The characters we respond to the most sympathetically are those who experience both suffering and triumph.
In the nonfiction text “Nothing To Envy” by Barbara Demick, the characters that we respond to the most sympathetically are those who experience both suffering and triumph. This is undoubtedly true for Mi-ran, Mrs.Song and Oak-hee who all have great sufferings, but from these sufferings arise their triumphs. They teach us that you can create your triumphs from your worst sufferings, such as when Mrs.Song has nothing, and then she decides to create a business of selling cookies. She ends up getting enough money from her business to create a living. This is just one of the many triumphs and sufferings exhibited in the novel by the characters.
The first characters that is introduced is Mi-ran is a 12 year old girl living in Chongjin, she lives with her family; her mother and father and her two more talented sisters. Mi-ran is born into a low songbun, due to her father having tainted blood (a mix of south and north korean blood, predominantly frowned upon in the North Korean culture, consequently she gets treated worse than most others), because her father was a prisoners of war: “As the children approached adolescence, the obstacles presented by their father’s background began to loom larger.” Being born into a low songbun means that you have a low social status instantly and there isn’t much that you can do to get out of it, you are forbidden to travel, and cannot attend any universities in the country. They are all restricted from progress due to their low songbun, and have limited marriage prospects. One of her biggest hurdles that she faces as a result of her father being a prisoner of war is that the one person she loves, she is not allowed to love. Jun-sang is was born into a more privileged family, as his relatives live in Japan, his blood relatives over in Japan, send over money, hence they are prosperous than most in Chongjin. Due to the benefits that he holds because of his high songbun, this makes being in love with Mi-ran impermissible in the eyes of the North Korean government. This restricts her to marry her love, Jun-sang who she has to stroll around at night-time in fear of getting caught, he has a higher songbun than her, and she gets jealous of his privileges. This makes her fearful of her preordained future, and how her future is limited due to her birthright. Jun-sang is also aware of the detrimental effects on his life if he were to marry Mi-ran, he would be stripped of all his additional benefits that he receives from being born into a high social class, such as his rights to be able to go to Pyongyang for university, and having the chance to work outside of Chongjin, not working in the mines like the rest of the them. “But the fact of Mi-ran’s tainted blood hovered unspoken. They both knew that if they were eventually to marry, it could hurt Jun-sang’s career and his prospects of joining the workers party.” This is the main reason why their relationship didn’t develop into anything more than sneaking out at night to see each other, “North Korean society demands that people stick to their own”, their relationship becomes extremely strained, she lives in Chongjin, he goes to university in Pyongyang. The more that Mi-ran is around Jun-sang, the more she would tell herself that her life is pointless, “I feel like I have no purpose in life,” she said to Jun-sang, this was one of her low points in her story, as she had nothing going for her and Jun-sang was about to leave to Pyongyang to study, and she knew that there was no way that she could visit him as she was not permitted to travel outside of Chongjin. Their relationship becomes extremely strained, his life becomes so different and they end up drifting apart. She knows that there is nothing that she can do about it, this leads her into one of her greater sufferings, when she thinks that her life holds no purpose, and she felt depressed. But out of this anguish arises an achievement. To Mi-ran, the prospect of her getting into teachers college was unachievable, she believed that the only people who could get accepted into teachers college were people who got top of the place, “Mi-ran was rather mystified, as she was a very good student but not at the top of her class.” Not being able to confess her love for Jun-sang to anyone, in fear of him getting into any trouble with the government, throughout her life in North Korea, Mi-ran faces many victories, and many sufferings, but her suffering with Jun-sang follows her for her whole life, even when she defects to South Korea.
Getting accepted into the most prestigious teachers college in Chongjin was one of Mi-ran’s foremost successes in her life. Before she even considered applying for teachers college, she didn’t expect herself to get anywhere beyond working in a factory. Mi-ran’s life gets turned around by something that Jun-sang says to her when she is at rock bottom “Things can change. If you want more in life, you must believe in yourself and you can achieve your dreams,” Once Jun-sang told her this, she turned her life around, “Jun-sang’s ambition rubbed off her. She hit the books. She begged her mother to relieve her of household chores so she could have more time to study.” Thanks to Jun-sang she got accepted into Kim Jong-suk Teacher’s College, the best teachers’ college in Chongjin. The perseverance that she displayed while she was attending the college was staggering. Even though the dormitories were impressive to her, the conditions that they had to face during the Korean deep freeze were unbelievable. The dormitories that they all slept in had no heating, she had to sleep in a coat, mittens and heavy socks and draped herself in a towel. In the morning when she woke up the towel that she wrapped herself in would be frozen from the moisture of her breath. They would be roused by military-style roll call at 6am every morning. Some of the people in the college got so sick from the lack of decent, nutritious food that they had to drop out of the college. “It was an awakening for Mi-ran, who had been largely sheltered from the economic crisis by her industrious mother.” This is when she started to realise the great trouble her country was in, and their food shortage. Mi-ran, after a year, eventually couldn’t put up with it anymore and ended up living with her relatives off-campus. The fact that she did not believe that she had the intelligence to get into this teachers’ college proves to us that if we work hard enough we can achieve things we previously thought not possible. When Mi-ran finally gets placed into a kindergarten in Chongjin, it is finally the end of her educational course at the teachers college, and completing it is a great triumph for her, and boosts her self confidence, as her father was a miner and she was “from a family from the lowest rungs of society.” This is one of her biggest conquests that she has faced in the book, Mi-ran defies all stereotypes that she is classed as because of her birth rights. This triumph that she faces has it downfall later in the novel, after she gets placed into her kindergarten. Once the famine gets to its worst point, she sees a man dead on the street, and she wonders how he died of starvation, and she did not know how people in North Korea die from starvation. This exemplar just shows how sheltered North Korean residents are from the true circumstances that are being presented in their country. Mi-ran starts to notice that her children are starting to thin out, to a point where it is becoming concerned for their health, “She had remarked when she first came to the kindergarten on the small size of her pupils; now they looked like they were growing younger, time turning backward, like a movie reel run in reverse.” Eventually some of her students stopped coming to school, she knew what was happening, but she didn’t investigate into it too much, because she was scared of what would come out of it. She tried to talk to Jun-sang about her problems at work, but he didn’t feel the empathy in the same way that she did, “What can you do.” Mi-ran had no problems with starvation, she had plenty of food at home, yet she did nothing to help her students, she just watched as the number of them dwindled down. Years later, this would haunt her, “She often felt sick over what she did and didn’t do to help her young students. How could she have eaten so well herself when they were starving?” The pain that Mi-ran is feeling feels like she has lost her own children, and there is something that she could have done about it, but she didn’t. Mi-ran faces many triumph and sufferings throughout her story, but she manages to triumph over her sufferings, she demonstrates to us the sheer perseverance and determination that one has to show to survive in this dangerous country.
Mrs.Song’s triumphs and sufferings are a significant part of her story and how her character is shaped throughout the novel. Mrs.Song is introduced into the story as a “true believer”, she’s a factory worker and a mother for 4, her father was a “martyr for the Fatherland”, hence she is born with a high songbun and is married into the worker’s party. Mrs.Song is the ideal North Korea resident, she works exceptionally long hours, has ideological training after work, and has portraits of her Great Leader hung up in her house, she has also memorized Kim-Il Sung’s teachings. Being apart of the Imniban (form of secret “community watch” who reports to Workers Party officials), gives her a sense of achievement. Being high up in her community makes her proud to be a North Korean and gives her more affection for her country, more than most others feel. Mrs.Song cleans her portraits of Kim-Il Sung every morning, “Mrs.Song didn’t need the threat of an inspection to clean her portraits.” She takes pride in how she respects him. Women have to wear Kim-Il Sung pins on them wherever they go,”One day after she’d changed clothes in a hurry, she ran out without her badge and was stopped by a teenager wearing an armband that identified him as part of the Maintenance of Social Order brigade…But Mrs.Song was so genuinely horrified to realize she’d left the badge at home that the boy left her go with a warning.” She, like many other North Koreans, believe that Kim-Il Sung is a god, yet they have been indoctrinated so far to the point they don’t realise how controlled their life is. The system that she worships so dearly fails her many times throughout her time in North Korea, her husband, Chang-bo, had his doubts about the regime, but he hid his suspicions about it from her, “The son is even worse than the father.” Mrs.Song is horrified about his disloyalty, and he eventually gets arrested for questionings the government’s distribution on shoes. And when her great leader dies, she feels like she has lost her own family member(talk about Kim-il sung dying and how everyone was depressed.
At her job, their shipments were delayed, and so there was no work that they could do, and Mrs.Song has to resort to collecting dog faeces from the street to use at fertilizer. She was too proud to even take a day off work when lots of other women were taking sick days off, she said, “It felt wrong to her.” And she eventually got told that she shouldn’t bother coming to work anymore. Again Mrs.Song was too dignified to doubt the North Korean regime to speak against it. After she lost her job, she had no way to support her family. The North Korean black market is what she fell back to, to earn money to support her family, and she ends up buying and selling food on the black market, and selling her possessions, such as Chang-bo’s watch and she eventually ends up selling her apartment so that she can buy food for her family. Her and Chang-bo have to move into a one room apartment so they can have a life in North Korea. This presents Mrs.Song to the audience as a strong perseverance women, and even when she is suffering from having no food and no money, she keeps finding a way to keep going and survive in North Korea. This just further proves that the government has failed even though she was a loyal follower, the regime doesn’t help anyone, and this is a suffering of Mrs.Song once she realises that they aren’t going to do anything to help her and she will need to do this all on her own. Even after this Mrs.Song has numerous sufferings, within a 2 year period, her mother, her husband and her son die all because of there isn’t enough food for them, and she blames herself for both of these deaths. When her son dies, she is delirious with hunger and malnutrition and lies down in the garden in the back of her house, and her daughters end up saving her. After she experiences immense suffering, she finds another way to successfully make money to support herself and her daughters, she sells cookies in the Chongjin markets and her business thrives and she makes a decent amount of money for her family. “The imminence of death gave reluctant capitalists like Mrs Song new courage,” this is what motivated Mrs.Song to make her new business, and what gave her the courage. If she didn’t try to make her business she would’ve ended up like lots of North Korean families – dying of starvation. Mrs.Song teaches us the perseverance and determination needed to survive in this dystopian future like country, even if you are the perfect model citizen, such as Mrs.Song, you need to learn to survive on your own. The suffering that she faces with these events gives the audience an empathetic connection with her that we may not get with other characters that face so many triumphs and sufferings.
Oak-Hee is the eldest daughter of Mrs.Song, she has a rebellious nature, such as refusal to complete patriotic tasks like collecting family excrement for fertiliser, she is outright about her rebellion. At an early age she despised the regime and listened to her father conspire about the government and talk about the better life outside, this is how her hate for her country was moulded. Eventually she marries Yong-su (Employee of Korean People’s Army), and from marrying him, she faces the suffering of having an abusive husband. “The young couple had moved into their own apartment near the railroad station, but Oak-hee often ran back home. One day she would show up with a black eye, the next a split lip,” Oak-hee doesn’t even feel safe at her own home, and her husband eventually lost his job and his alcoholism only got worse and that led to his beatings become worse for her. Oak-hee started to plan her escape from Yong-su, and defect to China, but she was too scared to lose everything and abandon her children. One night after her husband had been drinking heavily, and came back in a particularly bad mood, “He hit Oak-hee, knocking her down, and then delivered a kick so hard she thought she heard a rib crack.” This action from her husband gave her the confidence to leave her husband as soon as this happened, she thought to herself, ”The next morning, when Yong-su sobered up, he would always cry and apologize and beg her to come home, which she always did. For ten years, they had been living that way. If she was ever going to change, now was the time to do it,” and she ends up going to China. For Oak-hee leaving her husband, and leaving North Korea this is simultaneously one of her biggest sufferings and one of her biggest triumphs, this is a suffering for her because when she leaves for China, she leaves her whole life behind, and her most precious thing to her, her children. The reason why this is her triumph aswell is because Oak-hee has always been rebellious against the North Korean regime ever since she was a child, “It surprised no one that Oak-hee would leave North Korea at the first opportunity,” which is true, she has never enjoyed being ruled by a greater good. Even when The Great Leader died, everyone was in mourning, some people even hitting their heads against the concrete outside their houses, “Everyone in the room was in tears…except for Mi-ran. She felt utterly blank inside, not sad, not happy, maybe just a little irritated.” This just further proves how little emotion she had for Kim-Il-Sung and her country, and why defecting from North Korea was her biggest triumph. Oak-Hee shows that people who didn’t follow the government blindly still were affected by the government’s choices.
We respond to the Characters, Mi-ran, Mrs.Song and Oak-hee the most sympathetically because of their triumphs and sufferings that they face, and how vulnerable they become to the audience of the book. Through Mi-ran’s sufferings, such as her secret love affair with Jun-sang, and her triumphs, like her acceptance into teachers college, we gain a new sense of emotion towards them, specifically with Mi-ran, it’s a sense of inspiration, and we feel more empathetic to the character because we experience their downfalls and triumphs. This is same with the others characters, when Mrs.Song’s son and husband die, we feel mournful, when Oak-hee defects from North Korea, we are overjoyed for her as this is what she has wanted her whole life. Though the stories are indeed heartbreaking, Nothing to Envy is also a celebration of the human spirit and its ability to triumph, despite the odds.