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Book Summary: Nothing to Envy – Ordinary Lives in North Korea

My Personal Summary

This book shares the stories of six individuals who grew up in North Korea and who all eventually made their way to South Korea.

Book Notes

  • When outsiders stare into the void that is today’s North Korea, they think of remote villages of Africa or Southeast Asia where the civilizing hand of electricity has not yet reached. But North Korea is not an undeveloped country; it is a country that has fallen out of the developed world.
  • For the 1,300 years prior to the Japanese occupation, Korea had been a unified country governed by the Chosun dynasty, one of the longest-lived monarchies in world history. Before the Chosun dynasty, there were three kingdoms vying for power on the peninsula. Political schisms tended to run north to south, the east gravitating naturally toward Japan and the west to China. The bifurcation between north and south was an entirely foreign creation, cooked up in Washington and stamped on the Koreans without any input from them.
  • The Korean Empire was annexed in 1910 into the Empire of Japan. In 1945, after the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II, Korea was divided into two zones along the 38th parallel, with the north occupied by the Soviet Union and the south occupied by the United States. In 1948, separate governments were formed in Korea: the socialist and Soviet-aligned Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north, and the capitalist, Western-aligned Republic of Korea in the south. The Korean War began when North Korean forces invaded South Korea in 1950. In 1953, the Korean Armistice Agreement brought about a ceasefire.
  • After becoming leader of North Korea, Kim-Il Sung set up a class system to categorize all citizens based on their perceived loyalty to North Korea.
  • The textbooks given to school children in North Korea are filled with false historical events that make North Korea and its leaders seem flawless.
  • Women were expected to keep the factories going, since North Korea was perpetually short of men—an estimated 20 percent of working-age men were in the armed services, the largest per capita military in the world.
  • Once in power, Kim Il-sung retooled the ideas developed during his time as an anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter as instruments of social control. He instructed North Koreans that their power as human beings came from subsuming their individual will to that of the collective. The collective couldn’t go off willy-nilly doing whatever the people chose through some democratic process. The people had to follow an absolute, supreme leader without question. That leader, of course, was Kim Il-sung himself.
  • And still it was not enough; Kim Il-sung also wanted love. Murals in vivid poster colors showed him surrounded by pink-cheeked children looking on with adoration as he bestowed on them a pearly-toothed, ear-to-ear grin. Toys and bicycles clutter the background of these images—Kim Il-sung didn’t want to be Joseph Stalin; he wanted to be Santa Claus.
  • If Kim Il-sung was God, then Kim Jong-il was the son of God.
  • North Korea invites parody. We laugh at the excesses of the propaganda and the gullibility of the people. But consider that their indoctrination began in infancy, during the fourteen-hour days spent in factory day-care centers; that for the subsequent fifty years, every song, film, newspaper article, and billboard was designed to deify Kim Il-sung; that the country was hermetically sealed to keep out anything that might cast doubt on Kim Il-sung’s divinity. Who could possibly resist?
  • North Korea was chronically short of chemical fertilizer and needed to use human excrement since there were few farm animals. Each family had to provide a bucketful each week, delivered to a warehouse miles away.
  • In 1989, televisions cost the equivalent of three months’ salary, about $ 175, and you weren’t allowed to buy one without special permission from your work unit. They were usually bestowed by the government in the name of Kim Il-sung as a reward for extraordinary service.
  • Everybody was supposed to be vigilant for subversive behavior and transgressions of the rules. Since the country was too poor and the power supply too unreliable for electronic surveillance, state security relied on human intelligence—snitches. The newspapers would occasionally run feature stories about heroic children who ratted out their parents.
  • In North Korea, if you skipped work, you wouldn’t get the coupons you needed to trade in for food.
  • North Koreans were not supposed to shop because in theory everything they needed was supplied by the government in the name of Kim Il-sung’s benevolence. They were supposed to get two sets of clothing each year—one for summer and one for winter. New clothes were dispensed by your work unit or school, often on Kim Il-sung’s birthday, reinforcing his image as the source of all good things.
  • Not only was there no shopping, there was virtually no money. North Korean jobs paid salaries so nominal they were more like allowances. Mrs. Song’s monthly salary amounted to 64 North Korean won, which at the official exchange rate amounted to $ 28, but in reality wasn’t even enough to buy a single nylon sweater.
  • North Korea’s defense budget eats up 25 percent of its gross national product—as opposed to an average of less than 5 percent for industrialized countries. Although there had been no fighting in Korea since 1953, the country kept one million men under arms, giving this tiny country, no bigger than Pennsylvania, the fourth-largest military in the world.
  • The Russians and the Chinese were increasingly fed up with North Korea’s failure to repay loans that had amounted to an estimated $ 10 billion by the early 1990s. Moscow decided that North Korea would have to pay prevailing world prices for Soviet imports rather than the lower “friendship” prices charged Communist allies. In the past, the Chinese, who provided three quarters of North Korea’s fuel and two thirds of its food imports, used to say they were close as “lips and teeth” to North Korea; now they wanted cash up front.
  • Soon the country was sucked into a vicious death spiral. Without cheap fuel oil and raw material, it couldn’t keep the factories running, which meant it had nothing to export. With no exports, there was no hard currency, and without hard currency, fuel imports fell even further and the electricity stopped. The coal mines couldn’t operate without electricity because they required electric pumps to siphon water. The shortage of coal worsened the electricity shortage. The electricity shortage further lowered agricultural output. Even the collective farms couldn’t operate properly without electricity. It had never been easy to eke out enough harvest from North Korea’s hardscrabble terrain for a population of 23 million, and the agricultural techniques developed to boost output relied on electrically powered artificial irrigation systems and on chemical fertilizers and pesticides produced at factories that were now closed for lack of fuel and raw materials. North Korea started running out of food, and as people went hungry, they didn’t have the energy to work and so output plunged even further. The economy was in a free fall.
  • By one frequently cited figure there are 34,000 statues of the Great Leader in the country
  • North Korean doctors are expected to serve the people selflessly. Because of a shortage of X-ray machines, they often must use crude fluoroscopy machines that expose them to high levels of radiation; many older North Korean doctors now suffer from cataracts as a result.
  • By 1995, North Korea’s economy was as stone-cold dead as the Great Leader’s body. Per capita income was plummeting, from $ 2,460 in 1991 to $ 719 in 1995.
  • It has been said that people reared in communist countries cannot fend for themselves because they expect the government to take care of them. This was not true of many of the victims of the North Korean famine. People did not go passively to their deaths. When the public distribution system was cut off, they were forced to tap their deepest wells of creativity to feed themselves. They devised traps out of buckets and string to catch small animals in the field, draped nets over their balconies to snare sparrows. They educated themselves in the nutritive properties of plants. They reached back into their collective memory of famines past and recalled the survival tricks of their forefathers. They stripped the sweet inner bark of pine trees to grind into a fine powder that could be used in place of flour. They pounded acorns into a gelatinous paste that could be molded into cubes that practically melted in your mouth. North Koreans learned to swallow their pride and hold their noses. They picked kernels of undigested corn out of the excrement of farm animals. Shipyard workers developed a technique by which they scraped the bottoms of the cargo holds where food had been stored, then spread the foul-smelling gunk on the pavement to dry so that they could collect from it tiny grains of uncooked rice and other edibles. On the beaches, people dug out shellfish from the sand and filled buckets with seaweed.
  • By 1995, virtually the entire frog population of North Korea had been wiped out by overhunting.
  • In a famine, people don’t necessarily starve to death. Often some other ailment gets them first. Chronic malnutrition impairs the body’s ability to battle infection and the hungry become increasingly susceptible to tuberculosis and typhoid. The starved body is too weak to metabolize antibiotics, even if they are available, and normally curable illnesses suddenly become fatal.
  • By 1998, an estimated 600,000 to 2 million North Koreans had died as a result of the famine, as much as 10 percent of the population.
  • Between 1996 and 2005, North Korea would receive $ 2.4 billion worth of food aid, much of it from the United States.
  • By the end of 1998, the worst of the famine was over, not necessarily because anything had improved but, as Mrs. Song later surmised, because there were fewer mouths to feed.
  • It is worth noting here how extraordinary it was for anyone to be homeless in North Korea. This was, after all, the country that had developed the most painstaking systems to keep track of its citizens. Everybody had a fixed address and a work unit and both were tied to food rations—if you left home, you couldn’t get fed. People didn’t dare visit a relative in the next town without a travel permit.
  • All that changed with the famine. Without food distribution, there was no reason to stay at your fixed address. If sitting still meant you starved to death, no threat the regime levied could keep people home. For the first time, North Koreans were wandering around their own country with impunity.
  • In North Korea, it’s common for people to be sent to labor camps for years for committing even small crimes. Living conditions are awful in these camps and individuals are forced to work for 12 hours or more per day.
  • By 2001, it was estimated that 100,000 North Koreans had sneaked into China, a small percentage of whom eventually defected to South Korea.

    Many North Koreans crossed the Tumen River into China at locations where guards were lazy or corrupt.
    Kim Jong-Ill passed away in 2011. His son, Kim Jong-Un, took over as dictator.

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