26th October 2017

Portfolio – Nothing to Envy

Creating empathy for the plight of characters is an important purpose in the Barbara Demick non-fiction “Nothing to Envy”. The text focuses on the lives of six North Korean defectors, and how they ultimately defect from the country through China. Throughout the text we are constantly reminded of the horrors of living in Chongin in the 1990’s, which effectively makes the reader empathize and perceive North Korea for what it really is.


North Korea is none like any other country in the world today. Ever since the Korean war, North Korea has isolated itself from the outside world and is the only country that doesn’t have access to the internet by choice. Kim Il-Sung, the first dictator of the Kim dynasty, created a world where every single person was under surveillance by the government. He manipulated the country into communism, and lead them to believe North Korea is greater than any other country. Everything in North Korea is controlled by the government right down to what you can read, watch and eat. All radio, television, books, newspapers and predominantly any resource that has information, is filtered by the government and used to eulogize Kim Il-Sung. A service called the Inniban regularly checks into everyone’s homes to make sure no suspicious activity is happening, and that they have their portraits of Kim Il-Sung clean and well presented. Many aspects of North Korean government are something most normal people can’t begin to understand. Demick helps the reader to understand the controlling and manipulative nature of the North Korean Government. North Koreans living under this strict communist regime have had their human rights stripped from them, and they don’t even know it. Demick highlights this injustice and as readers, we feel beyond helpless for the despondent situation North Koreans are in.


Mrs. Song, a pro-regime housewife lived as well as you could in Chongin. She married into the Workers Party, was the head of the Inniban for her block and undoubtedly followed everything by the book. Mrs. Song was the picture perfect patriot and took pride in her leader, the most prized possessions in her house were none other than a framed picture of Kim Il-Sung. Mrs. Song grew up worshipping the regime and didn’t know much different, nor did she have any reason to question her government. She had four children, one being Oahkee, who right from the get-go was defiant of the government and nothing like her mother in that respect. Mrs. Song was ashamed of this and embarrassed of her daughter at times. It wasn’t until Mrs. Song went to work one day and was forced to go swimming for scrap metal because the factory she worked for was low on resources, she began to give the regime a second thought. Not long after that she arrived at work and was told “Find another job”, She was horrified at this, although “they weren’t suggesting prostitution, but that she work on the black market.” From here the government went on a steep decline as it poured every last resource into the military and ignored its suffering people. By the 90’s the famine had started and Mrs. Song had noticed the food distribution system changing “One month there was enough for twenty-five days, others only ten”. And slowly the bags got lighter and lighter. At this point Mrs. Song began to question her leader, but despite her doubts, she continued to support the regime. Naturally, the shortage of food began to take its toll and people began to die, amongst the fatalities was Mrs. Songs husband and son. She didn’t go to her sons funeral, and was found by her daughter in a bush delusional from hunger, repeating “I left him to die alone”. We follow along and learn about how Mrs. Song falls apart and loses her dignity due to the very same regime that she once took so much pride in and supported for the majority of her life. This is when the reader really empathizes for Mrs. Song as we can understand the trauma she is experienced, and that as readers in a first world country, we can only imagine what it would be like to watch your loved ones starve to death. It is so common to lose a loved one, something almost every one of us has faced or will face at some point in our lives, so the raw grief and hopelessness is an idea we are able to feel on a personal level. It is difficult for Demick to illustrate the dreadful ways of the North Korean government, as most of us have never faced anything quite like it. However being able to relate to the common feeling of losing a loved one bridges the gap between readers and Mrs. Song. After building a connection with Mrs. Song, we are then able to form feelings of hate towards the regime and empathize deeply for every North Korean.


A different sort of empathy was created for Mrs. Songs daughter, Oahkee. She always knew how corrupt the North Korean government was and refused to support the regime. Oahkee always found endearing ways around it, for example, every family was required to give a bucket of feces as North Korea was “chronically short of fertilizer” and usually the oldest child was required to do the task. Being the oldest child Oahkee had to do it for her family, she discovered the warehouse which they kept the buckets was unguarded. She took an already filled bucket and swapped that for a food chip which was one of her many “easy ways to get around it”. However, despite Oahkee’s best efforts, there were some things she just couldn’t get around. She was forced to marry a man that abused her and she didn’t love, which ultimately lead her into an unhappy life. Many aspects of Ohkees life creates sadness for the reader and make us feel grateful. Following the regime and being under complete control is unfortunate, however, most of them don’t know any better. For Oahkee, she dreamed of a different life and didn’t believe a thing that came from her amoral government. Barbara Demick chooses characters that make us feel empathy in different ways. For Mrs. Song, we not only empathize the fact she wasted a life under control, but the traumatic experiences she had throughout her life and especially during the famine. Oahkee however just lived a life of sorrow. This further makes us empathize for everyone under the North Koreas communist regime, and whether they are aware of the crippling control or not, they all live rather miserable lives.


Throughout the text Barbara Demick describes the lives of North Korean defectors which inevitably creates an emotion of sympathy for the reader. However, creating empathy is not the “most” important purpose. Triumph is also necessary to make up for the horrifying truth of the North Korean regime. Barbara Demick does this as not only does she create empathy for the characters, she creates a triumph. Towards the end of the novel Mrs. Song and Oahkee both defect out of North Korea to South Korea for better lives. Because we became aware of the lives they lived, and we live in first world countries ourselves, we are able to get a sense of satisfaction that they were able to escape the grip of North Korea. So although creating empathy is an important idea, Barbara Demick was able to show it’s not the “most” important idea by allowing us to feel both emotions to a personal extent.


We learn in depth about the struggles that Mrs.Song and Oahkee face throughout their lives, which is simply enough to make any human being empathize. This is a very important aspect of the text so we can get an idea of the appalling nature of living in a country during this time and feel grateful for the free lives we are lucky enough to live. In the non-fiction “Nothing to Envy” by Barbara Demick we learn it is important for an author to create empathy for characters but it isn’t the “most” important. Triumph is also used to show the readers there is always hope for a better life no matter how bad the situation is, which is portrayed through the lives of real people who were almost lost to North Korea’s regime. 

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