4th August 2017

Nothing to envy essay

Practice Written Text Essay (Love, Life, and Death in North Korea)

“The most significant text is the one which challenges us to reassess our thinking”

The creative nonfiction writing “Nothing to Envy” is a significant text because it challenges us to reassess our thinking about the whole nature of a dictatorship. The 2009 novel by Barbara Demick has the capacity of bringing the reader closer to what is happening in North Korea in the 1990s, to immerse ourselves in the situation and go for our own thoughts about the aspects of a totalitarianism system.

The author did a phenomenal job while writing this text, as it tells the story in a third person perspective but based on interviews with North Korean defectors. It gives an insight into what is the real situation in North Korea in the 1990s, as it is from an ordinary people viewpoint. The main goal of the novel is to present the contradictions in the country’s economic and political system and by doing this the author makes us reflect on the nature of a dictatorship and how this affects the people’s lives in this regime. We discover that the North Korean citizens are the main victims in this political system but even with the absolute rule, the dictator is not able to control what people think or feel. North Korean citizens will do anything within their power to survive, either surrendering to the system or running away from their country and living as defectors.

The prevalent aspect of a dictatorship is the absolute rule of the Great Leader and this name itself demonstrates the totalitarianism. Maybe it is an irony for the foreigners but it is the biggest truth for the majority of the North Koreans, which means they believe their leader is a God. “Once in power, Kim Il-Sung closed the churches, banned the bible, deported believers to the hinterlands, and appropriate Christian imagery and dogma for the purpose of self-promotion. After the Korean war, Kim-Il Sung came to power and became the first dictator of the country. In fact, even after his death, he still officially is the political leader of North Korea and instead of marking the time from the birth and death of Christ, the modern era for North Koreans would now begin in 1912 with the birth of Kim Il-Sung.


Why is the manipulation so powerful? One of the main reason is that the North Koreans think they are in debt, they are always thankful to their leader because he was responsible for the creation of the nation. “The reactions from the death of Kim Il-Sung in 1994 shows us how far the regime of the Kim dynasty had forced itself into people’s lives… They approached the portrait of Kim Il-sung, bowed deeply three times, and said, ‘Thank you, Father’”. This makes the reader reassess their thinking that in order to create and maintain this connection with the North Korean people, the Great Leader uses manipulation in every aspect of the civilians lives.


The Great Leader could create the system in North Korea by retelling the history of the country for his own interest. For example, the text demonstrates to the reader how the North Korean people were manipulated in this way, it states that: “Reinventing history and erecting myths was easy enough in North Korea” and “From the North Korean perspective, he almost single-handedly defeated the Japanese. The official history omitted his time spent in the Soviet Union and Stalin’s role installing him into North Korean leadership”. North Koreans tend to believe in these stories created, as the government taught them in this way since they were kids, and unfortunately, it is the only source that they can rely on. Due to this manipulation, Barbara Demick compares the North Korean people with a Frog in a well, which illustrates their lack of knowledge about the outside world and the fact that they live in the “darkness”.


This makes the reader ponder about how intense the power of the Great Leader over the people in North Korea is. The “omnipresence” and the cult of personality that he could create towards himself reached a level not before seen in dictatorships. Kim Il-Sung interfered in all aspects of the life of his people: discourage early marriages, repressed sexuality, advise to adopt certain haircuts. In every subject in North Korea’s educational system they find a way to include their great leader “Whether they were studying math, science, reading, music or art, the children were taught to revere leadership and hate the enemy”. We learn that is hard to realize manipulation when you are totally immersed into a system that tries to control everything, even the thoughts of ordinary people. In fact, the author asks at some point “Who could possibly resist?…their indoctrination began in infancy, the country was hermetically sealed to keep out anything that might cast doubt on Kim Il-sung’s divinity”. The text is significant as it makes the reader relate the story to their own lives, which start wondering if they are being or ever were manipulated. Who reads this text realizes how the manipulation was established, learning than to be more conscious, aware and to start questioning to avoid being alienated like most of the North Korean citizens and to take control of their own lives.

The creative nonfiction novel “Nothing to Envy” is a significant text because it challenges us to reassess our thinking about the manipulation of a dictatorship by controlling the media. It is shocking to see how North Korea controls information in all types: televisions programs or films at the cinemas are made to manipulate who is watching them. “Every town in North Korea, no matter how small, has a movie theater, thanks to Kim Jong-il’s conviction that a film is an indispensable tool for instilling loyalty in the masses”.

In fact, ‘Television has become the number one tool for manipulating society” because they are inside the homes, invade the intimacy and create the feeling of being watched. This can be compared with the fiction novel 1984 by George Orwell, where he creates a dystopian future, which has undeniable similarities with the North Korea presented by Barbara Demick. His text is centered by the cult of personality of the “Big brother”, an omnipresent power force that controls this terrible society, which has a strong government surveillance to guarantee the order including televisions that recorded who was watching them and also a “Thought Police”. This can be exemplified by the story of Chang Bo showed in this novel, when he was watching a government propaganda of a business report about a shoe factory producing rubber boots “by the thousands.” Without thinking in the consequences, he ironically said “”Hah. If there were so many boots, how come my children never got any” and on the next day he was interrogated. Chang Bo was reported by his neighbors and then agents of the Ministry for the Protection of state security kept him for three days. Although nineteen eighty-four is a fiction text, the similarities are incredible, the television, in this case, wasn’t recording and the “thought police” did not come, but North Korea has the equivalents.

The reader starts to wonder that in this regime is more secure to be manipulated because questioning the authority could lead to irreversible damage to the individual and also his family, “They couldn’t flee their country, depose their leadership, speak out, or protest. In order to fit in, the average citizen had to discipline himself not to think so much”. But The manipulation is so impressive that people don’t know what is actually happening because they have a select view of events. The government makes sure that the right information for them is widespread and contain the ones that could present a threat to the system. In addition, the Great Leader also creates false statements to justify his actions or don’t present any failures, as all the blame is put into their enemies. In fact, this point got so intense that is possible that Kim Il-Sung didn’t know what was the actual situation of his own country “The North Korean regime did not publish economic statistics, at least none that could be trusted, and took great pains to deceive visitors and even themselves… Lies were built upon lies, all the way to the top, so it is, in fact, conceivable that Kim Il-Sung himself, did not know when the economy crashed”.

Although the North Koreans live in a collective system, based on the socialism in which a collective ownership of the means of production is used to reduce inequality, Barbara Demick highlight the contradictions that this order brings to their lives “…the strength of the regime came from its ability to isolate its own citizens completely.” . Expressed by the presence of different casts called song-bun, which people were ranked based on their family backgrounds and the fact that people that with positions related to the worker’s party had privileges, as only people like this could live in Pyongyang. The core of the system is to reduce the rights of the individual and the official national ideology of North Korea is the therm Juche, translated as “self-resilience”. But the truth is people only accept living this way because the manipulation is so powerful that they don’t know any other way of life. The reader also reassesses their thinking about how to avoid to be manipulated or alienated, which is having information from a range of sources, thing as such, the North Korean do not have the opportunity to get it because of the government control.

The text challenges us to reassess our thinking about the control over the North Korean people and the controversy that this brings to the collective system imposed by the Great Leader. In this nonfiction novel, we understand better how people can be manipulated and also reflect that sometimes to start questioning the order and to go after the truth it can be the hardest path. For this people is a really dangerous thing due to the threat that they represent to the system and after they “break free” there is no going back to their original state. We realize that the life in North Korea which the government shows to the rest of the world and also that it tells to it citizens is much better than what actually is. It is only because of the powerful manipulation established, that the Dictator continues to rule in this country, as the reality that most people in North Korea face is hard and suffering. Unfortunately, most civilians do not realize how terrible their life can be as they never got to choose or experienced a different type of life, so consequently, they truly believe that they are fortunate to live in those conditions, to have the great leader to protect them from all the harm that the capitalism brings.

The creative novel “Nothing to Envy” is a significant text because it challenges us to reassess our thinking about the aspect of military, resilience, and death in the North Korean civilians lives. This creative writing presents some statistics that represent how great is the influence of military to this society, it states that 25% of the GDP of the country goes to the military and “20% of the working age men were in the armed services, the largest per capita military in the world”. This information is impressively scary, especially considering that North Korea was facing famine problems in the 1990s, but the reason to support this measures is that the government follows the Songun policy, which means “military first”. So even struggling with a huge economic crisis, they still prioritize army in the affairs of the state and allocation of the sources.

We are showed in this text how significant it is for the Great Leader to keep this aspect of military in the system as it is essential for the control over the population. However, to keep this policy an enemy is needed so they are still technically at war with South Korea and the United States. They are vilified, so the North Korean government can support their strong policies against them and put themselves in a superior position in relation to other nations.  “That creates an excuse to use the “military first” politic and to concentrate the power, people are united by fear and prefer to rely on a stronger figure, the dictator, even if that means having less liberty of individual rights.” This makes the reader reassess their thinking of how important is the military in order to control the people. Manipulation together with brutality and fear guaranteed by the army towards the North Korean society is what sustains the Kim dynasty in power, the reader realizes that they would anything within their power to keep that.

“The more there was to complain about, the more important it was to ensure that nobody did.” Although with the famine of the 1990s, caused by the inability to adapt to the collapse of the Soviet Union, inevitably resulted in a deep questioning and cynicism among the North Korean citizens. The patriotic feeling that so far had enabled the government to tell them to sacrifice everything in prol of the collective was now starting to fade away. It was when a lot of North Koreans realized the true face of their government, which was failing because it could not help its people. They could no longer sustain the absolute rule because of this extreme situation, at least not in every one. So eventually, the numbers of defectors or people challenging the system started to increase incredibly. However, the reader realizes that the Great Leader is capable of doing anything within his power in order to sustain itself as the head of the government.

The most impressive part of the text is the chapter “The Good die first”, which the author dedicates to those many people who were still relying on the system or were not corrupt and died because of it. This is the most shocking and touching part of the nonfiction novel, as Demick writes different stories about the North Koreans who were good innocent people, and as she indicates in the title, died first in the “Arduous March” due to the lack of surviving skills in this dangerous system. This term is a euphemism to the famine that the country was facing where over a million of people have died. “As Mrs. Song would observe a decade later,… it was the “simple and kind hearted people who did what they were told– they were the first to die, characters like Mrs. Sung, had to develop capitalists ways to survive in a communist system, otherwise they would starve to death. The main lesson that we get from this chapter is that the collective system, ironically, turned into the most individualist system possible, because of the lack of the most basic need for any human being, they didn’t have enough to eat. In order to survive, people had to avoid helping others, “To avoid going insane one had to learn to stop caring”.

So the text makes us reassess our thinking about what are we capable of doing it in order to survive. It challenges us to wonder about our own society, what we would be able to do to survive? How much suffering can we bear and continue to fight for survival? How to not quit with all the suffering. We learn that the only way is to be resilient and adapt to different situations, although unfortunately, in this case, it meant to stop caring for other people, “Indifference was an acquired survival skill…In order to get through the 1990s alive, one had to suppress any impulse to share food”. This makes us reflect on our own survival skills, as we live in a life with extreme comfort in comparison with what is shown to us by the author of the North Korean people, so we do not know our limits. So the text is significant as it makes us realize this aspect of life, otherwise, we would not stop to think about a terrible situation, such as the “Arduous March”, that people human beings around the world have to face. By the end of this aspect, we have a different point of view of what people can endure, bear all the suffering and what they are capable of doing.

After considering all these aspects is both impressive and terrifying, what the government was able to achieve to sustain itself in power, but also to see how it affects the North Korean civilians and what people are capable of doing in order to survive this system. The nonfiction creative writing by Barbara Demick is a significant text because it makes us reassess our thinking about different aspects of a dictatorship. It gives an incredible insight of how manipulation works and how powerful; can it be. This is essential for the system in North Korea because it’s what the absolute rule of the great leader relies on, also using the military to guarantee that. This makes us realize how important freedom of the spirit is for the human beings and that we have to give value for having it. By showing what others are facing, it causes us to reflect upon our own society, that we need to appreciate, be grateful and also proactive to use our democratic freedom. We need to be aware that manipulation doesn’t happen just in military systems, although in this case they are indeed more intense, manipulation is presented in everyday life. After reading it makes us more aware that we need to start being the master of our own destiny.

North Korea is often a target of parodies, foreign people may even laugh at this country, just paying attention to the nuclear threat showed in the news. However, “Nothing to Envy” is a significant text because it challenges the reader, it offers a never before seen view of a country showing what everyday life in a dictatorship is like for ordinary citizens. The author goes deeper than the stereotype of North Korea, by showing this society largely unknown to the rest of the world. Barbara Demick makes the reader reassess their thinking about the nature of dictatorship by showing it effects on people, which are the main victims. By showing this humanity side in North Korea, the author creates empathy and the reader realizes similarities with them as is able to put themselves in their perspective, creating a big impact. Unfortunately, we can only start to care about the situation when we are exposed to all the suffering that the author brings by relating to the characters’ stories. This creative writing is celebration and triumph of the human spirit and also speak for all of those voices who are silently enduring the abuse living in oppressive countries. “They don’t stop to think that in the middle of this black hole, in this bleak, dark country where millions have died of starvation, there is also love”; is the most impacting quote of the entire text due to the fact that it summarizes the most important message: although there is force trying to control everything, they cannot overpower the complexity of a human being, which will always try to find, not only love but also pursue their dreams, ambitions or their freedom.


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