Everybody goes through hardship at some point in their life but the way different individuals respond to this challenge, determines their outcome. Although times of suffering can be difficult, if one is able to take advantage of the situation, these times of suffering can result in the greatest triumph. As humans, we applaud and admire someone who can go through extreme suffering and still manage to find blue sky above the clouds. In Barbara Demick’s creative non-fiction novel, ‘Nothing to Envy’ this is apparent when looking at the characters Mi-Ran, Mrs Song and Dr. Kim. These three characters have all gone through extreme suffering but have also found triumph throughout their life. As every individual goes through suffering to different degrees, we find it easy to relate to characters who’ve gone through hardship, however as not everybody is able to find triumph through suffering, we as a reader feel more sympathy for those who’ve experienced both, suffering and triumph.


The character Mi-Ran represents how one can be born into suffering and how this can later affect their life. Mi-Ran’s suffering can be seen throughout majority of her life, however it began when she was born into a family with a father who was a former South Korean soldier in the Korean war. Due to her father’s inexcusable crime, Mi-Ran and her family did not rank well in terms of the Kim regime, placing her in the lowest songbun from the get go. This is something that would affect her entire life, restricting her from some major privileges. Restrictions such as no further education, an inability to travel to areas, even within her own country and having the constraint of not being able to see the boy she loved. Mi-Ran knew she was born with an underlying restriction and that “the only mobility within the class system was downward”, therefore as she grew older, Mi-Ran lost motivation and ambition to strive for success in life. Personally I felt immensely sympathetic for Mi-Ran when reading she would be restricted due to her family history. I don’t believe it’s fair that Mi-Ran is limited in life due to someone else’s actions as it’s out of her control. Even though she was intelligent, an exceptionally hard worker and very capable of success in life, Mi-Ran knew her songbun would disadvantage her from progressing in almost anything she wanted to achieve. Coming from a country like New Zealand where we’re given equal opportunities and a large amount of freedom with our life choices, I find it hard to even imagine what it’d be like to be restricted from achieving your greatest ambitions in life because of where your parents have come from. It was clear to see this also affected Mi-Ran as she no longer had the drive to strive for her achievements. However, Mi-Ran’s inconspicuous boyfriend, Jun-Sang, an intelligent boy who sat well in terms of his songbun knew the girl he loved was talented, beautiful and extremely capable of success. Jun-Sang didn’t want to see her talent go to waste and told her that “if you want more in life, you must believe in yourself and you can achieve your dreams”, these words stuck with Mi-Ran and she regained her internal drive to succeed and began to study hard again which led to her surprisingly being accepted into teacher’s college and later became a kindergarten teacher. This was a major triumph for Mi-Ran as she was able to accomplish a goal which previously seemed unachievable. When Mi-Ran reached this triumph of becoming a teacher, I responded more sympathetically to her because it’s always rewarding to see someone achieve something they’ve worked hard for and previously thought they wouldn’t be able to do. Although at the time this seemed to be a triumph for Mi-Ran, it later had further negative repercussions which resulted in further suffering, however this time, it wasn’t due to her family history. Whilst teaching at the kindergarten, Mi-Ran noticed that the five and six-year-old children she was teaching, “looked no bigger to her than three and four-year olds”. This was due to the famine that struck North Korea in 1994, she was helpless, unable to do anything to help the situation. She watched children lose major amounts of weight, become seriously sick, even to the point of death. As the book reads “to avoid going alive, one had to suppress any impulse to share food. To avoid going insane, one had to learn to stop caring. In time, Mi-Ran would learn how to walk around a dead boy on the street without paying much notice.” This quote displays how although Mi-Ran was a sympathetic women, the ability to put those emotions behind her was vital in order to stay sane and alive.  No matter what type of person you are, seeing a person die, especially young children whilst being unable to help would make you suffer both mentally and physically. I believe as a reader, we feel a large amount of sympathy for Mi-Ran as majority of people in life have lost someone that’s close to them. Therefore, when we read about Mi-Ran losing her loved ones, it resonates deeply to us as the reader because, we can relate her unpleasant experiences to our own personal experiences of losing friends in life. This makes it easy for the reader to relate to her sad times and ultimately gain more sympathy for her. Mi-Ran got to a point in which she couldn’t suffer any longer and decided she needed to leave North Korea, defecting through China and eventually into South Korea. This was Mi-Ran’s major triumph as she was able to put her past behind her and begin her new lifestyle, to a certain degree. For Mi-Ran to have the ability to push through all the hardship she endured and to still find triumph on the other side is admirable and speaks truly of her strong character. Considering the amount of hardship Mi-Ran went through, when she found triumph later on in life, I personally responded more sympathetically to Mi-Ran’s story as it’s heart-warming to see someone get out of a dark period and move forward into a brighter chapter in life.


Ms Song, the hardworking pro-regime housewife that lived and breathed the North Korean regime, had a life full of suffering, however, this wasn’t apparent to her until she was caught up by the death of her close family. Unlike Mi-Ran, who suffered due to a low songbun, Ms Song had good family history, conformed to the North Korean regime and therefore, was situated with a high songbun. Although Ms Song was living a ‘good life’ for a North Korean, she was constantly busy either working hard in the factory, doing ideological training or watching over her apartment complex to catch gossips against the regime. When we as humans are busy or focused on a task, we have an ability to push through barriers of discomfort. I believe this is the reason why Ms Song wasn’t able to realise that she’d been suffering, until it was too late. Ms Song rarely had time to even conceptualise the way she was living. However, this is understandable considering Ms Song was brought up in this way of living and hasn’t ever known anything different. I felt even more sympathy for Ms Song because of this, the fact she lived such a strict, structured life whilst being unaware that she was, is depressing and a very foreign concept based on the privileges we’re given here in New Zealand. Coming from a life of such freedom, where we have the ability to make our own decisions and shape our own lives, I couldn’t imagine living a strict, structured and conformed life and not being rewarded for what you’re achieving. I think this alone for most people in this world, would ultimately result in a type of suffering. However, since Ms Song was brought up with this type of structure, she didn’t know any better and never considered it as suffering. Although Ms Song was a model citizen of the regime and did whatever it took to live by her beloved leader’s rules, when the famine struck North Korea in 1994-1998, the regime wasn’t able to adapt and cater for the shortage of food, making Ms Song compensate her regimented way of life in order to simply stay alive. This was when the suffering finally became apparent to Ms’s Song. She was no longer able to live exactly by the North Korean regime if she wanted to stay alive and avoid starvation. Ms Song was no longer getting paid for the work she was doing at the factory and had to buy food from the black market. For a lady that lived so aligned with the regime’s rules, this was a massive shift in thinking. As the food rations that were being distributed to families started to decrease and the famine became more apparent, the detrimental effects also began to be more obvious. In 1996 Ms Song’s, Mother in law died from starvation and malnutrition, followed a by her husband dying for the same reason, one year later. Finally, her son dies, making the effects of the famine very real. Reluctantly, Ms Song began to realise that all the hard work she’d done to abide the regime over the years, when push came to shove, it wasn’t benefitting her at all. I found this concept relatable to what still happens to people in times of tragedy today. For example, if you’re in a natural disaster such as an earthquake, it doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from or how much money you have. If you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time when tragedy strikes, there’s little you can do. This is essentially what happened to Ms Song as she’d worked so hard throughout her life to abide by the regime’s rules however, there was little she could do when the tragedy of the famine struck North Korea and she was no longer being looked after by her dear leader. Although the famine brought major hardship to Ms Song’s life, it’s also the reason why she was able to find triumph. Due to the passing of Ms Song’s close family, there was no reason for her to remain in the country, therefore, she defected through China and into South Korea to meet with one of her daughters that had previously defected. My sympathy for Ms Song increased when I she was able to defect North Korea and into South Korea because, she was able to go against her normal ways and have the strength to leave what she had for what she could become. When reading about Ms Song’s struggling, it’s taught me that you should never get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life. I think this is extremely important, not just to those in North Korea but all over the globe because today, in the modern world, it seems as if there is never enough time and everyone is always in a rush. Between work, errands, commuting and more time-consuming tasks, it’s unsurprising that people are getting stressed out and reaching the breaking point. I believe today, people aren’t taking enough time to relax, cherish the smaller beauties in life and spending time with the people in life they care for. Without making time for these simple moments in life, it’s easy for people to get caught in corporate slavery, unconsciously making life seem fine until something goes wrong.


Dr. Kim was a female doctor who embodied the North Korean regime. She was the ideal North Korean citizen, idolising the dictator, and obeying her duties as a doctor, even with such scarce resources. Due to her work commitments, Dr. Kim was obligated to attend to the famine’s firsthand victims. In doing this came a lot of Dr. Kim’s suffering. Although she was working in the hospital at the time, Dr Kim was unable to properly assist her patients as the downturn in the economy meant the hospital didn’t have the necessary resources to help the severity of the patients that were coming in. Dr Kim told the author of ‘Nothing to Envy’, Barbara Demick, that “all I was capable of doing was to cry with their mothers over the bodies afterward.” This quote from the book made me respond even more sympathetically to the character Dr. Kim and the situation that she was in because, the suffering she was enduring was due to something that was out of her control. Being helpless when people are undeniably suffering is one of the hardest experiences for any sane human-being to go through, it made feel sincerely sorry for her because at times, it would’ve felt like it was her fault that she was unable to recover her patients. However, this was a situation that was out of her control and therefore I don’t think it’s fair that Dr Kim was taking the burden for what was ultimately her beloved leader’s problem. Even through all the hardship and suffering that Dr Kim went through with her patients, she still would try to deliver her best. It got to the point where she was no longer getting paid for her work and her services were coming strictly from the satisfaction of helping others. This goes to show us that Dr Kim had sympathy for others with or without getting paid and I believe this is the reason why I responded more sympathetically to Dr Kim. In my opinion, she seemed like a kind-hearted woman who was unfortunately caught in a terrible situation. As she had no underlying motives other than to help the well-being of others, it was easier to feel sorry for her and the situation she was in because she’d done nothing wrong previously, she was just an unlucky women trying her best to help others get better which led to me gain more sympathy for her. Dr Kim essentially suffered throughout the famine due to her dictator’s poor leadership which made her start to question what she’d previously lived for and her pursuit to be the perfect North Korean citizen. This change in mindset is what ultimately brought Dr Kim to triumph. After suffering throughout the famine, the helpless hard work she was doing enlightened her and made her realise that there’s possibly more outside of North Korea and she may have something to envy after all. Throughout her suffering, Dr Kim became more conscious of the fact that their was too much that needed to be done and only so much she could offer, therefore, she defected North Korea and into China to begin a new chapter in life. I gained further sympathy for Dr Kim after she took this action as it would’ve been hard to alter her regimentation North Korean mindset that was previously ingrained in her. She was able to gain a wider perspective on life and look beyond the borders. As I stated in the introduction, every individual goes through suffering to different degrees therefore, we find it easy to relate to characters who’ve gone through hardship, however as not everybody is able to find triumph through suffering, we as a reader feel more sympathy for those who’ve experienced both, suffering and triumph. I believe Dr Kim is a perfect example of this statement as she found triumph after some horrific times, giving me as the reader more sympathy for her. Throughout her life experiences, she’s taught me how it’s important to keep a wider perspective on what life brings to you and to realise that we as humans don’t have control over situations however, we’ll always have the power to perceive them how we want.


Throughout the suffering and triumph that each character in this book experienced, I responded more sympathetically to them. Although my own experiences of suffering and triumph might be to different degrees as those in ‘Nothing to Envy’, their stories allowed me to put myself in their shoes and relate to the characters on a more personal level. This ultimately led to me responding more sympathetically to the characters in the book. When reading about each character’s experience of suffering and triumph, a common theme surfaced from each of their stories. For every character that endured such extreme amounts of struggling, the ability for them to change their state of mind and look at their situation with a wider perspective is what brought most of them to their triumph. I think this is something that not only helps the people who are suffering in North Korea but for anyone that has or is going through hardship. To have the capacity to take a step back from a situation and look at it for what it really is can be the difference between further suffering and triumph. As keeping a wider perspective on an issue is a method that I personally use to cope with hardship, I therefore believe, I was able to relate and respond more sympathetically to the characters in this book that used this ability to get through their suffering and to reach triumph.


By Finn Bilous.

Respond now!