Thursday, May 31, 2012

North Korea

North Korea

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

I always feel uncomfortable riding in taxis – maybe it is because I am not from a large city. However, in the past two years, I have caught and ridden in a taxi over twenty times and I never found it an enjoyable experience. Perhaps it is because of southern hospitality, I always feel uncomfortable to not engage in conversation with the driver. (Don’t even try to imagine my discomfort at the nail salon. Last time I was there, I ended up in a one-hour conversation about Vietnam to the displeasure of many other women in the salon, attempting to enjoy a short retreat from the chaos of their jobs and families.) Recently, I was in a taxi in New York City and the driver brought up the subject of North Korea. It was at that point in time that I realized almost every American has a strong opinion – which is almost always negative – and a fascination of this country, which is closed to us. (As a classical music lover, I must digress to note that this country was indeed open to a select few Americans – around 400 members of the New York Philharmonic in 2008.)

Having been abroad, I have experienced my own share of “America bashing:” Why does America do this? Why does America do that? If they don’t know you, people often see you as merely an extension of America’s political leaders – not as an individual capable of having diverse opinions on a plethora of subjects. People’s opinions are inherently limited by the information they know. The information which the vast majority of Americans have about North Korea lie solely in the leadership of the country.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick seeks to expand the voices coming out of North Korea. I personally appreciate reading about different experiences of North Korean citizens. I enjoyed this book greatly and read it in only one day. However before I continue, I would like to mention that most of the people which play important roles in this book have defected from North Korea, evidence that they had a negative experience in the country. In conjuncture with the negatives experiences of its sources, the book also has a negative tone about North Korea. I have seen two documentaries which provide different perspectives of daily life in North Korea:
1.)    A State of Mind
I really loved this documentary, which follows the lives of two pre-teen girls who devote all of their free time towards practicing gymnastics to prepare for North Korea’s Mass Games. The focus is not politics, but two children striving to do their best in the North Korean society. Personally, I was amazed by the spectacle of the Mass Games; the dedication and practice it takes from both children and adults alike.
This documentary follows the life of Joe Dresnok, one of the defectors from the United States to North Korea during the Korean War. Although it is interesting, I did not like this documentary. To me, Dresnok seems to be a kind of creepy guy. He always speaks in long, dramatic monologues and he is always in the right – a type of person that I would try to avoid at all costs in all countries.

This book tells the stories of a wide assortment of people and is incredibly thought-provoking. Some questions I have, and invite you to join in this discussion are:
  • According to the book, what are some of the difficulties defectors from North Koreans find when integrating into South Korean culture? What are some solutions to compensate for these difficulties? (Out of curiosity, can this be comparable to West-East Germany? Why or why not?)
  • Why do you think that so many inequalities between people exist in this book? What is the root of inequality?
  • After reading this book, how do you feel? What do you want to do with the information you have just received? In some way, is there a call to action? Why or why not?

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions! 


  1. Emily, good recommendations on the documentaries, I have begun watching them. Do you have an opinion on what the longevity of the North Korean regime may be?

    1. Interesting question, Greyson! (And I would love to hear your opinions about this topic.) To be quite honest, I feel like I don't have enough information to formulate a comprehensive idea. However, I will give you some of my opinions/observations. It seems to me that a unifying and strengthening force between a diverse group of people is a threat. A perceived threat or a genuine threat both have the same effect. Much of my reading and knowledge on North Korea are based on normal people within North Korea and it is evident that they perceive a threat from the outside. For this reason, I think that the North Korean regime has the potential to last for a long time.

    2. Emily, I agree with you and the NKoreans who believe an outside threat poses the biggest threat to their regime. But in my opinion it is not the outside threat that NK is expecting (America) that will cripple its regime. China has been NK's biggest trading partner since the Korean war and with NK's recent woes that trade has become Chinese aid. If China, with its ever growing capitalist mindset decides to no longer support the NK regime there would be few to no partners because of UN sanctions. It will be interesting to see how NK will look by the end of the next decade.