Nothing To Envy

Real Lives In North Korea

Barbara Demick

Published: 8 July 2010
Paperback, B Format
129x198mm, 336 pages
ISBN: 9781847081414



A spectacularly revealing and harrowing portrait of ordinary lives in the world's least ordinary country, North Korea

North Korea is Orwell's 1984 made reality: it is the only country in the world not connected to the internet; Gone with the Wind is a dangerous, banned book; during political rallies, spies study your expression to check your sincerity. After the death of the country's great leader Kim Il Sung in 1994, famine descended, and Nothing to Envy - winner of the 2010 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction - weaves together the stories of adversity and resilience of six residents of Chongin, North Korea's third-largest city. From extensive interviews and with tenacious investigative work, Barbara Demick has recreated the concerns, culture and lifestyles of North Korean citizens in a gripping narrative, and vividly reconstructed the inner workings of this extraordinary and secretive country.

About the author

Image of Barbara Demick

Barbara Demick won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Nothing to Envy (Granta, 2010), her seminal book on North Korea. She is also the author of Besieged (Granta, 2012), her account of the war in Sarajevo, which won the George Polk Award, the Robert F Kennedy Award and was shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize. She lives in New York. More about the author


Nothing To Envy is based on her in-depth interviews with defectors - and their accounts are as harrowing as you would expect’ Siobhan Murphy



‘A brilliant, timely work of very modern history and a deserving winner of the 2010 BBC Samuel Johnson prize’ Rob Attar

‘A fair, modest and informative book about North Korea, a country little known and less understood ... most of what her informants say is repeated in indirect speech, and I found their testimonies varied and convincing ... There is much to learn form this carefully written book that draws few conclusions beyond well-grounded individual cases. Barbara Demick says that in satellite pictures of the Far East, North Korea is an "area of darkness". She makes this black hole at least medium grey’ Jonathan Mirsky

‘A fascinating portrait of a population bred from birth to be state automatons ... Alongside the daring prison breaks and midnight escapes through icy rivers to reach China, the tales of everyday love and loss make Nothing to Envy impossible to put down ... Demick's important book, by illuminating previously hidden aspects of North Korean life, helps restore humanity to some of the world's most oppressed people’ Imogen Carter

‘A fascinating study in the oral history of Korea in the last decade of the twentieth century ... Nothing to Envy is a fascinating work which highlights in the lives of the individuals concerned the triumph of the human spirit in the face of overwhelming adversity’ Oliver Rafferty

‘A lovely work of narrative non-fiction ... that offers extensive evidence of the author's deep knowledge of this country while keeping its sights firmly on individual stories and human details’ Dwight Garner

‘A most perceptive and eye-opening account of everyday life in North Korea’ Jung Chang

‘A rare and valuable insight ... Nothing to Envy is a searchlight shining on a country cloaked in darkness’ Alastair Mabbott

‘A rare light on so hidden a country, and all the more remarkable for its unfailingly engaging humanity’

‘A story of epic stoicism and suffering and illuminated by such jaw-dropping details as the doctors who have to donate their own skin to conduct operations’ Brian Schofield

‘A vivid picture of life in the Hermit Kingdom. It deserved the awards it has been winning’

‘Amy Bloom turned her unflinching gaze on the map of the human heart, finding solace in our ability to love no matter what’ Claire Allfree

‘An elegant, honourable and meticulously referenced account of a country the author calls "grimly dysfunctional". It is an inspiring read.’ Celia Brayfield

‘Awarded this year's Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction, this book by the former Korea correspondent of the Los Angeles Times uses the accounts of six defectors to reconstruct everyday life under the secretive communist regime’

‘Barbara Demick, the Beijing bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times, has occasionally been to the north, but on visits so strictly controlled as to be worthless. Talking with émigrés and escapees now living in the south has provided the material for this terrific, often gruelling work of reportage. It gives a harrowing, surreal glimpse of what she calls "this hermit kingdom", which is so secretive and little known that it is the only country on earth not connected to the internet’ Christopher Hart

‘Barbara Demick, who has an easy winning style, introduces us to a county of suppressed impulses and state propaganda ... This compelling book, a worthy winner of the BBC Samuel Johnson prize, details the experiences of six North Koreans who defected to China or South Korea’ Ian Pindar

‘Barbara Demick's achievement is to restore a measure of humanity to 23 million human beings. Many scholars have pored over North Korea's atrocious history, its fearful politics, abysmal economics and blood-curdling propaganda. No writer I know has done a better job of clothing these academic concerns with the rich detail of the lives of ordinary people - explaining, simply, what it feels like to be a citizen of the cruellest, most repressive and most retrograde country in the world’ Richard Lloyd Parry

‘Beijing-based journalist Demick draws on extensive interviews with North Koreans who have defected to the South, revealing the truth of ordinary life within Kim Jong-Il's bizarre and repressive Stalinist state’

‘Demick weaves stories derived from interviews and conversations, conducted over a number of years, into a compelling narrative. Her book is a reminder that oral history is one of our greatest resources. Its use in Nothing to Envy makes for a valuable contribution to the literature on North Korea’ Charlotte Middlehurst

‘Eye-opening portrait of the downtrodden and monochrome lives of six ordinary citizens of North Korea ... Granta's comparisons with Stasiland are apt and you keep having to remind yourself this isn't fiction’ Caroline Sanderson

‘gripping, revealing, enraging and unexpectedly inspiring’ Ursula Doyle, editorial director of Virago as the 2010 book she wished she had published

‘I loved it - I couldn't pull myself away. This is the first book I've read which tells me about the inner lives of individual North Koreans and the universal cruelty of that regime. Reading this book, I've learnt something about how it feels to be North Korean - it's not unimaginable anymore, but it's even more painful than I could have predicted’ Lindsey Hilsum, International Editor, Channel 4 News

‘I've never read anything quite like it ... Demick has unearthed some heartbreaking human stories’ William Leith

‘In a detailed account of North Korea, Demick looks beyond the country's politics to engage with the human experience and suffering of its residents’

‘Much-praised 2010 winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, this is a painstakingly researched and gruelling account of the hardships and cruelties of life in the world's most isolated, eccentric and oppressive state’ Gideon Rachman

‘Redolent and disturbing, an account of real lives drawn from interviews with defectors from the shadowy (actually dark) and sinister world of North Korea’ Pete Irvine

‘Taking the cases of six individuals and their families, Demick constructs a harrowing narrative of the North's slide into famine following the death of the elder Kim in 1994 ... The Kim dynasty, whose Stalinist cruelty Demick graphically chronicles, has shown remarkable staying power’ Simon Scott Plummer

‘The shroud of silence and misinformation surrounding North Korea means these stories of six lives inside the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, as told to Los Angeles Times journalist Barbara Demick by "defectors", are a revelation Emmanuelle Smith

‘This compelling account of life and death in Korea is eye-opening and often heart-rending. Demick's perceptiveness in describing the inner life of individual North Koreans both enthrals and horrifies. One of the most fascinating books of the year’

‘This is an extreme book ... I've never read anything like it ... Demick has unearthed some heartbreaking human stories’

‘This remarkable book confirms our fears but does much more and is the deserving winner of the 2010 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize ... Barbara Demick is a reporter of impressive tenacity and thoroughness ... Many of those who defected have found their freedom hard to handle. Theirs have been lives twice blighted. But Demick does them proud’ Joan Bakewell

‘This report on the lives of six of the citizens of totalitarian penal colony is unputdownable and deeply affecting, a worthy winner this week of the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction’ David Sexton

‘Thoroughly deserving winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize.’

‘Writing a properly researched book on North Korea seems next to impossible. But in Nothing to Envy, Barbara Demick has done it ... Demick is thorough and fair on the troubled history of Korea’ Roger Hutchinson

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