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Book Rec: Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

Updated: Apr 9

“She still wanted to believe that her country was the best place in the world… But now she couldn't deny what was staring her plainly in the face: dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea.”


Nothing to Envy Summary


Nothing to Envy follows the lives of six North Koreans over fifteen years—a chaotic period that saw the death of Kim Il-sung, the unchallenged rise to power of his son Kim Jong-il, and the devastation of a far-ranging famine that killed one-fifth of the population.


book jacket with a billboard of Kim Jung Il looking down as people walk by

Taking us into a landscape most of us have never before seen, award-winning journalist Barbara Demick brings to life what it means to be living under the most repressive totalitarian regime today—an Orwellian world that is by choice not connected to the Internet, in which radio and television dials are welded to the on the government station, and where displays of affection are punished; a police state where informants are rewarded and where an offhand remark can send a person to the gulag for life.


Demick takes us deep inside the country, beyond the reach of government censors. Through meticulous and sensitive reporting, we see her six subjects—average North Korean citizens—fall in love, raise families, nurture ambitions, and struggle for survival. One by one, we experience the moments when they realize that their government has betrayed them.


Discussion Guide

  1. As you walk alongside 6 people’s stories, which one did you connect with the most?

  2. Does it surprise you that North Koreans, even in the 1990s (and today) continue to remain so isolated from the rest of the world? No internet? No international 24/7 news cycle?

  3. What responsibility does the international community have to alleviate the suffering of the North Korean people?

  4. Since the release of this book, Kim Jong Un has taken power and developed a nuclear arms program. In the epilogue, many people thought that the destruction of North Korea’s dictatorship was imminent and yet, it’s been 15 years. What do you think?

If you enjoyed the book Nothing to Envy, be sure to check out these two books about North Korea!

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