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.


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 aswell 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. 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. 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.


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 that 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 gossipers 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 “hah. If there are so many boots, how come my children never get any?”. 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.”


her socially, and emotionally. For example in the text Mi-ran experiences social suffering







Miss Song


  •  Husband is arrested for questioning government distribution of shoes: p.52; Mrs Song is horrified at his disloyalty: p.54
  •       Husband hides his doubts about regime from Mrs Song: p.55
  •       Electricity begins to falter: p.58
  •       Work no longer available: p.59
  •       Forced into ocean to collect metal, even though she can not swim: p.60
  •       Supervisor suggests she work on the black market (she is horrified): p.61
  •       Food distribution system reduces rations: p.68-69
  •   Mrs Song screams after Kim Il-sung’s death: p.94
  • Starts her own business (making tofu) p.135; (eats grass) p. 136-137; (eats frog) p.137
  •       Sells her family possessions: p.137; their apartment: p.138
  •       Mrs Song buys rice to trade/sell but the train crashes and the rice is destroyed:
  •    Mrs Song’s mother dies: p.141
  •       Chang-bo (her husband) dies: p.144
  •       Nam-oak (her son) dies: p.145
  •       Mrs Song does not attend her son’s funeral and she lies in the weeds behind her house (delirious with hunger and malnutrition): p.147
  • Also greiving the great marshal


  •  “The imminence of death gave reluctant capitalists like Mrs Song new courage”: p.149
  •       Cookie business: p.149-151 (Other people became resourceful around her, educating themselves and becoming self-reliant: p.151-152)
  •       Mrs Song notices that business is booming at the Chongjin markets: p.155-157
  •       She notes, interestingly the world was “topsy-turvy”: “the women had the money instead of men” p.157, “Workers’ Party members had starved to death; those who never gave damn about the fatherland were making money.” p.157
  • The Dictatorship does not beat her.


Kim hyuck


  • Introduced as “the boy who had stolen pears from the orchard” p.96, introduced at a time of suffering
  • Living on the streets / koshibi. Talk about how they are wondering swallows. How they work together to survive. “children whose parents had died or gone off to find food.” p.161
  • His mother died when he was three,  his father remarried but Hyuck and his brother clashed with the new step-mother about food; he began stealing: p.161-162
  • –       Kim Hyuck and his brother are sent to Don Song No.24 orphanage: p.163
  • –       When the food rations deplete at the orphanage, Hyuck, his brother and a friend scavenge for food: scrape pine trees, killed rats , mice, frogs, tadpoles, grasshoppers, sparrows, and even dogs. They stole old kimchi pots from people’s gardens: p.164
  • –       Hyuck is beaten up when he was out chopping wood and decides to return to Chongjin to look for his father. Father has left a message: “If my sons come home, tell them to look for me at the train station.” p.166
  • Hyuck gives up finding his father and travels on trains to swipe food from farms.


  • Crosses the border
  • He finally makes his ways to China and meets a man who wants to trade North Korean irons (to heat over a fire): p.171-173 Starts his own trade business across border.


  • Goes to prison
  •  Hyuck is arrested by the undercover police: p.176-177 “Charged with illegal crossing of the national frontier.”
  • –       Hyuck must work in the prison from 7.00am till sunset: “The only time prisoners were permitted to stop working was for meals, sleep and ideology sessions.”
  • –       Hyuck recounts how many prisoners died of starvation in Kyo Hwa So No 12: p.179


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