Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea

As North Korea makes headlines again and troops are prepared for war-like-situation near the Korean peninsula. Once again, we wonder about the lives of North Koreans and their hatred and closed borders strategy. George Polk Award and Robert F. Kennedy Award-Winning Journalist Barbara Demick’s spent six years reconstructing the lives of North Koreans in her book: Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea

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Barbara Demick remarks that what if the nightmare imagined by George Orwell in 1984 were real? What if you had to live in a country where radio dials were fixed to a single government station? Where the surroundings were entirely black-and-white except for the red lettering of the propaganda signs? Where you were required to keep a large portrait of the president on your living room wall and bow to it on national holidays? Where sexuality was repressed except for purposes of reproduction? Where spies like Orwell’s Thought Police studied your facial expressions during political rallies to make sure you were sincere not only in your speech but your thoughts?


This is a real place – the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea or North Korea. The Communist regime that has controlled the northern  half of the Korean peninsula since 1945 might be the most totalitarian of modern world  history. In her book Barabara follows the lives of six people and remarkably gives details of their lives.


There are many stories told and shared as the world wonders about the lives and daily routines of North Koreans, it was recently that media was allowed in North Korea and taking pictures was not a punishable offense anymore. Following the death, in December 2011, of Kim Jong-il, ‘Dear Leader’ of the secretive pariah state of North Korea, his hitherto largely unknown son, Kim Jong-un, has undergone a meteoric rise to take his place as figurehead of the nation. September’s issue of AGI took a look at this shadowy leader.

Hyeonseo Lee also has an extraordinary story to tell, when she escaped North Korea and talks about her journey to South Korea. She says,”The kindness of strangers and the support of the international community are truly the rays of hope we North Korean people need.”


 “When I was little, I thought my country was the best on the planet, and I grew up singing a song called “Nothing To Envy.” And I was very proud. In school, we spent a lot of time studying the history of Kim Il-Sung, but we never learned much about the outside world,except that America, South Korea, Japan are the enemies.”

 ” We are all Korean, but inside, we have become very different due to 67 years of division. I even went through an identity crisis. Am I South Korean or North Korean? Where am I from? Who am I? Suddenly, there was no country I could proudly call my own.”

North Korea again has given threat to attack South Korea and declared a state of war. US has taken these threats seriously and are working closely with their South Korean allies. However, these threats are again blustery or not, maybe we cannot tell yet. What we can say is that there are many lives of ordinary people who want ordinary lives but are denied this right.

By Ramita Tejpal

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