"Nothing to Envy" is an alarming book about the lives of ordinary people in North Korea. When reading it, I couldn't shake off the feeling that it was similar to "Educated" or stories about World War II concentration camps. It is constant abuse — but in this case, by the people's government. This book answers multiple questions I had.
First, I'm confident that nothing is going to change in North Korea anytime soon, mainly because the citizens have seen way worse times and are unconsciously comparing the present to them. When you have blasting state propaganda about the godhood status of the "dear leader," and you see that your life indeed got better (like, you are not starving), you have fewer reasons to combat the cognitive dissonance in your head.
Second, Barbara explains in detail how North Koreans escape the regime — and why many return. Having family left back in the oppressive country is a huge hook. People who leave want to take their relatives with them, so they save up some hard currency and either come back to feed their families or pay "brokers" to help them escape. For some, defecting is a financial transaction, like when people from poor countries spend months earning minimum wages in more advanced states.
Next, I was somewhat surprised but, at the same time, relieved that South Korea recognizes all North Koreans as citizens in their constitution. Hence, when handed over to South Korean authorities, any defectors get integration benefits and a new passport. This is great, but it also explains why South Korean politicians won't do much to liberate the people who are enslaved by the North Korean regime.
Imagine if it happened. The USA and South Korean joint forces took out all the key people in the ruling class in North Korea and liberated the Korean citizens. What would happen next? How would a unified Korea handle 24-something million new citizens without any valuable skills except figuring out what weeds can be put in the soup to make it more digestible and how to wipe the "dear leader" portraits with special cloth? What about all the pieces of this oppressive regime, like the military and police force? Integration would be hell — and it would cost quite a lot of money.
So, the status quo remains — divided Korea with 24 million people living in slavery. Babies dying of malnutrition. Teens with enlarged heads and small limbs because they didn't eat or exercise well. Elders traumatized by most of their friends and family dying in the famine. Corrupt state that favors violence. If you need a life representation of 1984, look no further — you have everything like that in North Korea.