Source: Detail from Nothing to Envy


April 2013 saw the London School of Economics under fire as BBC journalists accompanied ten students from the university on a trip to North Korea. The students claimed they had no idea that journalists were accompanying them until they landed in the far Eastern nation, and given the tight regulations in the country as well as laws banning foreign journalists, the students felt they were placed in grave danger. The BBC claimed that it had received consent from the LSE students and that they were consistently informed in pre-trip briefings of journalistic presence. Upon their return, some of the students denied these claims and instead said they were only made aware of this once in Pyongyang, where leaving the country meant a minimum of a two-day wait to catch a flight to Beijing. If foreigners, who are only allowed to see certain elements of the country, which are not thought to portray the reality of the nation, feel their security is so threatened, what is the situation like for locals?


Barbara Demick, the Beijing bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times, has published a book entitled Nothing to Envy which attempted to give us an insight into the realities of people’s lives in North Korea. Focusing on Chongjin instead of Pyongyang to gain a more realistic insider’s perspective, Demick spent six years interviewing various North Koreans. The book chronicles the lives of six citizens ranging from a model factory worker who’s devotion to Kim-Jong-il is greater than her devotion to her family to a young couple who met secretly at night for romantic walks, but come from very different class backgrounds and therefore could never form an acceptable union. Demick interviewed over 100 defectors, basing herself in Seoul, however her book allows us to truly engage with the lives of these six citizens and appreciate changes in North Korea, particularly a rise in defectors.


While some stories of witnessing young children learning poems about dropping bombs on America may not surprise us, the real shock comes from Demick’s conclusions about North Korean defectors. She claims that many of them are overwhelmed by the myriad of options in places like South Korea, China or Japan and simply cannot handle being in a society where there are so many options and individual decisions to make. She says that many, if not most, want to return to North Korea. Naturally, this phenomenon is understandable, but it is only from reading about these people’s lives that the true extent of their conditioning can be understood and that we may begin to understand a small part of the happenings in the world’s most secretive nation.