3.4 Nothing to Envy essay                   Ryan McCarthy



The characters we respond to the most sympathetically are those who experience both suffering and triumph.



The characters in the text “Nothing to envy” by Barbara Demick definitely have more of an impact on the reader if they experience both suffering and triumph. Through reading the book I feel that readers become sympathetic towards the hardship the characters suffer through in North Korea but then have a change of emotion when these characters overcome their conformed lives to act against society. I think the best examples of this are the characters Mi-ran, Mrs Song and Kim-Hyuck.



Mi-ran is the first character we get introduced to in the text. Mi-ran is being interviewed by Barbara Demick, talking about her life in North Korea and how it was affected by the regime and the corrupt dictatorship that still affects the country today.  I feel that when we are introduced to the younger Mi-ran, she suffers a series of difficult events that affect her socially, and emotionally. For example in the text Mi-ran experiences social suffering through her low “songbun”, which is a result of her father (Tae-woo)  being captured in the Korean war and being taken as a prisoner of war. From this event her father is forced to become submissive to the North Korean way of life as a former South Korean Soldier. People like Tae-woo are classified by North Koreans to be impure or have tainted blood. The text explains well how this affects Mi-ran and her sisters “Mi-ran and her four siblings would carry that taint in their blood. They had to expect that their horizons would be as limited as those of her father.” At first this causes them to initially disrespect their father for putting them in such a situation and for being a citizen of South Korea. Through this she realises that she will never marry well, have a high paying job or be able to travel. This is hard for her to comprehend at first especially considering that at the time her love interest was a boy named Jun-sang, who is from a higher class.

Jun-sang is of Japanese blood line which allows for him to get into the most prominent school in North Korea and has potential to make his way into the leader’s party. The background that Mi-ran has and the tainted blood that affects her life would result in Jun-sang losing all respected status and destroy his chances of being in the leader’s party if they were discovered to be seeing each other. An example of emotional suffering is when she becomes a teacher and is helpless with the situation of starvation and malnutrition in her classroom.  In the book it gives detail of how serious the situation really is, “Their big heads lolled on the top of scrawny necks; their delicate rib cages protruded over waists so small that she could encircle them with her hands. Some of them were starting to swell in the stomach.” After the death of Kim il sung’s death “Her teaching job had turned to misery.” There were fifty students in her class when she started which was then reduced to fifteen. All of these events of suffering are unpleasant which is what makes her story interesting.The reader feels more sympathetic towards her because of the suffering she experienced in North Korea and what we have learned through reading her story. This catches attention and shows how through courage she was able to turn her life around to in the end triumph. It also demonstrates how in a corrupt government she cant stop the deaths of her school children. We can’t begin to imagine how she must have felt getting emotionally attached to her students and then having to live with knowing that she couldn’t avoid it.

Mi-rans triumph begins with the terrible event of her father dying. When her father dies he wanted his family in south Korea to know about his death which gives not only Mi-ran but the majority of her family as well the courage to make a decision of leaving their home to call their father’s family in China and to eventually defect out of North Korea. So-hee, Mi-rans sister finds a way for Mi-ran, her brother and her mother to get across the border to china. “Mi-ran told herself they were going just for a short trip to make a telephone call, but in her heart, she knew she might never come back, whether or not their South Korean relatives would accept them.” Once in south Korea they met with the family of their father and were looked after. The lives for the daughters of Tae-woo were more promising than most North Korean defectors because of Tae-woos back ground as a south Korean. Mi-ran later married a man who was a civilian military employee and had two children with him. She later met with Jung-sang and even though it was difficult to come to terms at first they have kept in touch during his life as South Korean. We as readers learn from her that no matter how much a person or system tries to oppress the human spirit, a person will overcome and make their own choices. We can also make a connection with Mi-ran through her attitude of not conforming to the difficult society she lives in.


Mrs Song

Mrs Song is a pro-regime housewife who unlike Mi-ran is introduced to the readers at a time of triumph. She is a hard-working woman who works in a factory to support her family.  She is a strong believer of the dear leader marshal Kim il-sung, who dusts his portraits which hang in her living room and also watches over her apartment building aiming to catch gossips who are against the regime. By being the descent of a martyr gave her a high “song bun”, she was able to marry a man of the workers party and become one of the smaller percentage of people to be a middle class family that lived in a nice apartment with modern technology. She was also blessed with a son to which she felt “redeemed her in the eyes of her family” as she had three daughters before this. Her mother in law even cooked her a seaweed soup for the first time to show appreciation to finally giving birth to a son. At this point she was in a time of triumph in her life, with a healthy family and bright future.

Mrs songs suffering begins when her husband Chang-bo gets arrested for a remark he made about boots in a shoe factory. This remark was quickly reported to the head of the neighborhood watchdogs, who in turn passed that information to the North Korea’s political police. Even though he avoided any harsh punishment, Mrs song was upset as “it was not merely that her husband had been disrespectful of the government, for the first time in her life she felt the stirrings of fear.” Along with her husband hiding his doubts about the regime from her, things start going wrong within her home. First she noticed that the electricity suddenly became increasingly sporadic to the point where her and her family could only expect a few hours a day. This was also followed by the lack of running water. To top of this line of unfortunate events the manager in the factory that Mrs song worked for told her and her coworkers not to bother coming to work anymore saying that they should think about finding another way to bring food home for their families. As her rations started to fade away, times began to get very hard for her and her family. Mrs song and her family make an effort to get money by making tofu and selling and selling their possessions. It gets to the point where Mrs song decides to sell the apartment to buy rice to trade-off.  But on her way home after buying the rice her train crashes and she looses all of it.

Losing all of the rice in the train crash was extremely hard for Mrs song but it is the deaths of the people around her that truly shows the most difficult suffering she has to endure. The first loved one to die was her husband Chang bo. After his death her son Nam-oak came to live with her but it was short-lived as in March 1998, her son died also. The deaths of her husband and her son has a massive impact on her emotionally. She was so hurt from her losses that instead of attending her son’s funeral, she lies in the weeds behind her house blaming herself for her son’s death, delirious with hunger and malnutrition. She refused to eat and fell deeper into despair over the enormity of her loss. If it wasn’t for her daughters who saved her life she would have died a lot sooner.

“The imminence of death gave reluctant capitalists like Mrs Song new courage”. Along with her younger daughter young-hee, she sold cookies that she had made at a vendor stand to the public. She soon realises that becoming self-reliant through her cookie stand would be her biggest triumph. Although still to this day she is a true believer of the late marshal Kim il sung, she refuses to let the nature of dictatorship beat her. She also soon sees the pattern of woman earning the money instead of the men through their perseverance to sell items to the public. It had reached a point in time where people in the “workers party” starved to death and people like Mrs Song who persevered were making money. We learn through this that even after certain events that change your life in a positive or a negative way, 







We are introduced to Kim Hyuck through Mrs songs frequent visits to the Chongjin train station and through her contact with the “wandering swallows” (kochebi). Kochebi is the name given by the north Koreans to children whose parents had died or left them to go off to find food. The children were given this name as they “tended to flock like pigeons scavenging for crumbs at the train station.” Kim Hyuck had been one of the hundreds of other children hanging around the train station,  left to fend for themselves the children all work together to survive. A number of events resulted in Kim Hyucks suffering but it was his mother’s death when he was three years old where it initially began. His father eventually remarried but Hyuck and his brother clashed with the new step-mother often about food. After this consistent confrontation, stealing soon became a way of life for Kim Hyuck and his brother, the skills they acquired through this became invaluable and it was this expertise that helped him to survive through the orphanage their father had relinquished them too as well as the many obstacles Hyuck is faced with later on in his life. After spending several years at the orphanage Kim Hyuck decide to look for his father but instead discovers that he had been left a message that turns out to be a dead-end saying “If my sons come home, tell them to look for me at the train station.”. Through the suffering of a character like Kim-Hyuck we are sometimes more sympathetic towards the younger generations who are left by their parents to survive on their own. 

Once he gave up hope of finding his father, Hyuck decided that there was no point him staying in Chongjin so he started to travel around North Korea before eventually deciding to cross the Tumen river, which acts as the border between China and North Korea. It is at this point i feel as the reader that Kim Hyuck reaches a point of triumph in his life. His first crossing across the Tumen river into china was towards the end of 1997 during the dry season, which made it easier for him to cross as the river level was low. His curiosity had led him to another country, which in his mind was just another communist country as poor as his own, but as he ventured farther away from the Tumen river he quickly began to realise how different the two countries are. In china he meets a man who is selling used items and asked Hyuck if he could retrieve some irons for him from North Korea. From this point on Hyuck starts making a profit through buying irons from north Korea for almost nothing and then selling them in china for the equivalent of $10 dollars each. He started making regular crossings over the border into china, along the way learning more effective ways of crossing the river without getting caught. By making money through his trade business, he stopped stealing and started buying food when he was hungry and clothes when he needed them. This is definitely a triumph in terms of not having to steal to survive but instead being able to afford food and clothing.  For him this was a step in the right direction in taking control of his life even though buying merchandise privately and selling for profit along with crossing the border was illegal. At the age of sixteen Hyuck became legally considered an adult and offenses from here on would be taken seriously. Anyone who has the courage to leave North Korea is inspirational to read about. We as the readers enjoy reading about someone who has triumphed after loosing as much as characters such a Hyuck have lost over their short life time. 

His suffering then returned shortly after his sixteenth birthday when he got arrested by undercover policemen while he was chopping wood in the late afternoon. The men were apart of a national security agency that investigates political crimes and accused Hyuck with treason for sketching a map for some chinese traders who wanted to get into North Korea. This offence if found guilty is subject to the death penalty. Over the period of a few months Hyuck was tortured through being beaten with a square wooden stick in an attempt to get him to tell them where the chinese traders location was. Even though Hyuck simply didn’t know where they were. The police eventually dropped the charges of treason but instead charged Hyuck with illegal crossing of the border, which alone is punishable by three years in a labor camp. I believe that the time he spends in the labor camp is when he physically and mentally suffers the most in his life. In this camp he along with all the other prisoners were given no more than a ball of rice that was small enough to fit in the palm of his hand and some beans for dinner. Besides that they are also sent to work everyday from 7am to sunset. One of the men that Hyuck often slept under a blanket with died of starvation. People dying within the camp became a normal way of life for hyuck as in his room alone, two or three men died each week. Hyuck was released from this camp in July 2000. “Combined with the time he spent in police custody, he’d served twenty months of his three-year sentence” and is more than likely a result of needing to make room for a flood of incoming prisoners. As he has grown into a young man we have taken in his emotional, mental, and physical suffering that he endured while in North Korea. We

We respond to the characters Mi-ran, Mrs Song and Kim-Hyuck the most sympathetically as we are able make an emotional connection with them through their experiences in both suffering and triumphs. We see this through Mrs Songs suffering, such as when her husband and her son passed away, we feel empathetic towards her struggle with life after these events. We are then inspired through her triumphs and her refusal to let the nature of dictatorship beat her. This is the same for the other characters Mi-ran and Kim-Hyuck, as they two have their own experiences of suffering and triumph that makes us as the readers sympathetic towards what they have had to go through in order to survive in North Korea. In the end these three characters all defect from North Korea


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  1. Ryan, this is a very good essay thus far, however, you will need to complete this essay for your 3.4 Portfolio. The points that you have outlined in your introduction are good, however all three points need to be completed. Also at the end of each point, you need to explain what these “ideas of triumph and suffering” teach the reader about their own lives. You could use your handout on “Aspects of dictatorship” and “breaking free” to help formulate these final judgements. Please see me about how you would like to use your lesson time this week.


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