Thursday, August 19, 2010

Book Review: Nothing to Envy - Real Lives in North Korea

For a bit of background information, North Korea (officially the Democratic People's Republic of Korea) is a communist country in East Asia bordering South Korea. North Korea also shares land borders with China and Russia. Following the Korean War in 1950, the Korean peninsula was divided into North and South Korea divided by the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone. During the war, the Soviet Union and China backed North Korea while the United States fought on behalf of South Korea. The consequence of the war was that North Korea was led by the Korean Workers' Party (KWP) with Kim II-sung as president while South Korea was declared a democracy with Syngman Rhee instated as president. No peace treaty was signed, resulting in the two countries remaining at loggerheads with each other. At least 2.5 million people died during the Korean War and is considered by many to be one of the most futile wars ever waged in history.

We constantly hear a lot about South Korea. It is one of the major US allies in Asia. The major economic growth, good standard of living, booming tourism, the Olympic games of 1988 and the "Korean Wave", which includes television, films, and music sweeping many countries in Asia and other parts of the world, have garnered great attention to South Korea over the years. South Korea is Asia's fourth largest economy and not surprisingly, a developed country. On the other hand, what does the world know about North Korea? Not much really. Most people probably would have heard vague references to the communist dictatorship, poor human rights reports, the terrible famine of the 1990’s, non-compliance to signing the nuclear treaty, constant tensions with the US and South Korea and the recent capture of two American journalists. Tourists are usually not allowed into North Korea and even if they are, the visits are extremely well orchestrated and under watchful supervision. This makes it very difficult for an outsider to get an unbiased perspective on life in North Korea. The county has almost sealed itself from the rest of the world with its inhabitants largely unaware of the recent developments and advancements taking place elsewhere. It makes one wonder as to how it is possible for these two countries to be so economically, socially and politically different? The contrast is almost like night and day...

My thoughts....
“Nothing to Envy” by American journalist Barbara Demick takes into account details and information provided by five North Koreans who willingly defected from North Korea into South Korea when the living conditions were too unbearable to continue on. Reading the book is almost like reading a fiction story. It is hard to believe that people actually endured that degree of mental and physical suffering that is detailed in the book. There is one particular sentence in that book that I will never forget. It shockingly surmises the living conditions of a North Korean doctor during the period of famine. The line is “Dogs in China ate better than Doctors in North Korea”. This book really opened my eyes to the extraordinary courage of ordinary people - people who uprooted their whole lives to begin a new one in alien surroundings, after going through the heartache of uncovering all the lies and betrayal that they were subjected to from the place they considered home. It is a remarkable book and after reading it, you will understand how petty it is to complain about the things we take for granted in life. We fail to realize how fortunate we are just to have a roof over our head, three meals a day and the freedom to do whatever we want. For all these reasons, this book goes straight into my list of must read books.

My rating for this book is

Have you read this book? If yes, what did you think about it? I would love to hear your thoughts. Drop a comment to let me know....


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