Nothing to Envy

AuthorBarbara Demick
FinishedJuly 16, 2020
Rating4.8 / 5

Goodreads link

I first read this book in 2016, when I was taking a class on Korean Politics at Hong Kong University, where I was studying abroad. I reread it now, 4 years later, and found the back as compelling and inspiring as the first time I read it.

Barbara Demick has done a wonderful job following the lives of several North Korean refugees. I love how she follows six characters who never meet, and yet is able to weave such a compelling narrative. Her style is such that she doesn't try to put too much of her own opinion in the narrative, and lets the stories speak for themselves. She doesn't say anything negative about North Korea (directly); she offers none of her own opinions or experiences, unless they directly impact the stories of her characters. In that way, I really appreciate how she distances herself from the characters and lets their stories shine.

It's one of my favorite nonfiction books.


  • "How much North Korea remains frozen in time" (82)
  • "He courted her with his stories" (85)
  • "heartbeat of the city was fading" (115)
  • accordion as "people's instrument"
  • "It is axiomatic that one death is a tragedy,a thousand is a statistic. So it was for Mi-ran... To avoid going insane, one had to learn to stop caring... She could pass a five-year-old on the verge of death without feeling obliged to help. If she wasn't going to share her food with her favorite pupil, she certainly wasn't going to help a perfect stranger." (132)
  • "She wanted to lie down and die. But somehow, she didn't. She started another business instead" (146) (The immense resilience of Ms. Song) .. "The imminence of death gave reluctant capitalists like Mrs. Song new courage"
  • "The landmarks of his childhood has rearranged themselves in his absence and disappeared int he shadows" (165)
  • "Almost all the children smoked to dampen their hunger" (186) :(
  • "The teachers were all intellectuals in their fifties, who discovered they had no marketable skills after the school system stopped paying their salaries" (188)
  • Jun-Sang and the cluelessness of men: "How was he to have known that women menstruated? It explained a lot." (191)
    • "What an idiot he had been. He hated himself; he had been every inch the indecisive intellectual, weighing every move until it was too late." (212)
  • I am amazed with the amount of character growth through the book... Esp. Mrs. Song: "She was at peace with her decision to defect" (244)
  • A lot of North Korean children grow so deprived of food that their limbs underdevelop and body directs its resources toward the head and torso at the expense of the limbs ("stunting"). 42 percent of North Korean children were permanently damaged this way. :-(
    • "I imagine ... that their willingness to open up to me was a sign that they had processed the conflicting emotions that accompanied their defections, or even that talking was a cathartic experience that allowed them to move forward with their lives" (297)

Story Idea

  • Chinese undercover police patrol markets where North Korean escapees might be scavenging food. They allowed North Korea to send its own undercover agents into China, who would sometimes pose as defectors (181)
  • Chinese allowed North Korean police into the country to sniff out their countrymen. "Defectors themselves were recruited as spies to infiltrate places where other defectors were hiding" (228)