Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
Reviewed by: Karl Homann
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
by Barbara Demick
"War does not determine who is right - only who is left."
While the personal stories of Nothing to Envy are horrific, I read the book in the wider context of “geopolitics”, a term which today is widely used as a loose synonym for international politics.
Though somewhat dated with a publication date of 2009 and a description of 1990s events, Nothing to Envy is vivid testimony to the predictable fallout and terrible hardship for ordinary people, when a super power, though under the disguise of a manipulated UN declaration, meddles in the affairs of another nation, and bombs the shit out of it so that there is nothing left other than misery, starvation and death.
Even in the pre-Korean War period, the mass call for an independent and unified Korean government was bloodily repressed by Rhee's South Korean forces, which were overseen by the US Army. This pre-Korean War violence saw the deaths of 100,000 people, most of them civilians.
In 2010, Colum Lynch of Foreign Policy Magazine criticized the United Nations Security Council Resolution 82 of June 25, 1950 regarding North Korea’s invasion of South Korea as one of the ten…
worst UN resolutions in its history.
And according to the [Korean] war's highest-ranking US POW, Major General William F. Dean …
Most of North Korean cities and villages he saw were either rubble or snow-covered wasteland.
North Korean factories, schools, hospitals, and government offices were forced to move underground, and air defenses were "non-existent."
“By the end of the campaign, US bombers had difficulty in finding targets and were reduced to bombing footbridges or jettisoning their bombs into the sea.”
In this spirit, General Douglas MacArthur described the Pacific as an “Anglo-Saxon lake.”
After the devastation of North Korea by 1953, two years later in Vietnam, the US [at first supported] …
the French Empire in a colonial counterinsurgency. Influenced by the Grand Area policy, [but] the US eventually assumed total responsibility for the war against the Vietnamese communists, including suppressing nationwide elections when it appeared that Ho Chi Minh would win.
The ensuing battles led to large-scale antipersonnel operations in South Vietnam, North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, leading Martin Luther King to call the American government
“the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
Nevertheless, the only country that escaped this vicious cycle of “imperial internationalism” was Vietnam, which kicked the invaders’ asses, who, after the fall of Saigon on the 30th of April 1975 and after 20 years of pure devastation, fled the country. Vietnam reunited as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and has since become one of the more visited countries in South East Asia, and its 95 million people live in peace and relative prosperity.
Well, those were he 1950s and 1060s, right?
No, this insane approach to world politics continues in the 21th century in Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Donbass (Eastern Ukraine) and other locations around the world.
Barbara Demick comments at one point that the indoctrination of the North Korean population by their regime was subject to ridicule by the international community, but so is the ongoing propaganda of the superpower that invaded and devastated the country.
A Guardian article of August 8. 2017 describes the experience of Suzy Hansen, age 30, left the US for Istanbul and had to unlearn the myth of “American” innocence.
She writes, what “if we discover that our identity as we understood it had been a myth.”
American exceptionalism did not only define the US as a special nation among lesser nations; it also demanded that all Americans believe they, too, were somehow superior to others.
American exceptionalism had declared my country unique in the world, the one truly free and modern country, and instead of ever considering that that exceptionalism was no different from any other country’s nationalistic propaganda, I had internalised this belief.
The same thoughts occurred to me, as I read about the unrelenting distorted propaganda of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. It also reminded me of Nazi Germany where I was born.
Hansen continues to describe her demystification:
“So, we don’t know there is anything wrong in believing our country is the greatest on earth. The whole thing sort of convinces you that a collective consciousness in the world came to that very conclusion.”
“Wow,” a friend once replied. “How strange. That is a very quiet kind of fascism, isn’t it?”
During the time period dealt with in Demick’s book, the supreme leaders of North Korea, Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il were considered as “gods”.
A recent book by Stephen E. Strang God and Donald Trump received the following endorsement by the Senior Pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas Texas:
a well-written, much-needed look at the undeniable hand of God working in our nation’s most recent presidential election.
The book even claims, that Christian leaders prophesied before the election that God had raised up Trump to lead the nation through a time of crisis.
My own post-war experience
The experiences my family had after the collapse of Nazi Germany were not unlike those of the North Koreans featured in Nothing to Envy.
- Doing laundry amid the ruins in post-war Germany
Up at five in the morning to scour the nearby woods for any dry branches that may have fallen to the ground during the night. Six o’clock would have been too late because there would not have been a splinter of wood left.
Digging dandelions for food. Searching for mushrooms which thrived best in the middle of a pie of cow shit. Walking up and down harvested fields in the late summer heat with the stubbles turning our ankles bloody, in search of any ear of corn that may have been left behind, which after a week or so perhaps yielded a kilo of flower at the local mill… And, yes, we had the “night soil” experience also, because there was no running water or indoor toilets in the apartment under the roof of a small farm.
In a speech on May 8th, 1945, British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery described the situation that Germany faced like this:
"'Displaced Persons’ were roaming about the country, often looting as they went. Transportation and communication services had ceased to function. Agriculture and industry were largely at a standstill. Food was scarce and there was a serious risk of famine and disease…”
It is believed that hundreds of thousands of Germans perished from famine and famine-related conditions between 1945 and 1949.
There was an important detail in Nothing to Envy, which finally explains the bizarre haircut of today’s supreme leader of the DPRK Kim Jong-un: by government decree, a man’s hair was to grow no higher than five centimetres above the skull. Karl Homann
There was an important detail in Nothing to Envy, which finally explains the bizarre haircut of today’s supreme leader of the DPRK Kim Jong-un: by government decree, a man’s hair was to grow no higher than five centimetres above the skull.