“The characters we respond to most sympathetically are those who experience both suffering and triumph.”


The book ‘Nothing to Envy” by Barbara Demick is creative nonfiction and set in North Korea during the 1990’s famine, or as they called it the ‘arduous march’. The book is named after a popular North Korean song which says “We have nothing to envy in all the world.” Barbara Demick is a journalist for the Los Angeles Times and interviewed many North Korean defectors, six of whose stories are told in this book. To protect their identity she used pseudonyms, even after defecting they’re still in danger. In ‘Nothing to envy’ every character faces huge suffering, the starvation caused by the Great Famine and oppression from their dictatorial government. But they also experience triumphs like their own resourceful acts of survival and their managing to defect. The three characters whose experiences I’m going to talk about are Mi-ran’s, Mrs Song’s and Dr Kim’s. From 1950-1953 Korea was experiencing a civil war between the North and the South, a result of the cold war between the USA and the USSR. North Korea was controlled by the communist USSR and the South by the capitalist USA; in 1953 there was a cease-fire and the fighting was stopped, but technically the war is still going on today. The characters in this book lived in communist North Korea under the rule of the Kim family and experienced the famine or as they called it ‘the arduous march’ from 1994-1998. “North Korea remains the last bastion of undiluted communism in the world.”


Mi-ran, in this book, represents the North Korean with ‘tainted blood’. She is a woman living in Chongjin, whose father is South Korean, their enemy in the Korean War. Because of this, her rank in society (songbun) is very low and unlikely to change, no matter how hard she tries she will not be able to improve her status: “It was almost impossible for a North Korean of low rank to improve his status…Whatever your original stain, it was permanent and immutable.” Their father’s background affects his children, because he has bad songbun, so will Mi-ran, however he does not tell his children the nature of his past, so when his son finds out that his father is South Korean, he’s so ashamed and upset he runs away from home and gets drunk for the first time, this shows the suffering they feel at the limitations of their academic opportunities, it hurts so much he copes with the pain by drinking it away. Mi-rans sister, although very talented could not get into the university she wanted because of her father’s past: “They had to expect that their horizons would be as limited as their fathers.”


Mi-ran, however, studies hard and gets into teachers college, an amazing achievement and triumph for someone of her rank. Yet when the famine hits it becomes a burden, her triumph turns into suffering as she has to watch her students slowly die of starvation; she has to learn to be selfish and not share her food in order for her to survive: “Her indifference was an acquired survival skill. In order to get through the 1990’s alive, one had to suppress any impulse to share food. To avoid going insane, one had to learn to stop caring.” Mi-ran became a teacher to look after and care for these children but ends up having to watch them die and can’t do anything. She watches people around her die and it becomes so common it’s normalised, she has to ignore the gradual deaths of her students, these children she’s meant to protect are dying and she can’t do anything about it. She can tell when they’re starving, she sees a pattern; first they stop bringing lunch to school, then they become too tired to pay attention, and finally they stop coming to school, and Mi-ran can see this happening but she knows that for her to survive she can’t help them, towards the end their deaths begin not to phase her. Later, after she’s defected she says she can never forgive herself for what she did but in reality, had she not been selfish she would not have survived the famine and would not have defected, there just wasn’t enough food for her to be able to share. Human instinct is to survive, and in her situation, Mi-ran did what she had to do. When she’s living in South Korea and is out of her situation she can’t believe what she did, we look at what happened and think that we could never do something like that, but actually put in the situation it’s either keeping your morals or survival, Mi-ran chose to survive, a basic human instinct that she acted on. What made it worse was the fact that despite all that was happening, Mi-ran had to watch them die because of the regime, and then teach them that they should be honoured to be living in North Korea. “As her students were dying, she was supposed to teach them that they were blessed to be North Korean.” They were being taught to love and abide by the regime that was killing them. This is similar to what happened in Nazi Germany, Hitler realising that the youth of his country was the future, created the Hitler Youth groups. He used these to indoctrinate his ideas into the younger generation and made the camp compulsory until eventually 97% of the children in Germany attended these camps in 1937, two years before World War II even began. Both Hitler and the Kim family are dictators, controlling their country by fear and teaching the young the way they want them to be, ensuring that after their passing their ideas will continue.


Mi-ran has always been living with less than others, it’s always been a struggle for her to survive because of her bad songbun, so when the famine hits it hits others harder than her. Mi-ran is more accustomed to searching for food and learning to survive than others who have had enough money all their lives such as her boyfriend Jun-sang. She didn’t have as much to lose because she began with almost nothing. In this situation, the sufferers became the survivors. Yet in this horrible position, Mi-ran finds love in Jun-sang, a triumph in the sea of disasters she experiences. Jun-sang is a boy from a family with good songbun who has relatives from Japan who give the family money, he studies hard and ends up getting a place in a university in the capital, Pyongyang. This causes complications, for Jun-sang to date Mi-ran he would have to give up his dreams of Pyongyang and his songbun would be lowered, so the two decide to keep it a secret, going on walks in the dark and never telling anyone for the years they were together. “He was polite, respectful, not daring even to hold Mi-ran’s hand until they’d been dating for three years.”  Mi-ran though makes the hard decision and gives up this relationship for freedom, she has to leave him and a relationship that can never be for her and her family’s freedom. Mi-rans experiences show us how blindly following the regime and not thinking for yourself leads to disaster, we must learn to form our own opinions about the world and question our leaders, like Mi-ran, who saw past the lies she was told and made the decision to defect. She pushed against the norm, freed her mind from their manipulation and control and in doing so freed herself.


Mrs Song is a woman living in North Korea, who at the time was completely dedicated to the regime, she was unquestioning and fully believing in the government’s lies, a model citizen. In this book she shows the point of view of someone who is actually dedicated and loves the regime, it helps us to understand why people choose to stay in North Korea and why they love it. She’s the head of the inminban, a group of people who keep an eye on the neighbourhood and turn in people who betray the regime. In North Korea “Neighbours denounce neighbours, friends denounce friends”. Throughout history people have been used in communities to create fear, this occurred in Columbia in 2002 when around 1200 people volunteered to look out for possible rebellious activity against the government. If the information they reported was useful they would receive an award. In North Korea anyone opposing the regime and their family would be sent to labour camps, so this fear of being caught keeps people from speaking out against the regime, this fear keeps everyone under the dictator’s control. Every day Mrs Song dusts the photos of her ‘great leader’, she wears their pins with pride, has memorised their quotes and slogans, spent hours in ideological training, went to socialist women’s federation meetings, went to self-criticism classes, worked 6 days a week and still genuinely believed she wasn’t working hard enough, Mrs Song went by the book. She has four children and works hard, even when the famine hits she still believes in ‘the Great Leader’, and that if she sticks to the regime she can pull through this ‘arduous march’. 


However this love for her great leader could not save her family, the great leader could not provide food for the starving regardless of their dedication, in the end, her survival is reliant on her own abilities as an individual. When the famine hits it hits her hard, her family has always been relatively well off and she’s never had to search for food or learn to survive the way Mi-ran had. So the people who were successful had good songbun and always had enough food are actually worse off because they’re unused to this kind of situation. When the factory she works in gets shut down and she no longer has a job or income, Mrs Song doesn’t know what to do, she tries a different way of getting money, like buying and selling rice, yet these fail and she and her family start starving. With no job and no income, there’s no food. Eventually, her husband, her mother in law, even her son pass away, everyone Mrs Song loves dies. Mrs Song takes to the market, a necessary act yet she’s ashamed of it. The market goes against communism, instead of working for the good of the country, people are forced to work for themselves to survive, but it’s the only way she can get food. It becomes that this communist system ends up supporting capitalism. Mrs Song sets up a market stall selling cookies, and although it goes against her beliefs it’s a small triumph in the hardships she has faced, it gives her the ability to be able to provide for her family. Her small market stall is successful and gives her enough money for her to survive, but through all this, she still believes in the great leader, when she goes into China she fully intends to return. Mrs Song shows us that even after all her hard work and beliefs in the government, they couldn’t save her or her family. Her great leader that they all love so much did nothing about his starving people. It teaches us the importance of becoming reliant upon ourselves and not on the government. We shouldn’t be fully dependent on the government because if it collapses like in North Korea we won’t be able to fend for ourselves. Mrs Song learned to adapt to her situation and provide for herself by selling cookies and trading, we should be in the same position of being able to support ourselves in case of disaster. 


Dr Kim is a doctor in North Korea, who like Mrs Song is a strong believer and follower of the regime, a perfect North Korean citizen. She’s one of the only female doctors for the workers party and has strived her whole life to get her job, and after all her hard work she became the model citizen that she wanted to be: pretty, hard-working, smart, she triumphs by attaining all these things and in her eyes, reaching North Korean ideals. She always aims to give the best care that she can, but when the famine hits it becomes hard for her to do her job properly. Like Mi-ran, the job she worked so hard to get turns from a triumph into a suffering and the people she longs to look after begin to die without her being able to do anything except keep them company. The hospital doesn’t have the money or resources anymore to be able to look after their patients and they soon are only able to give medicine to certain people. This is hard for Dr Kim because children are dying in front of her and she knows there are the drugs to save them but she can’t give it to them. “Often children came in with minor colds or coughs or diarrhoea and then suddenly, they were dead.” Towards the end, she wasn’t even getting paid, but still, she went to work every day to try to save some of the countless of lives lost to the famine.


Dr Kim is a well-educated woman who in any other environment would have been presented with so many great opportunities, however in the repressive country of North Korea her potential is never uncovered, what she can do is restricted by the regime. It begs the question, what would many of these people be able to do if they lived in another country? What would they have been able to contribute to the world, to society? All these citizens of North Korea will never be able to live a free life, they will never be able to show what they can do. When Dr Kim eventually defects and crosses the Tumen river into China, she comes across a bowl of rice at someone’s back door in a dog’s bowl and it hits her how poor North Korea was, that they were all lied to. “Up until that moment, a part of her had hoped that China would be just as poor as North Korea. She still wanted to believe that her country was the best place in the world. The beliefs she had cherished for a lifetime would be vindicated. But now she couldn’t deny what was staring her plainly in the face: dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea.”  When she left North Korea she had every intention of returning, still believing that North Korea was wealthier than any other country. However, when she saw what it was like in China, she realised all that she had been taught, everything she lived by had been a lie.

All these characters have had their triumphs and unimaginable sufferings: all of them living in this oppressive country where they see people dying every day while they themselves are starving, watching their families die while they’re living in this repressive regime without a glimpse of freedom. But in this situation, they all experience triumphs, whether it’s managing to defect to South Korea, of their own personal triumphs such as Mi-ran’s relationship with Jun-sung, Mrs Song’s cookies, and the people who Dr Kim comforts and saves. Still today the citizens of North Korea are under this same regime, going through the same kind of experiences, there are people still starving, still many living in poverty. They are living under the rule of Kim Jong-un, the famine or ‘arduous march’ may be over but many people are still suffering. If nothing else this book teaches us not to let ourselves be controlled, by the government, by powerful leaders, to break free from what is expected of us. The people in North Korea show us the importance of freedom, of having a voice because “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Join the conversation! 1 Comment

  1. Sarah, this is a very well-developed essay and you have included numerous textual examples to support your ideas. The key areas to strengthen in the limited amount of time provided this week are:
    1) Create additional paragraph breaks where you “shift focus”- your points are quite lengthy and strategic breaks could highlight important ideas and isolate others.
    2) Consider strengthening your final judgements slightly by adding how the characters’ experiences teach us valuable lessons. Look at the “aspects of dictatorship” handout and “breaking free”- this may assist you to form a greater understanding off how we, as the modern reader should be warned against manipulation and control.


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