What a book! Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea is a fantastic work that allows the reader to understand life in North Korea to the extent that it's possible.
Demick has spent a lot of time with many defectors, and as such has been able to put together a mosaic of what life in North Korea is like. The book is not a collection of interviews, however. It reads more like a novel. Readers get to follow the characters as they grow into adults and begin to question what they've been told by their government and finally what prompts them to take the huge risk of escaping across a border.
Before defecting, many of these people would spend entire days searching for food. Their state jobs (since private employment is illegal) stopped paying due to economic hardships. Many have started businesses (also illegal) as everyone does whatever they must in order to eat. What a waste of human potential!
I also love this book for how it has changed my mind. I used to think that North Koreans knew they were oppressed but just didn't believe they could do anything about it. Even if you do escape, the authorities make your family pay the price! But now I believe most North Koreans have indeed been duped for most of the country's existence. I suspect I underestimated how much the brainwashing the citizens are subjected to can alter their thinking. It reminds me a lot of religion: the people are told what to believe right from when they are young, and so even when they are old they are probably often closed to other ideas.
But it does seem as though things are changing there, as North Koreans appear to increasingly understand how screwed they have been. In the 1960s, it was easier to be duped. Living standards in South Korea were similar to those of North Korea, and disastrous policies in neighbouring China were resulting in famines that made North Korea look rich.
But in the ensuing decades, that changed. While North Korea's government keeps a tight rein on outside information, some were able to access:
1) over-the-air tv waves from South Korea,
2) cheap goods that entered illegally from China
3) direct visual views of China across one of two bordering rivers
All of these demonstrated huge differences in living standards between the countries, and this information appears to be spreading as rumour among the citizenry. As soon as one defector crossed the border into China, it becomes apparent that dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea.
Sadly, this regime appears intent on continuing its reign. Food aid from the developed world has likely saved a number of lives but also increased the grip on power of those in charge. Illegal businesses in China and South Korea are helping get people out, but there's only so much they can do. I look forward to the day those citizens are freed.
I highly recommend the book.