Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
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Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick

Why I Recommend This Book

This book is fascinating. It gives an inside look to one of the most closed-off countries in the world through the lives of six different North Korean defectors. It was interesting to hear why each of them left and how they were able to manage it. I took a picture of the book with white chrysanthemums because I learned those are flowers the North Koreans use at funerals. After reading this book, I mourned for so many who lost their lives from starvation or the labor camps because of their leaders.

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Nothing to Envy follows six ordinary North Koreans through the devastating famine of the 1990s, the death of their leader Kim Il-sung and the rise of power of his son, Kim Jung-Il. Through in-depth interviews, Demick paints a picture of North Korea, a country that has chosen to block itself off from the rest of the world. This book takes you into the day-to-day grind of what life is like in the most repressive totalitarian regimes of our time. It shares stories of North Koreans who strive to raise their families, work towards their ambitions and when the famine hits, survive. Through their eyes, they share what brought each of them to the realization that their country has betrayed them.

Quotes And Info About The Author

  • Barbara Demick is originally from Ridgewood, New Jersey
  • She moved to Seoul, South Korea for her job with the Los Angeles Times where she interviewed North Koreans about their lives which led to writing the book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.
  • Before joining the Los Angeles Times, she was a foreign correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer and lived in Sarajevo during the war in Bosnia. She wrote Loganiva Street: Life and Death in Sarajevo Neighborhood about daily life in Bosnia, which won the George Polk Award, the Robert F. Kennedy award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

“North Korea is probably the only country in the world deliberately kept out of the Internet. Televisions and radios are locked on government frequencies—it is a serious crime to listen to a foreign broadcast. As a result, North Koreans think that they live in the best country in the world and that, as difficult as their lives may be, everybody else has it much worse. “We Have Nothing to Envy in This World” is the name of a popular children’s song, from which I take the title of my book.” – Barbara Demick

Speaking on Kim Jong Il and the 1990’s famine: “Kim Jong Il acted with callous disregard to the suffering of his people. Rather than lose face, the North Koreans denied the food crisis for years and then kept humanitarian aid out of the places it was most needed. The regime executed people who tried to adapt by engaging in private business.

By the way, Kim Jong Il is famous for being one of the biggest foodies in Asia. Throughout the nineteen-eighties and well into the famine, he flew couriers around the world to procure delicacies for his own palate—fresh fish from Tokyo for his sushi, cheese from France, caviar from Uzbekistan and Iran, mangoes and papaya from Thailand.” (Barbara Demick in an interview with The New Yorker)

Sharing what surprised her most when reporting on North Koreans: “At the risk of sounding like a cliché, that they are so ordinary. We see North Koreans as automatons, goose-steeping at parades, doing mass gymnastics with fixed smiles on their faces, but beneath all that, real life goes on with the same complexity of human emotion as anywhere else.”
(Barbara Demick in an interview with The New Yorker)

“North Koreans are obsessed with the United States. They hold the U.S. responsible for the division of the Korean peninsula and seem to believe that U.S. foreign policy since the mid-twentieth century has revolved around the single-minded goal of screwing them over. The cruelest thing you can do is tell a North Korean that many Americans couldn’t locate North Korea on a map.”
(Barbara Demick in an interview with The New Yorker)

When asked how she chose her six subjects whose lives she shares about in the book: “I interviewed more than 30 people for the Los Angeles Times project and then narrowed it down for the book. It was a combination of factors—the most compelling stories, the best memories for detail, the most consistent accounts. I didn’t want exaggerators or embellishers. I wanted stories I could confirm. I liked using people who had at least one friend or relative out of North Korea, so I’d have a second source on everything. That way, I was able to reconstruct the dialogues with a reasonable degree of certainty. Frankly, I ended up picking people I liked and who liked me. The North Koreans in this book had to put up with me and the fact-checkers over a very long period of time.” (Barbara Demick in an interview with

Speaking on the most surprising thing she learned when writing Nothing to Envy: “The book didn’t start out as a love story. I was outlining a book about people’s lives in Chongjin that included a section about a young kindergarten teacher who had watched her pupils starve to death. In the course of interviewing this woman, Mi-ran in the book, she told me about how she’d defected without saying goodbye to the man she loved back in North Korea. She wondered if he would forgive her for betraying their love and their country, if she ever saw him again. A few weeks after we had this conversation, she telephoned my office, breathless. Her North Korean boyfriend was in Seoul. He’d defected too. She introduced us. His story, which so perfectly complemented her story, changed the book so that the romance became the bookends at the beginning and end. The romance was not just a powerful story; it allowed me to do what I’d set out to accomplish, to show the good along with the bad about North Korea”
(Barbara Demick in an interview with

Interviews with Barbara Demick on the topic of North Korea:

“Barbara Demick on Life in North Korea” The New Yorker

“In New Book, N. Korea Seen Through Defectors’ Eyes” NPR

“Interview: Barbara Demick Says No Need to Exaggerate North Korea Stories, ‘Truth is Bad Enough'” Asia Society

Nothing To Envy Website

Major Characters

  • Mi-ran – walked the nights with her secret boyfriend Jun-sang. Worked as a kindergarten teacher in a mining town in North Korea.
  • Jun-sang – Mi-ran’s boyfriend. Better off because of Japanese heritage. Studious and college student in Pyongyang.
  • Tae-woo – Mi-ran’s father. Carpenter in the mines. Originally from South Korea. Prisoner of war from the Korean War.
  • Mrs. Song – Clerk at clothing factory. Mother of 4. Devote to the party.
  • Chang-bo – Mrs. Song’s husband. Journalist.
  • Oak-hee – Mrs. Song’s oldest daughter. Rebellious, but clever.
  • Nam-oak – Mrs. Song’s youngest son. Sent to Pyongyang at 14 for boxing.
  • Kim Hyuck – Grew up wealthy, but mother died when he was three and his father sent him and his brother to an orphanage. Ended up homeless as a child.
  • Dr Kim Ji-eun – a pediatrician at a hospital in Changjin. Smart and hard working.

Book Club Discussion

  1. Concerning the different life experiences shared, which person’s story was most compelling to you? Which one was the most disturbing?
  2. A North Korean soldier told author Barbara Demick “We have no culture without electricity.” Discuss what this means. (Remember, North Korea blames the lack of electricity on sanctions placed on them by the USA in the 1990s.)
  3. After reading this book, do you feel the North Koreans have some basis for their anger towards the United States?
  4. Discuss the role of propaganda and how it is used in the lives of North Koreans. (See Quote 5 under Quotes from the Book)
  5. Discuss the living conditions of North Korea. What aspect of life would be the most difficult for you? What surprised you? What parts of the regime angered you the most?
  6. Do you think Koreans from the north really love their “dear leader” as much as they claim?
  7. Concerning the famine, almost everyone who survived felt guilt for how they did so because they watched so many around them die. How do morals apply in such a scarce situation? Did you feel any of the characters were in the right or in the wrong concerning how they handled the situation?
  8. Discuss Quote 13 under Quotes From the Book concerning the difficulty facing the defectors once they leave North Korea. Out of the people interviewed, who did you feel handled defecting the best? Who struggled with it the most? Why?
  9. What challenges do you think Korea would face if the border between the North and the South opened?
  10. Overall, how did this book make you feel once you read it: angry, depressed, helpless, grateful for your own life, or another emotion?

Quotes From The Book

Quote 1: “The darkness confers measures of privacy and freedom as hard to come by in North Korea as electricity. Wrapped in a magic cloak of invisibility, you can do what you like without worrying about the prying eyes of parents, neighbors or secret police.” pg.5

Quote 2: “They don’t stop to think that in the middle of this black hole, in this bleak, dark country where millions have died of starvation, there is also love.” pg. 6

Quote 3: “One in the hostile class, you remain there for life. Whatever your original stain, it was permanent and immutable. And just like the caste system of Old Korea, family status was hereditary.” pg. 28

Quote 4: “Jun-Sang lived with a fear that was so internalized that he wasn’t able to articulate it, but it was ever-present. He knew by instinct to watch what he said.” pg. 35

Quote 5: “Every town in North Korea, no matter how small, has a movie theater, thanks to Kim Jong-il’s conviction that film is an indispensable tool for instilling loyalty in the masses.”

Quote 6: “Spying on one’s countrymen is something of a national pastime.” pg. 53

Quote 7: “Koreans like to think of themselves as tough – and so they are.” pg. 69

Quote 8: “I wanted to abandon everything and go back home to see her. I realized for the first time in my life what human emotion is all about.” pg. 87

Quote 9: We Have Nothing to Envy in the World (children’s song)

“Our Father, we have nothing to envy in the world.

Our house is within the embrace of the Workers’ Party

We are all brothers and sisters .

Even if the sea of fire comes toward us, sweet children do not need to be afraid.

Our father is here.

We have nothing to envy in this world.” pg. 119

Quote 10: “‘Charity begins with a full stomach,’ the North Koreans like to say; you can’t feed somebody else’s kids if your own are starving.” pg. 168

Quote 11: “Listening to South Korean television was like looking in the mirror for the first time in your life and realizing you were unattractive. North Koreans were always told theirs was the proudest country in the world, but the rest of the world considered it a pathetic, bankrupt regime.” pg. 194

Quote 12: “I would have donated my heart if the party told me. I was that patriotic.” pg. 216

Quote 13: “Guilt and shame are the common denominators among North Korean defectors; many hate themselves for what they had to do in order to survive.” pg. 271

Quote 14: “Defectors have to rediscover who they are in a world that offers endless possibilities. Choosing where to live, what to do; even which clothes to put on in the morning is tough enough for those of us accustomed to making choices; it can be utterly paralyzing for people who’ve had decisions made for them by the state their entire lives.” pg. 283

Additional Activities

  • From The Nothing to Envy website, click here for photos from the book in color depicting North Korean life.
  • Make Kimchi as a group and send each person home with a jar. It is relatively easy but it needs to ferment for a few days. (recipe below) Or you can pick a different Korean recipe from this cookbook:
Maangchi's Real Korean Cooking Cook Book

or this cookbook:

Cook Korean! Comic Book With Recipes

Both cookbooks are highly-rated.

  • Watch speeches by other individuals who defected from North Korea:
  • Learn simple Korean phrases using these flashcards.
  • The accordion is called the ‘people’s instrument’ in North Korea. Here is a video of North Korean children playing accordions:


With more serious and somber books, sometimes I fear posting refreshments seems too light-hearted. However, I feel that food is one way to remember and even honor others. After reading about what these individuals have endured because of their country and the courage they had to leave, I hope by eating some of the food mentioned in the book is a way to honor them.

Making Kimchi
Make Kimchi. In the book, it says, “The North Korean regime understood you couldn’t make Koreans happy without Kimchi.” Click here for the recipe.
Photo Credit:
Rice Bowls Recipe
Rice Bowls. Kim Il Sung was known for saying, “Communism is rice,” meaning everyone would have enough to eat. Click here for the recipe.
In the book, pork, dried fish and Gochujang, which is a thick red bean paste, are all mentioned as items the North Koreans would eat with their rice.
Photo Credit:
Korean candy and snacks
For a non-cooking option, you can order a box of Korean candy and snacks.
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