“Nothing to envy” by Barbara Demick explores the lives of defected North Koreans in the 1990s and gives readers a view of the country from the people who actually lived there. The story follows the lives of Mi-ran, Jun-sang, Mrs Song, Oak Hee, Kim Hyuck and Dr Kim as they go on with their day-to-day lives in a modern-day dictatorship. Author Barbara Demick manages to take us into the real North Korea behind the news reports and satellite imagery through stories and imagery described by North Korean defectors. The text explores different aspects of the nature of dictatorship with small details which encourages the reader to make their own decision on a modern-day dictatorship.

One of the key aspects in a communist regime that has been seen throughout history is the controlling of the media. Barbara Demick shows this key part of dictatorship on her first trip to Pyongyang as a journalist where she describes the state of her two minders who accompanied the group at all times one to watch and one to ensure the other isn’t bribed. ‘‘They made little eye contact and always slipped in ”Thanks to our Dear Leader’’ where they could. This brings up many questions, questions like what were they thinking, did they really love their leader like they said they do? Due to the nature of the country and the pressures put on its citizens it was a clear these questions were unlikely going to be answered in the country and was the inspiration for the author Barbara Demick to look into the lives of North Korean defectors and write about them. These details show the reader the significance of the secrecy or perhaps fear that the citizens of a dictatorship have when it comes to sharing their ideas, honest thoughts and feelings to others. Small details such as ‘’images of kim Il-Sung are depicted in vivid poster colors favored by the socialist realism of painting’’ this media depicts pictures of children, bright colors and scenery along with slogans such as ‘’we will do as the party tells us’’. Simple things like these images play a key part in a dictatorship as it provides information mostly biased to push the political point of view of the workers party on North Koreans. It depicts leaders such as Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un as Gods who can’t be touched. This type of cult of personality where an individual or group uses mass media to create a worshipful image has been seen in the past in the form of other dictatorships such as Nazi Germany, Stalin’s soviet union and Mao’s china all in which portrayed themselves in the media as somewhat gods. These details cause us as a reader to realize the significance the media plays in a presenting a dictator in a perfect light in the eyes of its citizens especially in North Korea. It also encourages the reader to potentially think more critically of the way advertising and social media portrays prominent figures in our own society. Propaganda is also described in the book by character Mrs Song as a campaign to urge citizens to “work harder though the tough times’’ that being the Arduous march or famine that was happening during the time. Even the movies that Mi-Ran visited are described as ‘’pure propaganda” where capitalism was degraded and sacrifice and suppression for the good of the collective was heavily encouraged. All media whether it be posters or movies all have the same purpose of spreading the ideology of the workers party. In the text the Kim regime is described as taking the typical communist propaganda to the next level with religious imagery. North Korean news broadcasters would tell super natural stories of Kim Jong Ill such as how ‘’A mysterious fog descended to protect him from lurking South Korean snipers’’. For us as readers this sounds absurd that people could be so gullible and believe the lies being told to them but the details in the text help us understand that North Koreans have been subjected to this heavily controlled biased media everywhere for their whole lives whether it be on the news, in a song or in the theatre as well as challenge us to perhaps realize any potential biases in our own politics, news and social media and is a lesson on why it is important for us to think critically and perhaps strive to get our media from multiple sources.

Due to the nature of dictatorship the country under the leadership of a communist party often ends up with strained resources and in debt. This is shown in the text with patients of Dr Kim getting sick from the food they were forced to eat ‘’housewives had started to pick weeds and wild grasses to add to their soups to create the illusion of vegetables’’ as well as eating whole corns including the cob and eating bark. The economic crash of North Korea in 1995 is also shown in the text from a citizen’s eyes as ‘’hulking factories along the waterfront looked like a wall of rust’’ ‘’only few of the smokestacks spat smoke from their furnaces’’. Small details like these can really bring us into the world of North Koreans and show us a better picture of the true nature of a modern-day dictatorship that satellite images, financial stats and news articles cannot show us. In the text Mi-Ran describes her thoughts and feelings she felt with North Korea as being disgusted with North Korea, she didn’t believe the propaganda she passed on to her pupils. But she couldn’t tell even the closest person to her Jun-sang. It was not that Mi-Ran couldn’t trust Jun-Sang but it was to risky in a country like North Korea where ‘’neighbors denounced neighbors, friends denounced friends and even lovers denounced each other’’. North Korea managed to put this mindset in North Koreans by creating the imniban  which was a form of neighborhood police who would keep an eye on each other and report any suspicious activity to the higher authorities. Images and details of secret police and fear put into citizens show us as a reader the true nature of dictatorship. It shows us the fear of speaking out and what little freedom of speech that citizens of a dictatorship like Miran had to live with and what we as teenagers in New Zealand take for granted. North Korea like many other dictatorships in history were willing to sacrifice the rights if its citizens for the good of the collective. The North Korean regime established this by creating a culture that expected citizens to be a master of revolution and reconstruction of one’s own country.  This way of life was very attractive to a people whose dignity was pushed to a low by its neighbours. We can see the idea of Juche in details in the text such as when Jun-Sang a Pyongyang university student along with his fellow student were ordered to sign in blood a petition swearing they would volunteer for the korean people’s army in case of war. Details of people like Jun-Sang sacrificing their rights for the good of the collective is not exclusive to North Korea but seen in most aspects of communism and helps us as readers understand the true nature of a dictatorship. This being that all of your belongs and even your own life are a property of the government that can be used as they please. It’s also an eye opener challenging us to see certain similarities between North Korea’s communism and our democracy such as, is a person in debt any more of a slave to the government than a North Korean farmer is to the workers party.    

A constant idea we are faced with in the text is the negative image that the regime puts on its enemies. This is seen in all aspects in the media causing characters such as Mi-Ran who were not in ideal situations to just ‘’assume no one in the world had it better’’. Radio and television portrayed the false image that the South Koreans were miserable and ‘’China’s brand of communism was failing and millions of Chinese were going hungry’’. Even the movies vilified the regime’s enemies with a familiar theme being the anti-Japanese resistance like that of ‘’cowboys and Indians in early Hollywood’’. The propaganda and false images were not limited to just the media but the educational system itself were ‘’their textbooks at school were full of stories of people burned, crushed, stabbed, shot and poisoned by the enemy. It’s these details that show us the vilifying of enemies that a communist regime puts on its citizens for various reasons. One of such being making the unfavorable situation in North Korea look favorable by making the enemies situation look worse. This helps us understand as to why a North Korean would hate an American as that’s all they’ve been told their whole life. A common idea throughout the text is military first this is shown in small details outlying the propaganda ‘’keeping hysteria at high levels, ginning up incessant reports of imminent invasion by the imperialist warmongers’’. Kim Jong-Il is described in the text as instead of rebuilding aging factories and infrastructure focused his attention on secret weapon projects. It’s the idea of putting the military needs first that unsettles us as readers knowing that the dictatorship in the text is still existent today.

Barbara Demick’s non-fiction Nothing to envy is focused on the Nature of Dictatorship and how it affected the lives of real citizens. Barbara Demick wanted to show us as an audience the view of North Korea from the people who lived there rather than the news and satellite images we normally associate with the isolated country. By doing so we see North Korea in a different light as well as discover the true nature of dictatorship as seen through the lives of people who lived there. we also realize some of the similarities between a modern-day dictatorship and democracy in our own society.


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