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Song Hee-suk's life has been a tale of personal tragedy and persistence, set against a backdrop of events felt across the globe. Mrs. Song, as she is called in Barbara Demick's enthralling "Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea," was born on the final day of World War II, and her father was killed a few years later in the Korean War. In the 1990s, as the country's reckless leadership thrust North Korea into famine, Mrs. Song's family was hit even harder. Her husband, son and mother-in-law died from hunger-related maladies while she was still in middle age.
Mrs. Song didn't give up, realizing that although her three relatives were too ill to save, her skills in the kitchen might still save her life. She went about the work of finding a makeshift oven in order to bake cookies, which she would then sell near the train station in the city of Chongjin. "At the end of a fourteen-hour workday, she had about (the equivalent of) 50 cents in her pocket," Demick writes, "and a few bags of other goods, sometimes red peppers or a few lumps of coal, that she took in exchange for cookies."
There's no shortage of hardship -- and the bravery that it inspired -- depicted by Demick, the Los Angeles Times' Beijing bureau chief. North Koreans who managed to survive the famine have been rewarded with harassment, she reports, as when police would invite themselves into homes to see that state-issued portraits of Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il are displayed in respectful fashion. Citizens are urged to report neighbors who aren't sufficiently devoted to the ruling Workers' Party. Massive portions of the country have been without electricity since the Soviet Union, a key North Korean energy source, died 20 years ago. And in at least one hospital there was a bottle shortage, which forced patients to receive medicine through IV tubes hooked to beer bottles.
While researching her book, Demick made nine trips to North Korea and met countless times with people who have left the North for South Korea and China. Though the famine killed up to 2 million in a country of about 22 million, people aren't sure if they might outlive the regime. Kim Il-sung's poor health doesn't necessarily mean the current government will soon yield to a more progressive administration. As Demick notes, "Kim's favored young son, Kim Jong-un," is only in his mid-20s. The last chapter of the book encompasses the feelings of so many North Koreans -- it's titled "Waiting."
Kevin Canfield is a writer who lives in New York. His reviews have appeared in Bookforum, the New York Times and other publications.