25th August 2017

3.4 “Nothing to Envy” Essay



It is true that for any book it is a fact that The characters we respond to the most sympathetically are those who experience both suffering and triumph. This is especially so in the creative nonfiction text “Nothing to Envy” written by Barbara Demick, Three prime examples from this novel of characters who experience both suffering and triumph are Mi-ran, Mrs-Song And kim Hyuck.


This text is set in the 1990s in a period called the Arduous March, the Great Famine in North Korea. The reader is told about the lives of six North Korean defectors who have revealed their stories to an American journalist in South Korea.


Mi-ran’s story is told in the early chapters of the text and she is one of two characters that i responded to very strongly. One of the things that Mi-ran and her siblings had to suffer through from childhood right up to her defection was being restricted in life by her low social class or “Songbun”. Even though it was said “people often remarked that each was more beautiful than the next. They were tall, a highly prized quality in North Korea, and talented too. The oldest was a singer, another one painted. They were all athletic, excelling in volleyball and basketball” The siblings were still forever restricted from reaching their full potential. Every time success seems to be an arms length away, the North Korean Regime would knock them down every time. The text also said “It was a pity, then, the neighbourhood gossip would add, that their family background was so disgraceful” leaving Mi-ran and her siblings in the dark as to why they were so frowned upon by their town, by their schools and by their country when none of them had ever done anything wrong.  For many years Mi-ran actually had no idea why she was being held back by schools and restricted by the system, she did not know why their families songbun was so low, and the answer lay in their blood.

In 1945 when the country of korea was divided at the 38th parallel as a result of the “End” of the second world war, what was left of the korean fighters from the south and also japanese army troops too became what were called “prisoners of war”, some were killed, some were released but those who remained were given residency but they were also trapped. These men were not aloud to leave north korea and as a penalty for being a fighter against the north in a past life was that any man and his family for the next 8 generations to come will for the have “Tainted blood” and be of low songbun in the north korean system. The fact of the matter was Mi ran’s father, he was one of them.

This discrimination is similar to how we can see the jewish population were treated in nazi germany, In nazi germany anyone with jewish grandparents, who belonged to the jewish community, who was married to a jew or if you were the offspring of jewish parents from september 15th 1935 onward was considered to be a jew and would therefore be punished by the nazi regime.

The fact that Mi-ran’s father was a south korean is something none of his children knew until Mi-ran was in her teen years at which point it made sense that her older sister had been refused entry to the performing arts school, regardless of her obvious talent and ability she wasn’t accepted. Miran too was selected by the members of the fifth division workers party to serve the personal staff of Kim John Ill and Kim Ill Sang, a job that only the brightest and prettiest of north koreans were chosen for but after questioning and looking into her family’s Songbun they never came back.

The fact that they had no relatives in north korea had Miran and her siblings thinking that it could have been possible for their father’s family to have fled north korea but when Mirans brother forced the truth to the surface they struggled to take it in.

The tainted blood that Mi ran’s family have inherited seemingly affected more than just her schooling and this next example is one that causes us to feel none other than sympathy for her, as a young woman is the fact that these invisible chains holding everything in her life back even stretch over her heart. Love is an emotion expressing a deep and honest feeling of affection for someone, and this feeling is free. These days Hetrosexual romantic relationships are restricted by nothing but this is not so in North Korea, the North Korean social status system or Songbun also contributes to dictating who you may or may not marry. It does not go as far as to make romantic relationships between people of different classes a crime but if someone with high Songbun marries someone with low Songbun then they take on that lower class, they will not receive the same privileges they will not have the same job opportunities or access to the same schools and they will no longer be allowed to live in the great cities, places like pyongyang.

This became a problem for Mi ran at age 12 she and a young man named Jun sang who was age 15 started dating, of course they knew that their relationship was dangerous as the text tells us “to be seen in public together would damage the boys career prospects as well as her reputation as a virtuous young woman” so if the relationship was exposed or went any further it would restrict the both of them. As a result of this they abused the convenient lack of power supplied to north korea at the time and arranged dates to take place during the night time, they would wait until dark then go on long walks and talk to one another for hours.

Junsang and Mi ran were dating for a grand total of nine years in almost complete secrecy with the exception of a few of Mi rans siblings yet regardless of their love there were things that were still too dangerous to talk about, even to the ones you hold most deer. Mi ran had always had her doubts about the system and so the day her sister brought forward a plan to get to china, escape North Korea to get in touch with her father’s family and fulfill her father’s dying wish of notifying his family that he had died, the family began to prepare immediately. “All elements of the plan came together in a few weeks. In their harmonica house, With its paper thin walls and nosy neighbours, they could not do anything that would betray the agitation within”, when when the day came after few weeks Miran had not told Junsang that she was leaving nor ever did she hint that she would have any reason too. Of course she loved him and wanted to tell him everything but she could not as she knew the consequences if anyone were to tell the officials and so she had to leave that place. She was never able to say goodbye or see him again her love in the dark that she never had the true chance to be with the way she wished would no longer be apart of her life To the extent where nothing could be left behind and so she even decided to destroy the decade of gifts given and letters Jun sang had written to her, she believed that now more then ever was most important to keep their love a secret and that without her in his life he would be able to bloom become a party member find a wife and never have to worry about her. One of the few things Miran had and she was forced to forget years of love and move on, and after waving goodbye to the house and her mother, she left for Chongin in order to get her sister and piece the plan together.

Love is an emotion that all people either feel or long to feel so we can only imagine how difficult a decision like this must have been for miran, it shows us how seriously oppressed the people of North Korea were by the Regime and to what extent you had to keep your opinions and even feelings hidden. The only people who one can trust is their family and even then speaking out against the system is a crime punishable by being sent to a labor camp or even by execution and so talking to family is unsafe also, it is sad but it proved safest for everyone to Praise the dictators True Believer or not.

Miran is one of the characters that experiences triumph as well as feeling so much pain and as a reader it is such a feeling of triumph to know that someone who has been treated so terribly for the entirety of their growing life has finally caught a break, it makes us think that even though we may have felt pain before, if you are someone who will ever be able to read this paper there are millions going through far more then people like you and i could ever imagine. Seeing some of these people finally achieve some sort of triumph makes us feel great sympathy towards them and think that although now they live just like we do, we were born in comfort but those people have to risk their lives just for a chance to be happy and escape the extreme oppression that has suffocated them since birth.


Mirans Triumphs are uplifting to say the least, they begin when Miran, Her brother one of her three sisters and her mother cross the border separately into china and meet up again. The text says that for a start “The Tainted Blood that had doomed Mi-ran to a marginal life in North korea proved her greatest asset once she crossed the border. The family ties in South Korea would prove invaluable”. Miran her family managed to get a hold of the municipal office in the town where Tae woo their father had grown up and from there was able to find the addresses of their fathers two younger sisters living close to seoul in South Korea. After receiving a letter from Mirans younger brother (23 years old) informing the sisters of Tae woos passing in Kyongsong county, North Korea the year prior the sisters were naturally skeptical. The text says that “Nearly half a century had elapsed without so much as a telephone call, a letter, even a rumor that their brother had survived the Korean war. In 1961, eight years after the end of the war, the South Korean Ministry of Defence recorded him of having been killed in action in 1953. As far as the family was concerned, he had died childless at the age of 21”. So they asked for confirmation in the form of a blood test but when came time for the family reunion they realised that the DNA test was superfluous. All it took was a glance for the families to be stunned in how they were almost perfect replicas of each other, it was a 2 week family reunion of 10 people in total in which the family came together at last.  The sisters and some further family later helped miran her mother her sister and her brother get to Seoul on fake passports and this was the beginning of the next positive move in their life as a family and all of their lives individually, Miran had an amazing start, we see this as it is said that “Good looks, Family connections, Poise, and her natural intelligence made all the difference. She was quickly accepted into a graduate program in education.”  miran was said to be a great speaker and as a result was asked regularly to take lectures on North Korea and what life is like there.

The final step that i see was a major victory in Mirans life was that at age 29 Miran was introduced to a man, a man that had a good job glasses as well as a broad cheeked smile that conveys warmth and finally the book said that “With the encouragement of both families, they married.” on top of this in 2004 Miran gave birth to her son and they celebrated his first birthday in the traditional Korean style with a lunch for almost 100 people.

Barbara Demick writes here that “she was radiant, Poised, a  gracious hostess. She had achieved the Korean Dream, actually the dream of many women i knew- The handsome husband, the baby boy, the graduate degree practically in the bag.” She was no longer an oppressed North Korean woman, in this moment Mirans life had never been better- her past, the restrictions,  the oppression and everything else had been eliminated from her life. Never again will she be affected by a “Low songbun” or “Tainted Blood” because Miran, is a survivor.

Mirans story talks to the readers and reminds us that even in the bad times, we will always have unexpected things happen and sometimes they will be good sometimes bad, we never know but for those who have to go back and forth between experiencing suffering then triumph, down and up again without control we can only feel sympathy and admiration of their strength. Miran is an incredible woman and in the end it was amazing to see how someone in such an unfortunate predicament could hold on for so long and eventually surface and live for the rest of her life being loved, doing what she loved and being free from all that doomed her to a “Marginal Life” back in North Korea.


Sympathy is defined as “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.” and for me personally there was another Defector from north korea whose story was told also in the early chapters of this creative nonfiction text, Her name in the text was Mrs Song And she was a True Believer.

A “True Believer” in North Korea a “True Believer” is someone who is a lover of the father Kim Ill Sung they live by the book and they love the North Korean regime, and Mrs Song was just that. “Song Hee Suk was one of the true believers. A factory worker and mother of four, she was a model citizen of North Korea. She spouted slogans of Kim Ill Sung without a flicker of doubt, she was a stickler for rules. Mrs Song (As she would call herself later in life; North Korean women don’t take their husband’s surnames) was so enthusiastic in her embrace of the regime one could almost imagine her as the heroine of a propaganda film.”

Mrs Songs life begins with a tragedy that results in her growing life being exceptionally good leading a good life from the beginning unlike Miran had. Mrs song was unwavering with her love and faith for Kim Ill Sung and the North Korean regime saying “I lived only for Marshal Kim Ill Sung and for the fatherland. I never had a thought otherwise.” When Mrs Song was just a child her father was a casualty in the bombing of a Railroad factory in an attempt for the Americans to break the communists communications and supply lines during the Korean war. As a result of her father’s death, Mrs song became the daughter of a martyr in the Fatherland Liberation War and with this she grew a strong hatred for the Americans and further loyalty to the Marshal and the Fatherland. Of course it was only fitting that a woman with such impeccable Communist credentials would make an excellent wife and so she was introduced to and married a Workers Party member which fitted ideally as the text says that “She wouldn’t have dreamed of marrying a man who wasn’t.” Chang Bo was his name and he came from an impressive family background his father being a member of the North Korean intelligence and himself being a graduate of Kim Ill Sung university. Chang Bo was exceptionally tall Mrs Song short enough to cuddle perfectly under his arm, They were a perfect couple, both loyal to the Marshal and the Fatherland… A politically correct couple and an ideal match for eachother. Couples like this were usually allowed to live in the Capital, a city named Pyongyang but they were asked to move to one of the smaller cities so as to fill out the ranks of the Stalwarts in the city of Chongjin. As an extra perk of being such a Politically correct family they were provided with a house in the best neighborhood in town.

Unlike Miran, Mrs Song had  high songbun her father was a martyr as opposed to a prisoner of war, she had a minimum standard for a man which was a workers party member as opposed to not having a choice and she was respected and given privileges by the workers party and a luxurious life in the expensive part of town as opposed to being restricted because of low songbun and lineage that was frowned upon by a corrupt system.


Miran and Mrs Song live in the same a Country but one is privileged and one is restricted just because of lineage Mrs song grows up early having the ideal North Korean life she has everything that a young North Korean woman could hope for and life for her seems bright and as if it is to lead into a positive future. As readers we feel happy for this woman because although she is a true believer in a system that is alien to us and that we disagree with she is still happy, she is truly happy she is in love with her husband, her children, her Marshal and her country and for this we have a feeling of second hand happyness.


Just as we can see Mirans life go from rock bottom to the best it could be as i said life has unexpected changes and they will not necessarily always be positive. With Mrs Song her life starts off the “Ideal” North Korean lifestyle but something that induces sympathy in us as readers is visualizing that perfect life being taken away from her, Everything torn down further and further all as a result of the mistakes and stubbornness of the leader in whom she entrusts her life.


Mrs Songs Tragedy starts when the “Fade to Black” began as it is called in the text, the electricity began to run out in North Korea and as a factory worker this impacted Mrs Song greatly. Mrs Song was an incredibly hard worker always pulling long shifts and extra hours at the clothing factory in which she worked and even still felt it were necessary to go to self criticism sessions to think about how she could improve. The text states that “Mrs Song squeezed her eyes shut, willing herself blind to the unmistakable signs that something was amiss.” and after long whether it was the shortage of electricity, shortage of coal or not having enough raw materials for the clothing factory to produce clothing the women were almost out of work.  As a result of the factory not being supplied with the resources to produce clothing as it once did, instead “The seamstresses spent their days sweeping the floors and polishing the equipment, waiting for the next delivery of fabric. The factory was uncannily quiet. Where once you heard the clattering of sewing machines, now the only sound was the whisking of brooms.”  one day Mrs song and some of her co workers were called in for a talk with their manager. The manager was a woman that Mrs Song and the others respected, a true believer just like she was but on that day where usually she would reassure the women of the soon arriving shipments of fabric, instead the advice she had to offer was this “You ajumma (korean word for married women) should think about finding some other way to bring food home for your families.” the text follows this by saying that “Mrs Song was horrified. The manager wasn’t referring to prostitution, though she might as well have been. She was suggesting she work on the black market.


It is hard for us living such privileged lives compared to those we read of in stories and texts such as this to understand things that are so offensive to people like Mrs Song but to work and sell via the black market although she would keep food on the table for her family she would also be breaking the law and furthermore betraying her Marshal, an act that would and did bring her self image down by the day. With there not being any work left at the factory Mrs Song was forced to sell food via the black market for the sake of her family. Mrs Song was set back again by the deaths of her family members throughout the great famine in North Korea or as the North Koreans called it, “The arduous march”. Mrs song and changbo had decided to sell their apartment although they did not technically own it there was a black market real estate market running at the time and they managed to get 10,000 won for the apartment. Mrs song had devised and carried out a plan to buy rice and bring it back to chongin to sell on the blackmarket but on her way home the train she was traveling in somehow derailed killing most of the passengers. Mrs Song was badly injured in the accident and to make matters worse, all 200 kilograms of rice that she had brought to sell was destroyed in the crash leaving Mrs Song completely empty handed and her family vulnerable. The year following Mrs Songs accident Her mother in law died, She was seventy three years old and became very ill showing the obvious signs of pellagra around her eyes. The death of Mrs Songs mother in law had Mrs Song distraught to say the least, The text states that “Mrs Song had failed in the worst possible way a Korean woman could fail her family” constantly haunted by the thought that she had caused this in failing her rice exhibition. Between 1996 and 1998 Mrs Song lost her husband Chang Bo and her only son Nam Oak too, Both taken by the famine while Mrs Song struggled to live on.


extreme conditions such as these are unknown to us, the pain one must have to suffer through holding themselves accountable for the deaths of their mother their husband and their only son. Such a thought leaves me feeling weak, sorry and most definitely sympathetic for Mrs Song and all others who were a part of the estimated 2 million lives lost in the famine by 1998. To think that Mrs Song lead such a perfect life, one that was envied by others and stood out as the “Ideal” North Korean life and that everything was taken from her, Her job, Her ability to keep her own possessions,  Her Family is crushing and widens our eyes to the Horrific truth about the goings on in the world around us to this very day.


The stories of Miran and Mrs Song both two very different people experiencing both pain and suffering as well as various triumphs in very different ways prove to us that the the characters we as readers respond to most sympathetically are those who experience both suffering and triumph. In the case of this text alongside sympathy we respond with admiration and sorrow for these women who were not given choices the likes of which we are today in our first world lives. knowledge of such extreme conditions is invaluable to the progression of mankind for the fact that some day we will all hopefully see what some had to suffer through, we will all hopefully feel sympathy for these people and choose a better path. Ideally a lesson can be learned from the unfortunate events of the past and present to make the future a better place for everyone.

Join the conversation! 1 Comment

  1. A huge essay, Olly! It seems you have been writing and writing 🙂
    For your 3.4 Portfolio submission, you will need to:
    1) Place the essay topic at the beginning of your writing (so that the direction of your essay is clear from the beginning).
    2) Read through the entire essay (preferably out loud) and find all of the punctuation, spelling and word errors- correct these.
    3) Refine your expression so that your writing is formal and authoritative- the essay is a little conversational in places.
    4) Edit down some of the textual detail (not all of this is needed) and include what the reader learns from the text. Use the “aspects of dictatorship” and “breaking free” handout, to help you formulate judgements if needed.
    See me about the timeframe for this piece.


Respond now!