1:Central to the purpose of a text is the examination of a relationship in conflict.
“In the futuristic dystopia imagined in 1984, George Orwell wrote of a world where the only colour to be found was in the propaganda posters. Such is the case in North Korea.” Barbara Demick’s 2009 part novelization ‘Nothing to Envy’ explores relationships in a conflict in North Korea showing the reader her purpose to the text.  “We have nothing to envy in the world” the lyrics from the country’s national anthem shows irony as the reader explores the text and learns of the citizens conflict with the North Korean government; Mi-ran’s contempt with the government is due to her ‘tainted blood, Mrs Song’s patriotism does not match her living reality and that Jun-sang is torn between his family and having love.


At the exposition of the novel, Mi-ran is a highly spirited 12-year-old girl who rebels against the regime in North Korea. She does not conform to the expectations of dictatorship or the expectations of being a woman. Growing up in Chongjin she had aspirations of a high education and good job for herself, her father was from South Korea ‘the enemy state’ she was therefore limited to what society thought she was good for. Riding her bike around Chongjin only brought her abuse from men in return reflecting on how their society was male dominated, and they saw women beneath them having limited rights. She had a forbidden love despite the risk if caught she would be questioned and sent to labour camps. She is in conflict with the government as her Songbun, her status is the greatest threat against her, it is limiting the life she is ‘allowed’ to live; “The sins of the father were the sins of the children and the grandchildren. The North Koreans called these people beulsun-’tainted blood,’ or impure. 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 their father.”


Mi-ran represents the citizens with tainted blood, the citizens whose prospects are affected due to their family line, the citizens who are unable to reach their dreams due to the indoctrination North Koreans experience as a birthright. Mi-ran is a talented and smart student, however, due to her family line, she learns that she and her talented siblings will never be able to get the best education and attend university in Pyongyang beginning her conflict with North Korea. “As a child, Mi-ran was unaware of the catastrophe that had befallen her before she was born.” She will not be given the opportunity to earn a decent wage or to marry well, carrying the ‘taint’ in her blood means that she and Jun-sang will never be married, she is not allowed to travel to the capital to visit him putting a strain on their relationship. Mi-rans conflict with her relationship to the government is due to many factors. The government values organisation and communism where everybody works together under their regime doing what is expected of them. However, Mi-ran values education, truth, independence and freedom. What society can take from this is even though we do not live in this controlled country we are not protected from ideals and expectations of our leaders, parents, friends and ourselves. We, especially students put ourselves under immense pressure to achieve at a level that is expected of us as well as take on extracurricular activities to meet the ideals of universities and other organisations. It teaches us that we all are not immune to these expectations and we need to learn when we are giving too much power to someone over our lives. “A mind that knows how to be free and knows when it’s being manipulated. It is a fact that those who have substantially practised conscious introspection find it far easier to know when another person is lying or trying to manipulate them.” When we know our own mind and our own morals and ideals we are able to discern when someone is trying to manipulate us to do something we do not necessarily believe or would normally do. Citizens in North Korea do not have the ability to know their own mind; they see that they are always watched as being normal as they do not know anything different. “Big brothers always watching.” They do not realise the invasion of privacy and manipulation upon them.


Mi-ran’s conflict with the government reaches breaking point when the effect of the famine means her students begin to go hungry, starve and die from malnutrition. The Government is aware of what is happening but does not make a decision to help; instead, they value their weaponry and military over the health of their citizens. The Government will not admit that they are in trouble or that other countries are trying to send resources to help as this would be admitting their regime does not work and communism did not work. “As her students were dying, she was supposed to teach them they were blessed to be North Korean.” We can examine her relationship in conflict through North Korea as her hatred for the government grows. She begins to see people homeless on the streets and starving, but it is the death of her students that finally shows her how the government’s systems are failing its citizens. As she watched she began to lose her compassion towards other humans and focuses on her survival; “Her indifference was an acquired survival skill. In order to get through the 1990s alive, one had to suppress any impulse to share food. To avoid going insane, one had to learn to stop caring.” The treatment Mi-ran and her siblings receive from the controlling powers because of their blood status can be seen today with women’s’ rights for education in developing countries. In 2012 Malala Yousafzai an activist for female education was in conflict with the Taliban a fundamentalist political group who attempted to murder her. Malala became a target after speaking out for women’s right to education in Pakistan and other countries after the Taliban banned education for girls. She wanted to better her prospects and work towards a future but because of her gender, this was not allowed. “I didn’t want my future to be imprisoned in my four walls and just cooking and giving birth.” Like Mi-ran and her siblings, Malala and other girls had limited prospects for their future due to the world they were born into. Groups like the Taliban removed women’s rights based on their religious beliefs from Sharia law. Women get abused or killed if they try to go to school for an education or for showing skin. Afghanistan before the 1970’s was a fast evolving country where women had freedom and the right to vote before the US, now it is the most dangerous place for women to live. These different ideas and cultures can be seen all over the world. Some gang cultures throughout New Zealand still degrade women as see them as below men, treating them as such. Although women rights is a continuous debate even in first world countries there are still gaps between genders such as the pay gap and has been a reason for much conflict and contempt between political parties in New Zealand. Although we cannot do much to help women in North Korea and around the world due to the dangers, the lessons we can learn and take from them are not learnt in vain. We are aware of how lucky we are for our freedom to education and our freedom in general.


The belief in the regime and the fear of the consequences for rebellion blind Mrs Song ‘the true believer’ about the failing society. Without the knowledge, Mrs Song’s conflict at the beginning of the novel is with herself. Throughout her journey she slowly realises how the regime has failed her and her family, transforming her inner conflict to be directed towards the government. Mrs Song’s ideas about the government do not meet reality. Mrs Song is extremely patriotic, “SONG HEE-SUK was one 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 doubt. She was a stickler for rules.” She enjoyed her life in North Korea and she was in love with the regime, she had loved the government from a young age. She was the daughter of a Martyr and with that came benefits for her and her family, indoctrinating her and gaining her unwavering support. She completed her job for the imniban (the community watch) with pride. As life begins to become more challenging and Mrs Song lost her family and her job, she still believed it was her fault: she didn’t work hard enough for the regime and she didn’t provide and stay with her family enough. She was a true believer and she had been indoctrinated by the government to a point that she could not see how her leader was killing its nation. “Mrs Song and her husband…. sold most of their valuable possessions…… Chang-bo’s watch was gone…. Oriental painting was given to them as a Wedding present….. The two-room apartment that had always seemed too small…… was now empty, the walls….. Bare except for the portraits of Kim-Il Sung and Kim Jong-Il….left to sell was the apartment itself.” This indicates how extreme the indoctrination of the citizens in North Korea, they valued a photo more than their family heirlooms and sentimental possessions. What we learn from Mrs Song’s conflict with the government is that it is unwise and dangerous to put all our faith, time, ownership into a government or a leader. Giving them all our knowledge and faith only allows them to exploit us if they see fit. Mrs Song’s daughter never truly believed in the regime and in the end she was better off, she was more resourceful and fearless and was able to get both herself and her mother out of North Korea alive. Her lack of patriotism meant she saw the reality of the regime and knew it was unwise to love and trust their ‘great leader.’ We see this throughout history with people putting their full faith and beliefs in their religion and belief in their god. There is a point where this can become dangerous such as Isis taking the lives of innocent humans as they believe it is their job given to them by God, they have blind obedience to their religion and are unable to see the cruelty of their actions and how morally wrong it is.  


Mrs Song first began to realise the troubles in North Korea when the factory she worked for had to close. This is where Mrs Song began to lose faith in the government and the regime and her conflict with them began to grow. The factory could no longer afford the material to make the clothing, they then began to do other jobs to make money such as collecting glass to sell. This was tolerable until Mrs Song’s boss told her to find other means of work. “Should think about finding some other way to bring food home for your families. Mrs Song was horrified. The manager wasn’t referring to prostitution, though she might as well have been. She was suggesting she work on the black market.” As the food distribution system began to fail she feared she would lose her already limited distribution of food and starve. After Mrs Song escaped North Korea and formed a life in Soul her conflict with the government and herself continued. Mrs Song still could not speak badly about her country and at times found herself thinking about it. She realised quickly that the weak die first, those like her who never gave up on the regime did not survive. “As Mrs Song would observe a decade later, when she thought back on all the people she knew who died during those years in Chongjin, it was the “simple and kind hearted people who did what they were told– they were the first to die.”  Mrs Song the ‘true believer’ is evidence of how propaganda and indoctrination can convince a society of their distorted world being normal, through the use of simple means as media. This media depicts images of love and happiness, simple things like these posters, their bright colours and the smiling citizens depicts biased and untrue ideas. They present the great leader as a ‘god like figure’ creating a cult persona. The methods used in North Korea are similar to those of Stalin. During the 1930’s Stalin used similar posters to indoctrinate Soviet Russia. Starlin was the dictator of the Soviet Union (USSR), he reigned from 1929-1953, and his methods of power was terrorism. The Union became a military and industrial superpower and many of his citizens died for his cause. In 1938 the image that was associated with Stalin was a kind looking man surrounded by women, he was idolised by his people and the caption read “Long Live the Great Stalin” Similar to Kim Il-sung’s “Long Live Kim Il-Sung” Both images use similar colours and ideas, they both depict ideas of communism, with no privacy, economic class, and ownership. Both regimes used these posters to show power and to gain worships of their people. Posters and media are still used today to convince people to donate money to charities. World Vision uses a similar method for good they use powerful images and words to gain support in their cause, by pulling on people’s emotions. The cult following achieved by Stalin, Hitler and the Kim dynasty is seen across the world today such as the American White Supremacy group the KKK, who believe in white power and they should have rights and hold supremacy over black people, these beliefs are still causing conflict in the US as they fight racial issues and beliefs from years ago. The cult persona of  the KKK can be seen in the citizens of North Korea.


Jun-sang’s love for his family and desire to do well for them drives him to succeed. This works well until Jun-sang sees Mi-ran one evening at the movie theatre, he later meets her and they begin dating in the shadows of the regime. In a time of a series of suffering Jun-sang finds conflict over his love for Mi-ran and his desire to work for the Workers Party and increase his families songbun.He finds conflict with North Korea due to Mi-ran’s tainted blood if Jun-sang and Mi-ran were to be married he would lose his status and never make it into the worker’s party. Jun-sang comes from a rich Japanese family giving them some status in North Korea, although not as much as his father would like. Therefore his father pushes him to study and work will get into Pyongyang University as this is his best shot of getting to work there in the capital. Mi-ran and Jun-sang were together for many years before she and her family defected. They wrote letters and meet up in the shadows when he came home from university always careful to remain hidden. Jun-sang does everything that he is meant to, however once Mi-ran defects without telling him, he realises his fear. Although he has always shown allegiance to the regime he does not care, he did not cry over the death of his great leader only faked tears in fear of his life if he didn’t. He did not inform the imniban of Mi-rans defection but only realised his fear that she was stronger and braver than he was. “I’d always thought I was ahead of her in my thinking, I was wrong” Jun-sang is constantly fighting conflict against himself, he is conflicted about achieving well and making his family proud or being complete with Mi-ran. He is in conflict with his fear of what will happen if people know he doesn’t care for the regime and fear of being weak. Tolstoy once wrote “the subjection of men to government will always continue as long as patriotism exists, for every ruling power rests on patriotism – on the readiness of men to submit to power…” This relates to Jun-Sang because as long as he stays fearful of the government he remains loyal and patriotic to the regime allowing it to continue until he defected. By no longer subjected to power he made a stand against the government. Similar to North Korea Hitler in World War Two needed the support of nations to carry out his plans for the Jews, without the support of his army he would not have been able to achieve what he did, Power resides only where men believe it resides.” As long as the citizens keep giving power to their leader in their faith and support power will always win and the world will not see change. “The day the power of love overrules the love of power, the world will know peace.” We can see throughout history governments and leaders rise to power through people’s’ fear, they blindly follow to protect themselves and their family, and those who realise their conflict with the government are those who begin to make a difference.“those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.”


Throughout the novel, we explore relationships in conflict of Mi-ran, Mrs Song and Jun-Sang against the government and themselves. These relationships show that central to the purpose of the text relationships are in conflict. Throughout the novel, Mi-ran is in conflict as the government is stopping her from being able to follow her dreams and later just watches as she and her students, friends and family suffer in hunger and begin to die from starvation. Throughout she is resentful towards the government and only finds her own way and future when she defects from North Korea. The tainted blood in Mi-ran’s family and the expectation of Jun-sang’s family cause conflict for Jun-sang and what he wants more, he wants to make it to the worker’s party but he also wants to be with Mi-ran. His conflict begins to turn towards his frustration at the regime as he realises he does not believe in it like other citizens such as Mrs Song. Mrs Song loves North Korea, she loves her great leader the regime, she is patriotic towards her country, even after she defects she has trouble speaking against North Korea. The conflict of these characters changes their view on their country and whether they believe in the regime and stay or risk their lives to leave. The conflict these characters have pushes them away from their home to start new lives in North Korea. Conflict is tough and difficult and puts humans through wars within themselves, throughout these times it allows us to grow within ourselves and strengthens the human mind. On the other hand, it shows us that human nature can only be pushed so far before it breaks and we rebel against our governments to protect ourselves and our loved ones to see the good in the world again. This novel reminds us to not blindly look past the effects of media and we need to be aware of the manipulation that is around us on a smaller level. It teaches us to be grateful for the society that we live in, to want to have freedom of. Our relationships, our freedom of speech, our freedom to pursue any dream and our right to education. We need to be thankful our government doesn’t manipulate our beliefs or see more value in war than making sure their country is not hungry.  Because unlike the citizens of North Korea we have “nothing to envy.’”


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