9th August 2017

Nothing to Envy – Character

In the novel, “Nothing to Envy” written by Barbara Demick an important idea is that the reader reacts more sympathetically to characters that experience both triumph and suffering. Three examples of characters that experience both triumph and suffering are Mi-ran, Oak-hee and Mrs Song. Mi-ran experiences suffering through the inability to help the starving children in her class as she is forced to continue teaching them that North Korea is superior. Mrs Song suffers harshly after her husband and sons’ deaths and struggles with the food shortage in North Korea. These characters experience triumph when they defect to South Korea and escape the total control of North Korea. The reader ultimately learns through these experiences that resilience and compromise are two traits that effectively can save your lives in time times of hardship. The reader also learns through the triumphs and suffering of Mi-ran and Mrs Song, how to identify dictatorship and how to escape the overruling power.


“We are happy” is the slogan that is emblazoned above the archway to the kindergarten where Mi-ran works. However the suffering that is present within the four walls of the school suggests otherwise. Mi-ran is forced to teach the children in her class the ideological  beliefs of Kim Il-sung while they waste away physically in front of her eyes. Her job requires her to read the works of Kim Il-sung such as: “Only on the basis of sound political and ideological education will the people’s scientific and technological education and physical culture be successful” and play patriotic songs such as; “Nothing to Envy in the World.” The children are taught maths problems such as: “Three soldiers from the Korean People’s Army killed thirty American soldiers. How many American soldiers were killed by each of them if they all killed an equal number of enemy soldiers?” Similar to Nazi Germany, maths problems were propagandistic to further indoctrinate youth. An example from  Nazi Germany is an anti-semitic question that a child brought home from school: “A plane takes off with 12 bombs, each weighing ten kilos. The aircraft ames for Warsaw, the centre of international Jewry. It bombs the town….”. These quotes show the relation between North Korea and Nazi Germany and their similar regimes. It is evidence to disprove North Korea’s statement “nothing to envy in the world” as in fact, North Korea has everything to envy compared to other countries just like Nazi Germany and the Jewish community targeted, had the entire world to envy during World War One. However although the words of Kim Il-sung herald that North Korea is the most superior and triumphant country in the world and that all others pale in comparison, the fact of the matter is that Mi-ran could see that the system was failing the miserable children in her class and undoubtedly people suffering all over the country. This was evident when Mi-ran helped the children out of their many layers of clothing as they arrived to school every morning. “…She peeled layer after layer until the tiny body inside was revealed. When she held their hands in her own, their baby fingers squeezed into fists as tiny as walnuts…Five and six year-olds, looked no bigger than three and four year-olds.” Mi-ran suffered the guilt of being unable to help these poor, starving children and as they died, one by one, she lost her belief in her government. This teaches us that within North Korea, the people have no power over their life decisions or even their daily activities, and although they believe that they have “nothing to envy in the world” in reality they are some of the worse off in the world in terms of malnutrition and poverty. Their suffering is inescapable and their triumphs are almost impossible.  North Korea is unfortunately in a similar situation to many third world countries in the form that they are unable to access resources to support their civilisation. However if North Korea had a regime that was open to the help and aid from outside its borders, they could receive world aid resources in order to help fight the raging famine within. It also teaches us that the Kim dynasty and its dictatorial government have total control over its people through the means of propaganda, indoctrination of youth and an exaggeration of the truth. We can learn from this example that resilience was the factor that kept Mi-ran going in times of extreme hardship and gave her the mental strength to keep on doing what she loved even when her students were dying around her and even though she was losing belief in her government. In the 21st century we could resist this type of government by voting for democracy and fighting for equality in order to ensure that everybody is fairly treated and has access to the necessities in life. We are warned of a dictatorship by the controlling nature of the leader and the major militarial role in running the country. In a dictatorship, citizens are completely reliant upon their leader in order to survive however within a democratic government, citizens are able to care for themselves due to the stability of the prime minister or president and parties, leading their country and the freedom that the population has in order to live their lives.


The beginning of Mi-ran’s triumph began with her sister, So-hee and the news she brought home of her friend travelling back and forth to China. This opportunity presented Mi-ran and her family a ticket out of North Korea and its overruling tendencies. Mi-ran and her family decided that they would take the risk to escape the country and attempt to communicate with Mi-ran’s father’s relatives in South Korea. After days of careful planning they crossed the Tumen river successfully into China, escaping their past suffering and contacted their relatives. At the age of thirty Mi-ran was finally settled in South Korea. She had a “strapping young” husband and a young baby boy, with a $1 million apartment to match. “She had achieved the Korean dream… the handsome husband, the baby boy, the graduate degree practically in the bag.” After so many years of suppression and the suffering of having to watch her students starve to death, Mi-ran had finally escaped the cruel world of North Korea and grasped the life she deserves and a life where she isn’t hindered by her ‘tainted blood’. Although her defection was one of the most successful in the novel, there were many sacrifices and instances of suffering that she had to endure in order to secure her triumphant new life of freedom. For instance Mi-ran had to sever her ties with Jun-sang and their nine year relationship. She also had to keep the biggest secret of her life from the man she loved, leave without being able to say goodbye and destroy any evidence of their relationship. “The letters had to be destroyed. She ripped each one into tiny pieces before throwing them out.” This is a prime example of compromise in the novel and teaches the reader that sometimes in order to live a better life, compromises must be made in order to escape suffering and secure triumph. Mi-ran has to compromise her relationship with Jun-sang at the drop of a hat if she had any chance of crossing the border into China as safely as possible. An example parallel to Mi-ran and Jun-sang’s situation is that of Aung Sang Suu Kyi, who decided to leave her family behind in 1989 in order to help her home country of Myanmar (previously known as Burma) to escape the hands of dictatorship. In doing so she was placed under house arrest for 15 years in Myanmar and was refused the ability to visit her husband and children in the United States of America. This is similar to Mi-ran as she is unable to even tell Jun-sang goodbye before they left to China and she sacrificed their nine year relationship for a better life; away from the hand of dictatorship. This teaches us that although compromising someone or something you love is extremely hard mentally and physically, it can result in a better situation in life that could be more valuable or useful to yourself or others than what you sacrificed. An example of this is Aung San Suu Kyi, who gave up her entire life in England in order to pull Burma from a dictator driven government into a democratic country where everyone was free to vote and have their say in their own country. Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest for a total of fifteen years and was unable to contact her family for six of those years, however, she continued to fight for Burma’s freedom and in 2010, freeing the country and its citizens from dictatorship and plunging it into democracy after a 48 year long oppression under the rule of General Ne Win. This clearly shows that Aung San Suu Kyi’s compromise of leaving her home and family, allowed her to free millions of others from the dictatorship that threatened their very lives. This is similar to Mi-ran as she compromised her relationship with Jun-sang to ultimately save her own life and escape the dictatorship of North Korea.


“Song Hee-suk was on of the true believers. A factory worker and mother of four, she was a model citizen of North Korea. She spouted the slogans of Kim Il-sung without a flicker of a doubt. She was a stickler for the rules.” Mrs Song was an ultimate believer of the Kim dynasty and believed that she truly had ‘nothing to envy in the world.’ Mrs Song believed her true path was to follow the leaders of her country and she put her entire trust into the government. This trust; cost her, her family.

“Come darling. Let’s go to a good restaurant and order a nice bottle of rice wine.” Were some of the final words that Chang-bo said to his wife Mrs Song, while he suffered hallucinations on his deathbed. Due to lack of food and multiple ailments, including a stroke, Mrs Song’s dear husband was suffering the most common death of the century in North Korea. Starvation. This was only the beginning of Mrs Song’s suffering in the novel. Nam-oak, Mrs SOng’s son, suffered a similar fate to his father. Mrs Song took her beloved only son to a doctor when his health began to fail. “A doctor wrote her a prescription for penicillin, but when she got to the market she found it cost 50 won – the same price as a kilo of corn. She chose the corn.” March 1998 symbolised the last straw for Mrs Song. She had lost her husband and her only son to the famine in North Korea which was directly the result of her ‘beloved’ government which even after the loss of her family, her complete belief in the leaders of North Korea remained. This split second decision that Mrs Song made had a massive impact on her future life. It cost her the life of her son and she found herself tortured by the compromise she made. We learn from Mrs Song’s experiences that not all compromises are positive or benefit you in the way you imagined they would. This compromise caused the loss of a life and caused Mrs Song to lose the will to live herself, it was only through the determination of her daughters that brought her back from the brink of death. However this compromise also teaches the reader that resilience will often get you through the struggles of life and Mrs Song showed us that as she fought her way through her overwhelming sadness and continued on with her life. “She thought she would just keep walking until she collapsed in the grass. She wanted to lie down and die. But somehow, she didn’t. She started another business instead.”

Through inventive ideas and clever thinking, Mrs Song made a living from her previous cooking experiences and earned her keep in order to survive. “After some deliberation, Mrs Song decided her future lay in cookies.”

The reader learns from Mrs Song that even though a compromise may change your life entirely, either for the worse or for the better, but if you find yourself in a horrible position and your life seems to be on a downwards spiral, resilience is the key to getting you through. The reader is taught this through Mrs Song’s experiences that, although the compromise of buying the corn instead of the penicillin for her son caused his death, she continued on with her life and found another way to survive. Her resilience meant that she found her will to live and her business gave her something her something to work towards and a reason to get out of bed in the morning. This teaches the reader that although times may get tough in your life, it is important to keep strong and have something to work towards in order to retain your will to live. Again, Aung San Suu Kyi is another prime example of how getting through suffering can reap the greatest rewards. This is shown when Aung San Suu Kyi is denied access to her family for six years but yet she continues to fight for the freedom of Burma and as a result, she eventually won the ultimate prize and reached her goal. This is similar to Mrs Song as they both lost their family however they continued to push through the hardship and do what needed to be done in order to survive and help others.


Mrs Song’s triumph was unexpected and totally unplanned on Mrs Song’s behalf. Her defection was carried out without any prior knowledge of the plan and it wasn’t until she was comfortably in China that the entire scheme was revealed. Oak-hee, Mrs Song’s daughter, had payed for her mother to be taken from north Korea over the river and across the border into China with the excuse to reunite mother and daughter after Oak-hee had been in China for eight months. Mrs Song was told, “Oak-hee was working near the Chinese border… She wanted to repay her mother… but she feared she might get arrested if she came back to Chongjin. Wouldn’t Mrs Song please come to visit her instead?”Mrs Song agreed and was taken “first class” to China. Once in China however, the thought crossed Mrs Song’s mind that she had been kidnapped due to the fact that her daughter was not there when she arrived. Some days later Mrs Song received a call from her daughter who let her know that she was actually living in South Korea. Mrs Song was absolutely mortified and refused Oak-hee’s requests for her to join Oak-hee in South Korea. However as the days past and as Mrs Song recovered from her journey, she marvelled at the technology in China and learnt that in fact “North Korea was years, maybe decades behind China. And who knew how far behind South Korea?” It was thoughts like this that finally changed Mrs Song’s opinion on returning home to North Korea. It was the thoughts of how much her late husband cooker in the kitchen. She sat up with a start. This was her wake-up call. She was ready to go.” August 2002 marked a significant change in Mrs Song’s life. She was on her way to South Korea equipped with a passport with “the original photos extracted with a razor blade and replaced by Mrs Song’s.” Mrs Song’s triumph in her defection was bittersweet as she so longed to share her new found freedom and plentiful life with her beloved husband and son. and son would have thrived off the brilliant food that she had access to everyday that made her realise how much better her life would be in South Korea. One morning the final realisation came to her: “As she stirred to consciousness, she heard the chirp of the rice However without suffering the loss of her closest family, Mrs Song would never have been shaken from her life in North Korea. We learn from this situation that often sacrifice can be extremely tolling both physically and mentally but often in the long term it can reap unexpected benefits. It also teaches us that resilience through the toughest of times can be the determination of whether you survive or not and Mrs Song’s resilience is clear after the death of her family and also during her defection to South Korea which allowed her to continue on with her life and make the most of her situation.

After her release from Hanawon into the real world South Korea, Mrs Song finally experienced the true meaning of freedom and encountered the true meaning of life outside of the rule of a dictator. Mrs Song firmly grounded herself in the bustling city of Suwon, south of Seoul, by deciding “not to live with Oak-hee, but to get her own apartment”, she was employed as a housekeeper and was frugal with her money. “She was used to working full-time in North Korea and felt she would be depressed if she stayed idle in her new life.” For the first time in her life Mrs Song travelled outside of Korea to places such as China and Poland. Mrs Song, “relished her freedom and was determined to get the most out of her remaining years”. After almost a lifetime filled with famine, deprivation and struggle, Mrs Song’s resilience had finally paid off, the ultimate sacrifice of her family and the resilience that kept her pushing through the grief was one of the only things that determined her survival. However we learn from Mrs Song’s experiences that resilience is a very important personality trait that can carry us through the most arduous times in our life and help us to reach the triumphant stages of our existence. Mrs Song reflects the life of a defector as she has the triumphs of being freed of the overruling oppression of North Korea but she also suffers the hurt of having to leave her family and life behind. Mrs Song along with many other defectors, struggle with the fast-paced life in South Korea and often are not widely accepted within the community, however, many find their niche and begin a new and improved life compared to that of North Korea.

In conclusion, the reader learns through the experiences of suffering and triumphs of Mi-ran and Mrs Song, how difficult compromise can reap significant benefits and why it is important to keep fighting through the hard times. The reader also learns how to identify dictatorship and how to escape the power of the leader. We learn that although North Korea is a well known dictatorship with horrible circumstances, there are other countries and governments that are in very similar situations such as World War ll Nazi Germany and also Burma before and during Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s fight for democracy. Through both the characters, Mi-ran and Mrs Song, we also learn the nature of being a North Korean defector in South Korea and the issues that individuals face when they have access to freedom and free choice in a country that is technologically and governmentally years if not decades ahead of North Korea. Overall the suffering and triumph of characters ultimately causes the reader to react more sympathetically to the characters and become more invested in the text and the real-life examples that parallel those that are apparent in the text.


Join the conversation! 1 Comment

  1. A well-developed essay for this 3.4 Portfolio submission. In one lesson, consider adding paragraph breaks in your points, where you “shift focus.” The points are quite lengthy and additional structure could highlight the stages of your argument. Also, watch unnecessary repetition of vocabulary and sentence fragments. I.e. starting sentences with similar words/phrases.
    A lot of effort and research has gone into this essay- Well done.


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