The images we usually see of North Korea are of goose-stepping, uniform-clad formations marching in front of highly decorated officials. Missiles. Tanks. Conformity. Mystery.


But what is it really like? What is it like when the TV cameras are turned off and the foreigners aren’t looking?

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea unveils the closely guarded world of North Korea’s people. Beginning at the formation of the Communist state in the 1940s, author Barbara Demick describes North Korean history through the lens of the everyday people who lived it.

Instead of a focus on international relations and nuclear arsenals, this CSAF Reading List 2017 pick tells the stories of teenage love, the struggle for a bowl of rice, and dangerous escapes to South Korea. Normal people and their daily lives are the focus.

Admittedly, I didn’t know that much about North Korea. I knew the US considers it a threatening country and that tensions with them have escalated in the last year. But outside of the loud demands and dramatic threats of its leaders… I really had no idea who North Koreans are. It’s hard to see past the bravado and the cultish patriotism we see in their media and public face.

Through painstaking attention to detail, Demick pieces together information from narratives of defectors, smuggled videos and photographs that give us in the outside world a glimpse into everyday life under this oppressive regime. For me, the six people whose lives she describes are now who I think of when “North Korea” comes to mind. Some of them are defectors whose discontentment with the system led them to risk everything in escape. Others are lying low and continuing to survive. Still others love Kim Il Sung more than their own families.

Suddenly, things make more sense to me. When I would see the footage of giant North Korean military parades and adoring people waving flags and repeating saccharine rhetoric about their leader, I wondered how they could live that way. After reading this book… I can understand a bit more about why they do what they do.

It’s important to read books like this. It’s easy to simplify those we determine to be our enemies into flat, one-dimensional objects. We assume we know what they will do and how they will act. We assume their motivations and intentions from our own frames of reference. These assumptions can cripple us in our decision-making (particularly in the military) and degrade our respect for human life.

“In this hope, among the things we teach to the young are such truths as the transcendent value of the individual and the dignity of all people, the futility and stupidity of war, its destructiveness of life and its degradation of human values.”  – Dwight D. Eisenhower

Know your enemy. Know him, first, to persuade him to avoid war. Then, if that is unavoidable, know him to defeat him.

North Korea is made of people, people oppressed by an intolerant and hostile regime. Yet, they still have moments of happiness in their lives.  They believe in their country, and they want to live lives of purpose and meaning. In the book, several people are devastated when they realize they’ve been told lies all their lives. They mourn and feel a sense of loss even as they are outraged at leaders they feel have betrayed their people. Still others continue to believe in Kim-Jong Un and will follow him at all costs.

They’re complex. They’re humans. They’re North Koreans.


Learn more about this book here. Read an interview with the author here