Reading Around the World: North Korea

A first-hand account of a life inside a secretive world

Note:  Parts of this post were originally published on my old blog on Tuesday, July 26, 2011.


With North Korea first and foremost in the news (well, after President Trump, of course) I thought it worth revisiting this great book. Nominated for a National Book Award, journalist Barbara Demick, tells the stories she gathered from people who have escaped the country.
I was a Russian and East European Studies major in college so North Korea has long been on my radar. This book, told thru the life stories of a select few normal North Koreans who got out, is fascinating reading. Seldom has a society been so sheltered (i.e., so isolated) or so repressed as North Korea still is. Reading this book, to me, was much like looking at ultra-sheltering, far-far right wing Christian Patriarchal homeschooling families in the US today who cut themselves off from society, forbidding their children access to any of today’s “worldly” culture. The off-the-grid, home church, no doctors, no government sort.
For the North Korean’s  the Great Leader is a substitute God or Jesus depending on the context. His supposed utterances are their Bible.  Like the cultish uber-right off-grid-ers here in the USA, North Koreans give up everything for His glory. The Great Leader is their All in All (I do not mean to blaspheme, just to illustrate). Everything, but especially, self is given up. Only for North Koreans, nothing is given in return. No Grace. No Salvation. No Eternal Life. No Hope. No Love. Only eternal misery.
The people profiled in this book are heroic in more ways than just making it out of North Korea alive. They are staggered, then angered, then, in a few cases, defeated by the very freedom they sought. Typical of people fleeing very controlling backgrounds, some cannot make the switch to thinking for themselves and making decisions that those who live in freedom take as a right. Some fail by seeing these decisions as oppression–so strong is the brainwashing they have endured that they cannot throw it off. An excellent profile of why keeping people in a child-like state of dependence leaves them emotionally damaged and sometimes unable to function as adults. Fearing freedom is the result of being emotionally stunted and controlled by an oppressive, abusive “parent”–in this case the North Korean dictator and his bureaucracy.

Such societies come apart only when people have absolutely nothing left to lose–when they get too angry too care whether they live or die. For the old USSR and Eastern Europe this took a combination of greater access to the truth about the West and the extreme poverty of their emotional, spiritual and material lives to get them to demand change. I hope this happens in North Korea as well. But backlash can come too. In some post-Soviet countries there is a nostalgia for a “strong leader” that brings with it rulers who defy democracy.

Nothing To Envy by Barbara Demick.

6 thoughts on “Reading Around the World: North Korea

  1. It sounds pretty interesting, Lisa.
    Any cult or group that isolates itself from society, and based on controlling thought sounds like North Korea! (there’s the far far left equivalent of those groups that cut themselves from society, and superimpose their creed crippling their members from thinking for themselves, in perfect submission and obedience).

    I just read a comic about North Korea (that’s all my knowledge of this, so, I know nothing), but my husband (who knows more about politics) says that if they opened their walls, we’d witness mostly a concentration camp. I find it hard to believe that they are going to open up themselves, if it happens, it’d be when their leaders cannot control the situation anymore… I don’t know. When they get too angry to care whether they live or die, as you say… so far I don’t see that near, but, since we never know what’s really happening for MOST of them outside of Pyongyang and a few places they show to the world, we don’t know.

    I’m interested in this book.


      1. I see it in audio form at Hoopla, but my hoopla stopped working (?), but it’s also an ebook or a book loan or CD at my library. There’s options, but my favorite one, audio through Hoopla, is not working… I’ll see, I may just get the ebook or copy.


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