The irony of the title of Barbara Demick's moving book, Nothing to Envy (Random House, 2010) is of course that North Korea--where children were taught a nationalist song "We Have Nothing to Envy in This World"--itself possesses nothing at all to envy, nothing to support the heady propaganda of the Socialist state in acute decline. What was once a jewel in the Socialist crown has steadily and rapidly fallen into a hellish manifestation of a ruling dynasty's eccentric, deadly desires--a regime ill equipped to deal with the fall of the Soviet Union and its attenuating ramifications for former patron states.
But Demick's book steers clear of political rhetoric in favor of realist individualistic depictions of "real lives in North Korea." Her precise descriptions and renderings of North Korean families over a long period of time create a narrative momentum that grips the reader in an emotional and gut-wrenching pull. The recurring theme of North Korean lives from the early 1990s onward is the quest for basic food. Kim Jong Il's denial of the famine cost the lives and suffering of untold millions. A simple dish of white rice--once the basis of Kim Il Sung's Communist rule--by the 1990s under Kim Jong Il becomes an unfathomable luxury.
The dire conditions of ordinary North Koreans is one of the world's greatest tragedies, and I cannot imagine a more powerful book to bring the realities of this complex issue into the light. In 2009, Demick told The New Yorker: "Any glimpse of the outside world is corrosive to the regime’s hold over the population. When North Koreans watch soap operas, especially South Korean soap operas, and see ordinary people in kitchens with microwaves and gas stoves, refrigerators filled with food, they realize everything they’ve been told is untrue. They do have something to envy."