Following glowing recommendations from John Saunders, Suzanne Franks and BBC Radio 4 (for which many thanks), I have just finished 'Nothing to Envy - Real Lives in North Korea,' by Barbara Demick. This account of state repression and human misery in North Korea deserves every syllable of praise already heaped upon it, and more. It is extended reporting at its most brilliant. Demick, a former Korea correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, has the ace correspondent's eye for detail. Having read it I feel I know more about life in the world's last entirely unreconstructed Stalinist state a.k.a. the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea, than I thought it possible to learn. I know infinitely more than the repulsive Kim Il-Sung (brutal and depraved leader of his benighted homeland from 1953 until his death in 1994) and his repugnant son Kim Jong-il, ever intended me to know.
The title comes from a song North Korean children are indoctrinated to sing at primary school. It tells the vast lie that North Korea is the world's fairest and most compassionate state. Demick's brilliant prose and her inspired interweaving of human stories with meticulous social, economic and political detail reveals how depraved the lie is. This is a true first draft of history, a book to which academics, governments and journalists will turn for years to come. Even if the North Korean state is, one day, reunited with prosperous, democratic South Korea and its people are liberated from dictatorship and starvation, people will return to 'Nothing to Envy.' Using Chongjin, North Korea's third-largest city as her canvass and six of its people, now safe in South Korea, as her inspiration, Barbara Demick depicts the grim reality of life in North Korea with the authenticity of George Orwell on Barcelona in 1937 or John Reid on St Petersburg in 1917. Buy it, love it. You will not regret it. This is one of those books every journalist needs to read..