Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea is an account of experiences in North Korea, under totalitarian rule. Narrating from a first person perspective, the author describes experiences of six defectors, who managed to escape and flee to South Korea. These defectors are, Dr. Kim, a physician, Mi-ran, a school teacher, Jun-sang, a university student, Hyuck an orphan, Oak-hee and her mother Mrs. Song. It is through these characters that the author talks of nurturing ambitions, falling in love, struggling for survival and raising families. By this, survival, betrayal, love, oppression, and struggle seem to be the prevalent themes in the narrative.
Additionally, the government has structured a system that ensures that its citizens are ignorant to the outside world. This way, they are free of influences that may empower them of their rights. The environment is so harsh that romance cannot thrive. Giving a detailed description of the dictatorship in the country, the author describes the challenges facing Koreans in the totalitarian regime. In addition to this, some of these people do not realize that they are exploited due to lack of information. Spies are all over, and nothing goes unnoticed.
Demick paints a desolate picture of North Korea by describing the suffering its people undergo each passing day. The government disregards the needs of the people despite restricting them from working on their own. They are expected to work for the government and receive foodstuff as a payment. It is for this reason that a fifth of its population starve to death during the famine that hits the land in the 90s.
In summary, the author gives a glimpse of events that took place under the totalitarian regime. Survival is all that people strive for and are made to believe that they are incapable of surviving on their own.