Nothing to Envy

Based on hundreds of interviews with escaped North Koreans, the novel-like Nothing to Envy is a fascinating portrait of North Korea, a sociological investigation of how a totalitarian state operates and a love-story with an O. Henry like ending. Here is one stunning excerpt that describes a defector as she crosses over into China.

Dr. Kim staggered up the riverbank. her legs were numb, encased in frozen trousers. She made her way through the woods until the first light of dawn illuminated the outskirts of a small village.…

Dr. Kim looked down a dirt road that led to farmhouses. Most of them had walls around them with metal gates. She tried one; it turned out to be unlocked. She pushed it open and peered inside. On the ground she saw a small metal bowl with food. She looked closer – it was rice, white rice, mixed with scraps of meat. Dr. Kim couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen a bowl of pure white rice. What was a bowl of rice doing there, just sitting out on the ground? She figured it out just before she heard the dog’s bark.

Up until that moment, a part of her had hoped that China would be just as poor as North Korea. She still wanted to believe that her country was the best place in the world. The beliefs she had cherished for a lifetime would be vindicated. But now she couldn’t deny what was staring her plain in the face; dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea.

Highly recommended.  I will say more in future posts.

Hat tip: Bryan Caplan.


I read this. I think Americans are largely unaware of how bad it is over there. They have concentration camps and have basically been starving to death for 20 years. If WWII were a moral war, the world should have done something about North Korea a long time ago.

WW II was moral because we were on the same side as the Communists.

I know you are trying to crack a joke, but -- rather sadly -- that really was the case for many Americans in the 30s and 40s.

What does WWII have to do with it?


Maybe you forgot, but the Axis were the first ones to start invading people - Britian and France declared war on Germany not because of what Hitler was doing inside of Germany, but because he invaded Poland. And we went to war with Japan because they attacked the US, and it was the Germans that declared war on the US first.

Most states have a "you get to do whatever shit you want at home, just don't mess with someone else's crib" policy. NK is too mountanous and cold for anyone to get any serious humanitarian impulses.

We got pretty humanitarian about Libya. We're almost getting humanitarian about Syria. Neither of these explain why we're not at all humanitarian about North Korea.

Iraq was largely humanitarian as well. We only spent 3 weeks actually toppling the regime, the rest was spent getting Sunni and Shia to stop shooting at each other and learn to self-govern. The Kurds still wave U.S. flags to this day.

Well North Korea doesn't have any oil. Besides a war against North Korea would be a war on a much larger scale then Libya or Iraq.

CBBB is right. NK has no resources of interest.

Libya, Syria and Iraq didn't have confirmed nuclear weapons. That deters an NK expedition.

I'm not sure why that would matter. If anything, that would tends to prevent intervention, since it would disrupt oil supplies.

So you think the US intervenes in these countries for purely humanitarian reasons? Did you just win the "Most Naive Person in the World" award?

I enjoyed this book but I appreciated B.R. Myers's "the cleanest race: how north koreans see themselves and why it matters" a lot more. Its a study specifically on the propaganda apperatus in North Korea and how it operates. One of the arguments I found extremely interesting was the observation that the only people who escape from North Korea come from the poorest and least educated sectors of the society i.e. the least propagandized sector of the society. Which suggests that the intellectual and middle classes have bought in long and hard to the philosophy spewed from the leaders.

If you wan't just a quick scaffold of Myers's arguments (and want to save some money) I found this podcast interview with him to be a great listen.

Not to take anything from Nothing to Envy though. Its really great.

The defectors I recall were not from the poorer parts of society. Anyway, given the penalties for trying, it might not make sense for the more successful North Koreans to attempt defection; more to lose even if that more is very little by our standards. That doesn't necessarily mean they're bigger believers in the state propaganda.

"They have concentration camps"

My understanding is that the entire country is a concentration camp, though admittedly all my information about the place comes from American propeganda.

Got to watch out for that "propeganda" stuff. It's far more insidious than good old regular "propanganda".

Joking aside, surely you know that facts about the appalling nature of N. Korean society are available from many non-American sources; besides, what other than the usual leftiest memes about American "lies" leads you to the conclusion that American information about NK must be suspect?

[Reminder to self: don't misspell a word when you are pointing out someone else's misspelling.]

Rule of the Internet: Whenever you point out a grammatical error, you make at least one yourself.

I believe that is known as Muphry's Law.

Nah, in America, we practice gropeganda.

Interesting, no?

Pro tip: If you're thinking about buying the audio book of Nothing to Envy I'd advise against it. The narrator's over emphasis when reading the Korean names sucked the immersion right out for me. But the paper edition is great.

I don't think you know how the "pro tip" meme works. It's supposed to be used for something obvious in order to condescend. It's not used for actual tips.

Actually it is. However, there are those who use it in the fashion you illustrate as well. This is the internet and no meme can go long without being drowned in snark, irony, or sarcasm.

Pro tip: don't tell people how to use pro tips unless your remark is itself a pro tip.

I've read it too. Excellent read.

My takeaway: Societal collapse like in shows like "Jericho" are not only possible, they have happened in NoKo. People can just starve in the streets, and life goes on. The government does nothing (except keep control, just enough, to stay in power).

How come there are no coups or mass-rebellion?

When you live in "the best place in the world," why would you wish to change it?

Interesting how his propaganda machine works so well. Compared to N. Korea post-WW-II USSR seems paradise; yet the older Russians I've spoken to seemed better self-aware of their situation. Interesting contrast.

I think North Korea was in much better shape before the collapse of the USSR. Additionally I wouldn't really compare the two - calling North Korea communist is really a big misnomer, it's state ideology is not really based at all on workers revolutions or economic issues but instead it's a philosophy called Juche which is basically "self reliance" since it is seen that the most important goal is to maintain the racial purity of the Korean people. This is one reason there is no real unrest - it doesn't really matter how bad things get economically as long as the leadership is keeping the people from being "corrupted" by the Americans and Japanese.

There are obvious reasons why former Soviet citizens were more self-aware. First, they were not as geographically isolated. North Korea only has two neighbors with short borders, both of which are heavily guarded. Second, the Soviets did have experience with the rest of the world. They could visit other Communist countries who could receive Western TV and radio. Even when the Soviet government allowed them to see footage of riots and such in the 1960s, the people saw that the oppressed minorities in the West still had much better clothing than they did. Third, North Korea has been isolated now for about 60 years. No one really has experience with the outside world. In contrast, the Soviets were constantly engaged with trade missions, bringing in students to study at Soviet universities, normal diplomatic activity, etc. Fourth, many of the Soviet leaders actually believed their own propaganda and thought Communism should provide a better life than capitalism and so kept trying to improve things. In contrast, the Kim family only wanted things to make them absolute dictators and clearly never cared about improving the lives of their own people.

Because North Korea is basically 1984 come to life.

This is a good question. It's also the most irrelevant question.

For some reason I cant reply to CBBB so I'm going to hitch a ride on Mike's comments.

Just to add to the subject of Juche thought. In the "Cleanest Race" it's explained that Juche thought exists to be praised and not to be read. It exists only to enable the claim that Kim Ill Sung is a great thinker and ideologue. That hes just as great an ideologue as Mao Zedong. This is one of the ways the propaganda machine keeps its citizens inspired/kept down. The media not only praises Juche thought to an extreme degree but convinces the NK public that Juche is a world renown philosophy.

This is why they write the Juche thought philosophy as unreadable, repetitive, and dull as possible so that nobody ever bothers to read through it. But the citizens can still look on at the massive shelves filled with thick books on the subject and read in the newspapers about foreigners dedicating their lives to the study of Juche thought and are convinced that the Korean people posses a world renown set of values that's just too complicated for the rest of the world to understand. That they are so lucky to have had a leader as wise as Kim Ill-Sung.

I haven't read Myer's book but from what I've heard of Juche it's pretty Korean-centric, that is, it's not like Marxism which tells the "workers of the world to unite". This is why I think people who sort of lump NK in with the standard communist block countries like East Germany, Cuba, Poland, etc. make a big mistake.

Are there any good examples of Marxist regimes who actually took "workers of the *world* unite" seriously when in power? (I'm seriously asking a question.)

No but North Korea doesn't even pretend to be Marxist - except to fool the outside world

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the harder the boot is pressed on the people's neck, the less likely a revolution.

If we had had Stalin in the 80s, we would probably still have the Soviet Union.

The defection rate plots for N Korea are interesting. An exponential rise over the last decade. Maybe this is a sign......

Apparently there is a sizable sex slave trade among the Chinese farmers along that border in which women are traded around like cattle. It's a tragic win-win; the women have much better lives as Chinese sex slaves than as North Koreans. Apparently they are also used in those paid webchats, and some have been rescued after being seen there.

I met a guy on the Reason cruise who had actually taken the North Korean tour. He was an interesting fellow, he'd actually escaped across the Iron Curtain in the late 1970s from Czechoslovakia.

There's also a really great video from Vice: (I can't tell for sure if that link works, if not Google Vice North Korea)

This book is great. Note that Tyler recommended it almost two years ago.

Here's a link, Alex's excerpt is more interesting to me even if it's a familar narrative.

N Korea must keep it's gold in the right banks.

Communism and concentration camps are not crimes amongst the banksters...start messing around with the currencies the wrong way and you'll get Gaddafied/Sadammed.

Neither of which had nuclear weapons.

I think you've captured the crucial difference.

Nah, they just print up US Dollars. A significant part of the nation's economy is counterfeiting ( and drug smuggling (

I enjoyed Guy Delisle's "Pyongyang". Sure it's a graphic novel, but it sure is interesting.

Ditto here. It didn't sound like any sort of propaganda at all, just experiences.

You guys must be crazy. North Korea is so poor because it is full of North Koreans. South Korea is much better off because it is full of South Koreans.

It's probably a sound hypothesis that North Korean socialism persists because of the peculiarities of its Korean population.

Americans are under this extraordinary delusion that when, say, a Somali makes his way here and becomes an orthopedic surgeon, it must be because of the extraordinary properties of the water and air in glorious democratic America. Ergo, if we bring over all his countrymen, they too will become orthopedic surgeons. The fact that he's part of the 99th percentile Somalis who have devoted their intellects to getting the hell out of Somalia and that the reality is a lot of Somalian adults have to be taught about hot water and what pencils are for never enters anybody's head.

I'm seeing sitcom: The Jeffersongs.

Sounds like a parody of Steve Sailer (obviously there's not a huge abiding difference between the innate intelligence of two halves of the same country, right?)

N. Korea is the only nation I know of that is entirely empty on Google Maps. No roads, no towns.

Try Satelite view.

After suffering the worst strategic bombing in history (by some measures), they probably have some paranoia about handing out information like that. Not that we can't get it by other means and presumably their leadership knows this, but I still think it's a factor.

@Rahul : switch to the satellite view and it looks a bit less deserted.

Of course.

Even better, Wikimapia has useful annotation (in Korean, though)

Some interesting comments about the dictator's palaces etc. if you zoom in on Pyongyang.

There is a similar tale of Russian peasant soldiers crossing the border into Germany, expressing their dismay that the German peasants lived in such spleandour, and then discovering they had been eulogising a pigsty. Apocryphal, in the sense that an excellent history teacher told me the tale but I have no source to validate it.

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