Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

Nothing to Envy   By Barbara Demick       

Narrated by Karen White

Everything to hide, everything to lose, and “Nothing to Envy” summarizes Barbara Demick’s book about North Korea. Deception permeates everything the world knows about North Korea.


Demick pictures life in North Korea based on interviews and stories told by refugees and defectors. There is an inherent bias in recollections of those who flee as opposed to those who stay. However, these stories, though different in details, tell too similar a tale to be lies. Their recollections are a re-telling of George Orwell’s fictional world in “Animal Farm” and Joseph Stalin’s real world, U.S.S.R.


Demick peels back the edge of a curtain that hides North Korea from the rest of the world. Mrs. Song, Oak-hee, Mi-ran, and Jun-sang paint a picture of a gray country (because of little electricity) wracked by hunger and controlled by a dictator Kim Jong-Il (now his son Kim Jong-un) and his army. Demick reveals a country that faces a grim future.

NORTH KOREA AT NIGHT (A picture of a gray country because of little electricity.)

Demick gives fear and famine a face with Mrs. Song’s story of her life as a rabid believer, self-deceiver, and follower of the “Dear Leader”. Mrs. Song and her children survive North Korea’s worst famine in history but her husband dies. Mrs. Song’s daughter Oak-hee tricks her mother into visiting China and then lures her to South Korea. Oak-hee shows Mrs. Song that life in North Korea is a shadow of what life can be.


Jun-sang and Mi-ran introduce romance into this gray world. Their courtship in North Korea is sweetly pictured in clandestine walks on dark nights with sparkling bright stars in a light less city. Jun-sang is an engineering student at a prestigious North Korean school. Mi-ran is the daughter of a naturalized North Korean farmer who lived in what became South Korea after the Korean War.

Jun-sang and Mi-ran talked of everything but what became the most important thing in their lives, the dishonesty of their government, the unfair treatment of its people, and their growing alienation. Both defected at different times because they were afraid to reveal to each other their true feelings about life in their home country. Later, they meet in South Korea but as strangers that have grown into separate lives.

North Korea says it has successfully carried out a hydrogen bomb test, which if confirmed, will be a first for the reclusive regime and a significant advancement for its military ambitions. A hydrogen bomb is more powerful than plutonium weapons, which is what North Korea used in its three previous underground nuclear tests.

“Nothing to Envy” makes a listener believe North Korea’s government is in crises. Time and indigenous existence seem to foretell North Korea’s collapse. Patience more than belligerence is needed by world powers.

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