The characters we respond to the most sympathetically are those who experience both sufferings and triumphs.
The text “Nothing to Envy” written by Barbara Demick describes the actual difficulties that North Koreans faced through the Great Famine of the 1990’s. The famine killed millions of North Koreans through poverty, sickness and ultimately undernourishment. Throughout the non-fiction text, the reader follows six people who experienced and survived the famine and ultimately defected from North Korea for a better life. During the text we live through the sufferings and triumphs of Mrs Song, Mi-ran and Oak-hee. Their experiences are inspiring to those reading as they show that determination and bravery can overcome any situation, no matter what a person is facing. The characters can defy nature by reviewing their lifestyle and looking for ways to beat the circumstances.
Mrs Song, is a pro-Workers Party house-wife who strongly believes the Dear Leader (Kim II-sung & Kim Jong-II ) has the divine right to rule. She is introduced as a hardworking woman, who is employed in a factory to support her family. Mrs Song’s life was perfect, she had a husband from the Workers Party and children who loved her. Mrs Song was born on the last day of WWII and throughout her childhood, she and her 5 siblings would hide up in the mountains out of harm’s way. Mrs Song was a child of a martyr for the Fatherland that is North Korea. In Korea Mrs Song’s father fought for the North and was killed which gave her family a higher status or “songbun”.Mrs Song’s triumph was that she worked hard and was a dedicated and hardworking women. She seldom would sleep more than five hours each night, working long shifts six times a week, as well as looking after four small children. Mrs Song feared she wasn’t working hard enough, however this was what the great leader Kim II-Sung wanted, “ Kim II-Sung’s goal wasn’t merely to build a new country; he wanted to build better people, to reshape human nature.” Even after working long hours, Mrs Song would spend several hours attending ideological training, and staying for self-criticism sessions. This all helped Mrs Song to become a better citizen of the Kim II-sung propaganda system, which she was immensely proud of. Although Mrs Song sees this as a triumph in her life being a faithful citizen to the system, it is actually a suffering because she doesn’t have free time to think back on the past as well as her surroundings, she is constantly exhausted and fatigued but she takes this all in her stride when really it is having a negative impact on her.
Throughout the book, Mrs Song is challenged both mentally and physically, as it becomes increasingly difficult to find food and provide for families. Mrs Song battles through both triumphs and sufferings. As the food and restrictions within North Korea decline and become stricter, she has to rise to the occasion to sustain herself and her family, it is no longer about luxury it is about survival.
One suffering that Mrs Song was tragically involved in was during a hardship within the famine was when she sold her apartment to venture into the rice trading business. After 1995 rice could only be purchased on the black market. Mrs Song travelled to South Pyongan and bought 200kg of rice. Tragically on the train journey home the train was upturned, Mrs Song emerged from the wreckage with a gash in her cheek, the skin ripped off her leg and a sprained back. The closed compartment saved her life. “ She had always thought of herself as a lucky person – for being born under the loving care of Kim II-Sung, for her wonderful family – and now especially so, for having survived the train wreck. “ This spout of bad luck continued for Mrs Song, she and her husband now living in a single room apartment, would get up at dawn and pick the weeds to make into porridge. Her and her husbands weight dropped significantly, so much in fact that she could not longer wear her pants without them falling down, and her husband Chang-bo who was once 200 pounds, now lay on a filthy blanket with a hollow pouch of a belly. On the day of Chang-bo’s death he was hallucinating of going to a restaurant with Mrs Song. She rushed to get him food but it was too late, “Mrs Song pounded and pounded on his chest, screaming for help even as she knew it was too late.” Soon after the death of her husband, her son Nam-oak died during the freezing winter and was buried on a hill next to his father’s grave. Mrs Song had lost everything, including her Dear Marshal, whose loss she still grieved as much as that of her husband and son. From the text we get to understand how important it is to never give up; no matter how much the person is suffering, especially Mrs Song in this case. Her actions prove to us that she has a fighting spirit to keep fighting no matter how bad the situation is. There is always hope even if the person is on death road. Mrs song never had money she was always in some form of debt due to the government, if the government were to change power, many people will chose not to elect a leader that forces the country into debt, they would want to be able to provide for themselves, not having to relay on a higher power to provide for them, freedom is a right that everyone has, but the North Koreans have been denied this which is being manipulated by higher powers as a mean for control. This way of life is no how the rest of the world is run, everyone has rights and freedoms which we all take for granted, because of our government systems.
The famine pushed Mrs Song to find ways to survive. After all her loss she found hope, and succeeded in a cookie business. She was able to make enough money to buy ingredients for the next batch of cookies and have enough to buy herself enough food to not be engulfed in exhaustion and starvation. This drive to make her successful pushed her to her limit allowing her to triumph and get herself back on track to ultimately become a better person. After Mrs Song defected from North Korea to the South, she became a successful confident woman who had become in control of her life. She had a job, an apartment, tried new foods and even travelled around. Mrs Song had arrived in South Korea. Mrs Song’s story throughout the book shows a high level of independence and resilience to surrounding elements, and a level of fearlessness to be able to do what she did. In society today we are so modernised and connected to the rest of the world that we don’t think about those who are in need of help and who are really struggling. We today live in a very giving world such as organisation like the UNICEF, World Vision and other such organisations making the world a better place for those suffering and in need. However in Mrs Song’s world she had to be selfish in order to survive, which in her situation was an appropriate action to take in her circumstances and although she suffered for some time ended up on top, living a free life.
Mi-ran is introduced into the book as a young teenager, Mi-ran was born into a poor family, her father a former South Korean POW and now works in the mine, which gives almost little pay. Mi-ran and her sisters were given the title “tainted blood”, for being a mix of North and South Korean, this was looked down upon by North Koreans much to their distress and pain, her family were not as privileged as other people, they were given the least pay and therefore less food than those in higher classes, causing her family much suffering. Because of this Mi-ran knew that it would be near impossible for her and Jun-Sang to be seen in public together, he was of a higher class and was given more opportunities to be successful such as being given the opportunity to go to university in Pyongyang, and had a higher status so his family was given more pay and food. They dated in secret and would see each other at night. Going for long walks into the black abyss of barren countryside. This added to her suffering, she knew that deep down they couldn’t be together due to the differences in their classes and how hard it would be if they were caught or something happened that could put them both in life threatening danger.
Mi-ran was very fortunate to receive an education and become a teacher. As the famine became worse in North Korea Mi-ran was surrounded by dying children and families, she felt guilty that she had food and was privileged to have a roof over her head. However she didn’t dare share anything, times were tough and it was essentially survival of the fittest. You had to be selfish in these circumstances, every little bit of food mattered. This selfishness helped Mi-ran to not feel the hunger pains that millions of North Koreans felt during the famine and triumph over everyone else and the circumstances that they were in. “What happened to those children? Mi-ran didn’t pry too deeply for fear of the answer she didn’t want to hear”. It gave her the energy to keep a clear mind to look for food and to understand what was going on around her. The more she became to realise the more the began to understand that the propaganda was controlling and not civil.
Her long time lover Jun-sang bought her great grief . They had been together since she was a young teenager, they would take long walks into the night and talk for hours, send letters to each other, with Jung-sang sending long elaborate letters about is university life. Mi-ran didn’t want to leave without telling him. However she had quickly learnt not to trust anyone in her community for fear of them betraying her, and that unfortunately involved Jun-sang and her resentment she felt for the great leader and North Korea. She didn’t want to leave without saying goodbye but she knew if she did she wouldn’t be able to leave “If you want more in life, you must believe in yourself”. This quote by Jun-sang helped Mi-ran realize what she wants and that the life she was living in North Korea was not how she wanted to live her life, the only conflict she had with herself was leaving Jun-sand and how much she would suffer without having him in her life.
Once she discovered this she started to debate the pros and cons of defecting to china. It was a very dangerous act to do, and the prospect of being caught was unimaginable, with the fear of labour camps in the back of her mind she began planning with her mother and sisters their escape. After Mi-ran defected from North Korea she found joy in Seoul South Korea she got married to a South Korean man and had a baby, she lived in an apartment and lived an ordinary life. She had learnt not to think about Jun-sang, she had grown up and moved on with her life. However Jun-sang also defected from North Korea a couple of months after Mi-ran and they met up a couple of years later. It was a sad time for both of them.
Mi-ran had moved on with her life and had become successful, whilst Jun-sang was suffering from grief and depression. It was a sad moment for them both, both had moved there separate ways in their new lives out of North Korea. I think it would have been very hard for Mi-ran to have had to see so many people suffering and knowing she couldn’t do anything about it. However this allowed her to escape the harsh conditions and better herself. She now lives in an equal society, and she is a lot better off. She showed determination and bravery to give up her life in North Korea and escape. This shows a great sense of insight to seeing not just what’s happening around her, but how it is affecting people in both physical and mental states. Mi-ran was lucky enough to be able to fight her battle alone without the help of other people, because of her strong mind and attitude she was able to triumph in South Korea. Freeing the mind is a very significant part of what makes us human, we should be free to imagine and have freedom of thought. However in North Korea manipulation was a key motivation behind the government to control its society. Freeing the mind is the hardest thing to regain control of if you re constantly being lied to and taken control of. More often than not those being manipulated have no idea, until someone on the outside becomes involved. In North Korea nearly everyone is being controlled therefore it is incredibly difficult to regain control of your life.
Oak-hee is one of three daughters of Mrs Song, that was rebellious and did not believe what her mother believed, she did not believe in the great leader or the propaganda. She grew up privileged to have a steady income and went to school in comfort. At an early age she despised the regime and listened to her father conspire about the government and the better life outside. Oak-hee was very unfortunate, she was in an arranged married and was married off to an abusive alcoholic man who would beat her for disobeying him. She was miserable with her life, she provided children for her husband to please him, but this didn’t ease the pain she felt at how terrible her life had turned out and the suffering she felt and endured from her husband, which impacted her life in a very negative way. She was regularly beaten during the worst of the famine as she and her husband were in a high-class, they could afford to buy sacks of rice and other valuable goods, she would help out her family by smuggling the rice to them, however she was severely punished when her husband discovered what she was doing. “One night Yong-su came home drunk, and in a particularly ugly mood. He hit Oak-hee, knocking her down, and then delivered a blow so hard she thought she heard her rib crack. Oak-hee got up off the floor and retreated into the kitchen. She slipped out the back door and down the steps wearing only her dressing gown.” All of this suffering that Oak-hee endured was terrible. She would have felt belittled by her husband and trapped. Which women can relate to all around the world. Especially in countries such as India and the Middle East where women have little to no rights and are forced into arranged marriages usually to men who have little to no interest in their wife. These traditions are unhealthy and decline the strength woman have to continue fighting and standing up for themselves.
Oak-hee met a broker who sold her to a lovely chinese farmer, who was too sweet and innocent for the world. But she was miserable. Oak-hee felt guilty for leaving her children, sisters and mother in North Korea suffering in the famine whilst she lived in comfort. Oak-hee went back to North Korea as a broker in hopes of finding her children and bringing them back with her. However she got caught and taken to the Nongpo Detention Centre, where she bitterly reflected on the North Korean system, “Our whole lives we have been told lies. Our lives are lie. The whole system is a lie”. Oak-hee was released from prison by her mother, where she defected back to China, and convinced her mother to defect as well with the prospect of warm clothes and plenty of food. However overall Oak-hee wasn’t as happy with her life in South Korea as some defectors were. She involved herself in the wrong crowd in the beginning and this, impacted her financially and put her in debt which constantly kept her worried. She was also riddled with guilt with not bringing her children over. She had managed to get her two sisters and their families over.”I sacrificed my babies to save myself”. Oak-hee suffered constantly through her life both in North Korea and when she defected, constantly having to please those closest to her. Although she is no longer suffering from famine and bad conditions, she has met many obstacles in South Korea. Oak-hee is incredibly brave and resilient, I think many people would agree that they wouldn’t be able to be as strong and stubborn as her in many situations, especially the one she was involved in. Her vigorous attitude and staying true to who she was instead of following the crowd allowed herself to strive for better situation and environment to be in. From Oak-hee’s life we learn that she has never been truly happy with who she is, she has always rebelled and lashed out at people, wanting to be independent and able to make decisions on her own; even if she makes a mistake she cannot or more like will not ask for help, because for her this is a sign of weakness and she does not want to be portrayed in this way. Her life out of North Korea is just as bad she is instantly in debt for agreeing to something she had no research about. Oak-hee worked in the karaoke girls business which wasn’t really what she would have liked. Many people do not work in industries that the would like to. However in oak-hee’s case she had a really rough time overall. Getting out of debt is one of the hardest things in life to do. Once you are in debt it is really hard to get out of, which usually for the remainder of there lives will affect them, depending on how much they owe. In Oak-hee’s case it was very easy to manipulate her as she was new to the country and the customs so she wouldn’t have known any better, which was very unfortunate since it was money the government provided for her to start a new life. In banking systems around the world there are systems in place for people in debt so that they can get out of debt, however for Oak-hee she who was very unfortunate will most likely not be given this opportunity.
In conclusion all three characters Mrs-Song, Oak-hee and Mir-ran have experienced both sufferings and triumph. But have overcome these obstacles to better their lives, by defecting from North Korea. All three characters have shown determination, bravery and stubbornness as the will to live is stronger than giving up. These three characters in the text represent many people within North Korea and those who have defected as well as relating to the outside world. It shows how the human spirit will strive to achieve and triumph in every situation, that is life threatening or not. The famine in North Korea in the 90’s bought out the strongest within people, and that triumphing is worth all the suffering and grief.