbara Demick’s excellent new book is one of only a few that have made full use of the testimony of North Korean refugees and defectors. A delightful, easy-to-read work of literary nonfiction, it humanizes a downtrodden, long-suffering people whose individual lives, hopes and dreams are so little known abroad that North Koreans are often compared to robots. … [A] highly believable account that can serve as an excellent introduction to North Korea for general readers even as it adds to the insights available to specialists." Bradley K. Martin

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"There’s a simple way to determine how well a journalist has reported a story, internalized the details, seized control of the narrative and produced good work. When you read the result, you forget the journalist is there." Scott Martelle

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Demick has woven together life stories of half a dozen defectors that credibly suggest a human rights tragedy of enormous proportion is taking place relatively out of Western public view, while the news headlines (for good reason) focus on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions." Art Winslow

Philadelphia Inquirer 4 of 5 Stars
"Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea sat on my shelf for several weeks before I cracked it. I was hesitant to commit to what I was certain would be an unrelentingly bleak narrative. Indeed, Demick details slow-motion starvation and the North Korean regime’s reflexive cruelty toward its own people. But the book is much more than that, at times a page-turner, at others an intimate study in totalitarian psychology." Frank Langfitt

Critical Summary

Demick’s reporting adds an important piece to the puzzle of North Korea, and her work evoked strong emotions in the critics—a high compliment to her reporting and writing abilities. There is no doubt that telling the story of North Korea is a challenge, and Bradley K. Martin, a reporter who has written his own book on North Korea (see below), respected the way that Demick’s work paralleled the academic trend of accepting defectors as reliable sources without taking everything they say as the gospel truth. Meanwhile, NPR correspondent Frank Langfitt wrote that he admired the way that Demick’s storytelling skills helped her to make a "page-turner" out of the dreary years of famine under an inscrutable regime. Through telling the stories of the everyday lives of those who left North Korea, Demick humanizes the strict and indoctrinated society, sheds light on the plight of its citizens, and provides a compelling read.

Supplemental Reading

Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader North Korea and the Kim Dynasty | Bradley K. Martin (2004): In our July/August 2006 issue, we consulted several experts for recommendations on books about North Korea. Martin’s Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader was cited three times. Martin covered Korea and Asia for over a quarter of a century, including his "Pyongyang Watch" column for the Asia Times. His book has a similar approach to Nothing to Envy, with equally strong results.