Chongjin is a city of about 600,000 people on the Japan Sea in northeast North Korea. Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “ Most of the factories in Chongjin, a former industrial port, are rusting into ruin. Those still operating can barely pay salaries; the average worker's wage amounts to US$1 per month at current exchange rates. Even with international aid, many people go to bed wondering whether they will eat the next day. Residents, along with officials of the United Nations World Food Program, say food shortages have grown worse again in the last year. "Maybe people are not dying today out in the streets like they were before," said a coal miner who lives in Chongjin, "but they are still dying — just quietly in their homes." [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, July 3, 2005]

“At first glance, visitors say, Chongjin almost looks like a pleasant place to live. The coastline in this remote northeastern stretch of the country is as rugged as Maine's, the ocean waters a vivid aquamarine. Although Chongjin is only 275 miles from the capital as the crow flies, the journey takes three days by car, or about 27 hours by train. Most visitors arrive from the south on a treacherous dirt road that twists around the mountains girding the city. On the outskirts of Chongjin, the road widens into a boulevard lined with trees, a video taken by a visitor in 2001 shows.

“Nowadays, Chongjin is not the worst-off place in North Korea, because its proximity to the Chinese border, 50 miles away, offers access to consumer products. Its markets are believed to be the largest in the country outside of Pyongyang. But as an industrial city in an area with little arable land, it was particularly vulnerable to famine. Disaster struck in the early 1990s. Chongjin's outmoded and inefficient factories had limped along on spare parts and cheap oil from the Soviet Union. When the communist bloc collapsed, suddenly there was no fuel for the power plants. Factories stopped. Farms couldn't produce because they depended on chemical fertilizers and electric irrigation systems. Heavy rains and floods in the summer of 1995 exacerbated a famine already underway. Chongjin used to be a busy port, with Japanese and Soviet ships loading products from the factories. Now it is filled with flimsy squid-fishing boats; most of the larger vessels in port are bringing in humanitarian aid. The foreign sailors are not permitted to disembark.”

Books: “The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia” by Andrei Lakov (Oxford University Press, 2013); “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea” by Barbara Demick (Spiegel & Grau, 2010); “The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves — and Why It Matters” by B.R. Myers (Melville House, 2010).

Daily Life in Chongjin

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Newcomers soon sense something strange: In a city nearly as populous as Boston, there are almost no personal cars, only military and government vehicles. The roadway is so empty that schoolchildren stroll blithely down the middle. Power lines are strung overhead for trams, which run infrequently and are so crowded that people hang off the back. Even bicycles are a luxury, so most people walk, often with improbably large bundles on their backs. Since there are no taxis, some people make hand carts and hire themselves out as porters. They wait at the roadside for customers. Many are homeless, so at night they sleep on their carts. There are other oddities. The upper floors of an 18-story apartment building along the main boulevard are unoccupied because there are no elevators. There is a zoo, but it has no animals. There's hardly any garbage because there is too little to go to waste. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, July 3, 2005]

“Aside from a small, ragged seafood market at the east end of the harbor, the waterfront is desolate. The government has installed high fences to keep residents from leaving or fishing, which is illegal for individuals. Perched above the port, in the style of the Hollywood sign, giant letters crumbling into the hillside proclaim, "Long Live Kim Il Sung," referring to North Korea's founder, who died in 1994. Other signs throughout the city herald his son and successor, Kim Jong Il, as the "Son of the 21st Century."

The city, though, looks like it never emerged from the 1960s. Most buildings are whitewashed cinderblock apartments or row houses built after the area was heavily bombed by the United States during the Korean War, and they give Chongjin a monochrome bleakness. Even the red paint of the propaganda billboards — "We are happy," and "We have nothing to envy," read two of the slogans — has faded in the sun. "I had the impression of a ghost town. It was really colorless, gray. There was no life," said Violaine de Marsangy, a French aid worker who spent six weeks in Chongjin in 1999.

The big power plant on the waterfront operates at about 25 percent of capacity, so when dusk falls, swaths of the city vanish into darkness. Kathi Zellweger of the Catholic charity Caritas recalls being driven into Chongjin: "It's pitch dark at night, so dark you can't even tell there is a city." West of the port is an industrial area, home to Chongjin Steel Co., Chemical Textile Co., May 10 Coal Mine Machinery Factory and Kimchaek Iron & Steel. These were once the pride of North Korea's industrial sector. No longer. "Chongjin was like a forest of scrap metal, with huge plants that seem to go on for miles and miles that have been turned into rust buckets," said Tun Myat, who in 1997 became one of the first senior U.N. officials permitted to visit the city. "I've been all over the world, and I've never seen anything quite like this."

People from Chongjin

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The regime was probably less beloved in Chongjin than elsewhere in North Korea. Food had run out in its province, North Hamgyong, earlier than in other areas, and starvation rates were among the highest in the nation. Chongjin's people are reputed to be the most independent-minded in North Korea. One famous report of unrest centers on the city. In 1995, senior officers from the 6th army corps in Chongjin were executed for disloyalty and the entire unit, estimated at 40,000 men, was disbanded. It is still unclear whether the incident was an attempted uprising or a corruption case. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, July 4, 2005]

Chongjin is known for its vicious gang wars, and it was sometimes difficult to distinguish political unrest from ordinary crime. There were increasing incidents of theft and insubordination. At factories, desperate workers dismantled machinery or stripped away copper wiring to sell for food. Public executions by firing squad were held outside Sunam market and on the lawn of the youth park, once a popular lover's lane. In a village called Ihyon-ri on the outskirts of Chongjin, a gang suspected of anti-government activities killed a national security agent who had tried to infiltrate the group, former kindergarten teacher Seo Kyong Hui said. "This guy was from my village. He had been sent to inform on a group that was engaged in suspicious activities," she said. "They caught him and stoned him to death."

“Work crews went out early in the morning to wash away any anti-regime graffiti painted overnight, according to human rights groups, but most people were too scared to express their discontent. Badmouthing the leadership is still considered blasphemy. To discourage anti-regime activity, North Korea punishes "political crimes" by banishing entire families to remote areas or labor camps. "If you have one life to live, you would gladly give it to overthrow this government," said Seo, the teacher. "But you are not the only one getting punished. Your family will go through hell."

Surviving in Chongjin

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “His day begins at 4:30 a.m. The 64-year-old retired math teacher doesn't own a clock or even a watch, but the internal alarm that has kept him alive while so many of his fellow North Koreans have starved to death tells him he had better get out to pick grass if his family is to survive. Soon the streets of his city, Chongjin, will be swarming with others doing the same. Some cook the grass to eat.The teacher feeds it to the rabbits his family sells at the market. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, July 3, 2005]

“At 10 a.m., he eats a modest meal of corn porridge. A late breakfast is best as it allows him and his wife to skip lunch. Then he goes with a hand cart to collect firewood. He has to walk two hours from Chongjin, mostly uphill, to find a patch that has not been stripped bare of vegetation. "There is no time for rest. If you stand still, you will not survive," said the teacher, a lean, soft-spoken man with salt-and-pepper hair who could be described as elegant if not for his threadbare trousers and his fingernails, as gnarled as oyster shells from chronic malnutrition.

“Later, if it is one of the rare evenings when there is electricity, he might indulge in reading Tolstoy. More often than not, he collapses for a few hours of sleep before the routine is replayed for yet another day. Such is the quest for survival in North Korea, an impoverished country that is the most closed in the world.

“The retired math teacher, a well-spoken man who seems like he should be on a college campus, receives a monthly pension of 700 won, about 30 cents at the unofficial exchange rate. It is not even enough to buy 2 pounds of rice. Although his wife, son and daughter-in-law work as hard as he does, the teacher's family survives on various "substitute" foods, mainly ground corn — not corn meal, but a powder made from the entire plant, including husks, cobs, stems and leaves. "We fry it like pancakes, we make it into cakes. We drop it in water like noodles," said the teacher, who cried unabashedly as he described his life in Chongjin. "We try to cook it this way or that, but it still gives you indigestion."

“Three years ago, the miner and his wife decided to have another baby. "North Koreans aren't having many children because they can't afford to feed them," the miner said. "But my daughter complained she was lonely, and we really wanted to have another child." The baby, a boy, was born at home, a neighbor helping with the delivery. He was full-term but weighed just 3 1/2 pounds at birth and had difficulty nursing from his undernourished mother. The child, unable to digest powdered corn, remains underweight. The miner said the food situation in Chongjin had gotten worse in the last year because of inflation. "There is food in the market, but people can't afford to buy it," he said late last year in China. People are "getting weaker physically, financially." "In North Korea," he added matter-of-factly, "I don't remember a single day when I had a normal, happy life."

Home of a Miner in a Working Class Neighborhood in Chongjin

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “In a working-class neighborhood in southern Chongjin, the 39-year-old coal miner lives in a squat, drab house. The homes in Ranam are organized in blocks, usually with five units on either side of an alley and an outhouse at one end shared by the 10 families. His only piece of furniture is a wooden table with folding legs. He has one cooking pot. One knife. A couple of bowls. A cutting board that he made himself. A large urn to store water he brings from the well. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, July 3, 2005]

“He has four pairs of chopsticks and four spoons — exactly enough for himself, his wife, 12-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son. He traded away his extra utensils for food years ago. When there is electricity, he screws a bare lightbulb into a wall socket. His children have no toys or books. Each member of the family owns two sets of clothes — one for summer and one for winter — that they store on a homemade hanger suspended from a nail in the wall.On the opposite wall hang the obligatory framed portraits of Kim Jong Il and his late father, Kim Il Sung, who seized power in the northern half of the Korean peninsula after World War II. The government forbids people to put family photos or other decorations on the same wall. Party cadres used to drop by almost daily to make sure residents kept portraits free of dust, but that stopped two years ago.

“Like everyone in his housing block, the miner and his family sleep on blankets on the vinyl-covered concrete floor. In a traditional style that vanished decades ago in South Korea, they cook on big pots over a fire whose hot air is directed under the floor to warm it.

“But the miner rarely has much firewood, so his wife often cooks outdoors on a neighbor's portable charcoal stove. The neighbors try to help one another. During Chongjin's bitter winter, when temperatures can plunge to 10 below zero, they pool their firewood to heat one unit where everybody sleeps. But people rarely have enough food to share. "We have a saying that a full heart comes with a full stomach," he said. "If you can't help your own child who is hungry, you won't help your neighbor's."

Factory Workers in Chongjin

Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: As of last summer, the only major factory in town with smoke regularly coming out of its stacks was that of Chongjin Steel Co., which dominates the city's skyline. Kimchaek Iron & Steel, which once had the largest factory in North Korea, with a workforce of 20,000, operates only sporadically, as do some other small plants. But just because Chongjin's factories are largely idle doesn't mean their workers stay home. In what might seem an exercise in futility, Kim Sun Bok would put on her uniform each morning and walk 50 minutes to the 2nd Metal Construction Factory. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, July 3, 2005]

“She had to be there by 7:30, dressed in regulation indigo blue slacks, cap and canvas shoes. But more often than not, she didn't get to perform her job, which was making machine parts. Instead, she and her co-workers were assigned to tend rice paddies or a cabbage field. Sometimes she performed construction labor. Kim, a bird-like woman who weighs barely 100 pounds, was told to haul paving stones and sacks of gravel for a road that was being built entirely by hand. "Even if there is nothing to do, they'll create tasks for us. And you have to come to work," said Kim, 32, who fled North Korea in 2003. "People constantly visit your home to make sure you're coming."

“Before the workers could go home, there was an hourlong lecture in the factory's auditorium that ended about 6 p.m. A common theme was the importance of the collective over the individual. At least once a week, there was another hourlong session in which workers had to criticize themselves and one another and promise to do better. The trick, Kim said, was to pick a relatively innocuous failing. "I should have worked harder to meet my quota" was a popular confession.

Showing Up at a North Korean Factory When There Is No Work

Demick wrote: “Factory workers had one day off per week, but workers often came in on that day anyway to clean the plant. For their efforts, the 3,000 employees received hardly any salary, but there was a powerful incentive to show up: The factory would often dole out food. It was rarely rice and often animal feed, but it was better than nothing. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, July 3, 2005]

“Kim had been assigned to work there from the age of 18, and much of her social life revolved around the plant. On the biggest public holidays, such as Kim Il Sung's birthday, April 15, there might be a company outing in the mountains or at a youth park on the waterfront. The workers would bring soju, a Korean grain alcohol, and an accordion or guitar so they could sing songs.

“As other factories were closing, Kim's boss tried to keep the plant going and find food for his workers. He would cut his own deals with shipowners to make metal parts in exchange for something to eat. "Our manager was a quick thinker. He knew how to run the place so our factory wasn't as much of a basket case as some others," Kim said. "People who worked at other factories got nothing at all."

“Other factory managers also began to take matters into their own hands, sometimes with terrible consequences. Some of the factories were so dysfunctional that desperate managers dismantled their machinery and sold it as scrap metal or bartered it in China for food. At times, authorities looked the other way; in other cases, they cracked down. Chongjin residents recall that from 1995 to 1997, factory personnel accused of dismantling their factories were executed.

“Kim remembers that managers of Kimchaek Iron & Steel were executed by a firing squad on the banks of Suseong Stream, which cuts through the center of town. One of them was her neighbor's son-in-law. Residents were ordered by party leaders to come out and watch. "Everyone thought it was a great pity," Kim said. "They knew he was not a hardened criminal or common thief, but somebody who did it because his family was starving." Chongjin residents were learning a lesson at odds with the ideology they had been taught since they were children: The collective wouldn't save them. Individuals had to do what they could to survive. "We didn't think of it as change at the time. But we were learning we had to survive. We had to create something out of nothing," Kim said. "The individual had to change."

Market in Working Class Chongjin

Demick wrote: In the 1990s “when people in Chongjin needed new trousers, they had to go to government-owned stores that sold items mostly in drab browns or a dull shade of indigo. Food and other necessities were rationed. Sometimes the government permitted the sale of home-grown vegetables, but even a hairbrush was supposed to be purchased from a state-run shop. Today, people can shop at markets all over Chongjin, the result of a burst of entrepreneurship grudgingly allowed by the authorities. Almost anything can be purchased — ice cream bars from China, pirated DVDs, cars, Bibles, computers, real estate and sex — for those who can afford the high prices. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, July 4, 2005]

“The retail mecca is Sunam market, a wood-frame structure with a corrugated tin roof that is squeezed between two derelict factories. The aisles brim with fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, peaches, scallions, watermelons and cabbage, as shown by rare video footage taken last year by the Osaka, Japan-based human rights group Rescue the North Korean People. Everything else comes from China: belts, shoes, umbrellas, notebooks, plates, aluminum pots, knives, shovels, toy cars, detergents, shampoos, lotions, hand creams and makeup.

“Each of Chongjin's seven administrative districts has a state-sanctioned market. Sunam, the city's largest, is expanding, and some say it has a wider variety of goods than the main market in Pyongyang. Many vendors wear their licenses pinned to their right breasts while the obligatory Kim Il Sung buttons remain over the heart. Although markets have been expanding for more than a decade, it was only in 2002 and '03 that the government enacted economic reforms that lifted some of the prohibitions against them. Most of the vendors are older women such as Kim Hui Suk, a tiny 60-year-old with short, permed hair and immaculate clothing. Much of Chongjin's commerce is still not officially sanctioned, so it has an impromptu quality. Money changes hands over wooden carts that can be rolled away in a hurry. Those who can't afford carts sell on tarpaulins laid out in the dirt.

“Fashion boutiques are slapped together with poles and clotheslines, enlivening the monochromatic landscape with garish pinks and paisleys. Some clothes have the labels ripped out and vendors whisper that these items came from araet dongne or the "village below," a euphemism for South Korea, whose products are illegal in the North. Shoppers can buy 88-pound sacks of rice emblazoned with U.S. flags, and biscuits and corn noodles produced by three factories in Chongjin run by the U.N. World Food Program — all intended to be humanitarian handouts.

“Some people cut hair or repair bicycles, though furtively because these jobs are supposed to be controlled by the government's Convenience Bureau. "They will bring a chair and mirror to the market to cut hair," Kim said. "The police can come at any moment, arrest them and confiscate their scissors." Another new business is a computer salon. It looks like an Internet cafe, but because there's no access to the Web in North Korea, it is used mostly by teenagers to play video games. More products are available, but inflation puts them out of reach for most people. The price of rice has increased nearly eightfold since the economic reforms of 2002 to 525 won per pound; an average worker earns 2,500 won a month — about US$1 at the unofficial exchange rate.

Market Ajummas and Eking Out a Living in the North Korean Marketplace

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times: With corruption running rampant, the state is no longer solely in charge of commerce. People hustle to sell anything they can — prohibited videos of South Korean soap operas, real estate and official travel documents. In this free-for-all, some people have prospered. Many more are just a step ahead of starvation. Women have set up makeshift eateries on vacant lots, ladling out soup cooked over charcoal stoves, using hand-cranked blowers on the fires. Customers eat squatting at tables fashioned from wood planks propped on buckets.” [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, July 3, 2005]

A woman named Kim “was working in the day-care center of a textile factory in the early 1990s when production ground to a halt. Men were ordered to stay in their jobs, but Workers' Party cadres at the factory started whispering that the married women, or ajumas, ought to moonlight to provide for their families. "It was clear that the ajumas had to go out and earn money or the family would starve," Kim said. She first tried to raise pigs, locking them in a shed outside her downtown apartment building and feeding them slop left over from making tofu. But the electricity and water were too unreliable to keep the business going.

“In 1995, Kim sold her apartment in the choice Shinam district and bought a cheaper one, hoping to use the proceeds to import rice from the countryside. But that too failed when she injured her back and couldn't work. The family's situation became dire. Her husband's employer, a provincial radio station, stopped paying salaries, and food distribution ended. In 1996, her mother-in-law died of starvation, and her husband the following year. "First he got really, really thin and then bloated. His last words to me were, 'Let's get a bottle of wine, go to a restaurant and enjoy ourselves,' " Kim recalled. "I felt bad that I couldn't fulfill his last wish."

In 1998, Kim's 26-year-old son, who had been a wrestler and gymnast, grew weak from hunger and contracted pneumonia. A shot of penicillin from the market would have cost 40 won, the same price as enough corn powder to feed herself and her three daughters for a week. She opted for the corn and watched her son succumb to the infection.

But Kim did not give up. She swapped apartments again and used the money to start another business, this time baking biscuits and neungju, a potent corn moonshine. If buyers didn't have cash, she would accept chile powder or anything else she could use. "We made just enough to put food on the table," said Kim.

Making Money in the North Korean Markets

Demick wrote: World Food Program officials in North Korea say the vast majority of the population is less well off since the economic changes, especially factory workers, civil servants, retirees and anybody else on a fixed income. But there are those who have gotten rich. Poor Chongjin residents disparage them as donbulrae, or money insects. "There are people who started trading early and figured out the ropes," said a 64-year-old retired math teacher who sells rabbits at the market. "But those of us who were loyal and believed in the state, we are the ones who are suffering."[Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, July 4, 2005]

“Many of Chongjin's well-to-do are members of the Workers' Party or are connected to the military or security services. In the new economy, they use their ties to power to trade with China, obtain market licenses, extract bribes and sell bureaucratic favors. "Those who have power in North Korea always figure out ways to make money," said Joo Sung Ha, 31, who grew up in Chongjin and now works as a journalist in Seoul.

Today, North Korea's elites are even better off, buying telephones for their homes and even cars. "For US$4,000 or US$5,000, anybody can buy a car now. It used to be that you weren't allowed to register your own car. We couldn't dream of it," said Kim Yong Il, a defector from Chongjin who lives in Seoul. Recently, he arranged to have a computer smuggled from China to his relatives in Chongjin. North Korea's state-run companies don't have computers, so they're eager to hire people who do. "If you have a computer, you can get a job," he said.

“Visitors have been shocked to glimpse the new conspicuous consumption in Chongjin. Jeung Young Tai, a South Korean academic who was in Chongjin delivering South Korean government aid, noticed a paunchy man standing in front of the Chonmasan Hotel next to a new Lexus. And at a hot spring in Kyongsong, on the city's outskirts, he saw a woman carrying a lap dog — a striking sight in a country where there is so little food that the only pets usually are goldfish. "You get the sense that there is a tremendous gap between rich and poor and that the gap is growing," Jeung said.

North Korea Workers and Traders in China

Some Chongjin residents have slipped into China temporarily to work or beg or buy stuff they can sell or trade in North Korea. Demick wrote: A miner named Kim officially “still works for the mine. But he hasn't received a salary since May 2003, so he seldom shows up for work. He taught himself to recognize medicinal herbs, and now he hunts them in the mountains to sell. Looking for more money, he jumped a freight train to the Chinese border and sneaked across the Tumen River last August to work illegally in the fields. On days that he found work, he made about US$1.80, which he considered a fortune. He planned to return to his family in Chongjin over the winter. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, July 4, 2005]

“Kim began hopping the slow-moving trains that pass through Chongjin on their way to the Chinese border. Once on board, Kim would scramble up to the top of a car, flatten himself to avoid the electric lines above and, using his pack as a pillow, ride for hours. At the border, he would wade across the river to hawk the items in his pack: household goods on consignment from Chongjin residents, who were selling off their possessions. In 1998, Kim was arrested by Chinese authorities, who do not recognize North Koreans as refugees. He was sent back to North Korea and spent two years in a prison camp before escaping again in 2000 to China, where he was eventually taken in by missionaries and brought to South Korea.

"If somebody disappears, you don't know whether he dropped dead on the road or went to China," the coal miner said. About 100,000 North Koreans have escaped to China in the last 10 years. Many have ended up returning to North Korea, either because they were deported or because they missed their families. They often back bring money, goods to trade and strange new ideas.

“Smugglers carry chests that can hold up to 1,000 pirated DVDs. South Korean soap operas, movies about the Korean War and Hollywood action films are among the most popular. Even pornography is making its way in. This is a radical change for a country so prudish that until recently women were not permitted to ride bicycles because it was thought too provocative. Seo Kyong Hui, the kindergarten teacher, said that when she left North Korea in 1998, "I was 26 years old, and I still didn't know how a baby was conceived."

“Smugglers also bring in cheap Chinese radios. Unlike North Korean radios, which are preset to government channels, the Chinese models can be tuned to anything, even South Korean programs or the Korean-language broadcasts of Radio Free Asia. Kim Ji Eun, a doctor from Chongjin, remembers wading across the partially frozen Tumen River in March 1999, staggering to a Chinese farmhouse and seeing a dish of white rice and meat set out in a courtyard. "I couldn't figure it out at first. I thought maybe it was for refrigeration," recalled Kim, who now lives in South Korea. "Then I realized that dogs in China live better than even party members in North Korea."”

Barbara Demick’s Book “Nothing to Envy”

Barbara Demick's “Nothing to Envy”, which parallels much of the narrative above, was awarded the Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction. One of the judges, Daniel Finkelstein, a British journalist and editor with The Times, wrote: “ It was my first time judging a book prize, and I am proud of the winner we selected. Of all the 60 or so books I read, Demick's was one of the first I opened, and almost as soon as I had done so, I realised I was holding a potential winner. [Source: Daniel Finkelstein, July 10, 2010]

Art Winslow wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Of the hundred North Koreans Demick says she interviewed in South Korea, we meet six: a young kindergarten teacher whose aspirations were blocked by her father's prewar origins in the South ("tainted blood"); a boy of impeccable background who made the leap to university in Pyongyang and whose impossible romance with the kindergarten teacher forms the book's heart; a middle-age factory worker who is a model communist, a mother of four and the book's soul; her daughter; an orphaned young man; and an idealistic female hospital doctor, who looked on helplessly as the young charges in her care died of hunger during the 1996-99 famine. When asked years later whether she remembers any of the children, the doctor answers, "All of them." [Source: Art Winslow, Los Angeles Times, January 10, 2010]

“Demick chose her subjects from a single town, provincial Chongjin, far from Pyongyang, which gives the book a powerful sense of place. An industrial and mining center in the country's north, Chongjin was among the areas hardest hit by the famine, which claimed between 600,000 and 1 million lives, an unprecedented loss for an urban, literate society during peacetime. "Nothing to Envy" conveys the emotional riptides and overall disintegration of stopped factories, unpaid salaries and piled-up corpses. Animals that might have provided food disappeared; even frogs were hunted to near extinction. Only the propaganda never let up. The book's title comes from a North Korean song called "We have nothing to envy in the world." Songs and slogans — and dead leaders — have staying power here: People still chirp, "Long live Kim Il Sung," who died in 1994 but formally remains president during the rule of his son, Kim Jong Il.”

Most of the sources for the book are defectors: Michael Rank wrote in The Guardian: “Defectors are, by definition, not typical: they are likely to be more disaffected, more resourceful and richer than the average citizen, so this book is hardly the definitive account of everyday life in North Korea. Yet 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.” [Source: Michael Rank, The Guardian, April 3, 2010]

Barbara Demick on Her Book “Nothing to Envy”

Demick describes her book as "primarily an oral history," but it is also rich in cultural information and characters as well. Demick said: “I focused on one city, Chongjin, so that I could confirm what people said with multiple witnesses. If one North Korean defector tells you about seeing bodies of children who starved to death on the street, you don't necessarily believe them. But if there are dozens describing the same events at the same time, it adds up to a credible picture. Good reporting should have the same standard as in a courtroom — beyond a reasonable doubt. [Source: Alexandra Zavis, Los Angeles Times, January 10, 2014]

“When asked if North Korea is really as bad as they say, Demick said: “The tragedy for North Koreans is that they are living much as they did a century ago, at the edge of starvation, in the midst of a region that has experienced the greatest economic miracle of our time. When North Koreans cross the border into China, they are stunned to learn that the Chinese can afford to eat rice daily, sometimes for three meals daily.

“One of the ways the North Korea regime has kept power is by keeping its people ignorant of the living standards in the outside world. That's the underlying lie that supports the regime — not that their country is "normal" but that they are better off. The title of my book, “Nothing to Envy,” is taken from a popular children's song "We have nothing to envy in the world" about how wonderful life is inside North Korea. Here's a Youtube link, sorry no English subtitles.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, Daily NK, NK News, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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