Nothing to Envy (2010) presents fascinating first-hand anecdotes from North Korean defectors, giving intimate insights into the lives of North Koreans under the rule of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un. The thousands of refugees who arrive in South Korea each year bring with them stories of famine, repression and an isolated nation that has fallen out of touch with the developed world.
During World War II, Korea was an obscure Japanese colony of little geopolitical importance. But when this peninsula just off the northern coast of China fell victim to the post-war power struggles between the United States and the USSR, things began to change.
In order to appease the USSR and maintain the balance among world powers, the United States divided the Korean peninsula into two parts. Fearing the Soviets would attempt to seize Korea in order to reach Japan, the United States gave the northern half of Korea to the USSR as a temporary trusteeship, while taking over the southern half themselves.
Washington drew the dividing line at the 38th parallel as an arbitrary matter of convenience, not for historical or geographical reasons. Koreans had no say in the division of their country; they saw themselves as victims of a struggle between superpowers.
Neither side was willing to reunify the peninsula and allow Koreans to regain independence, so by 1948, two republics emerged. The Republic of Korea was founded under the leadership of Syngman Rhee in the South. Kim Il-sung, a resistance fighter during the Japanese occupation, founded the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the North.
In 1950, the two sides’ contesting claims to legitimate governance led to the Korean War. On June 25 of the same year, Kim Il-sung, backed by Soviet tanks, caught the South Korean military by surprise and captured its capital city, Seoul.
In response, several other countries joined the war: the United States and a United Nations coalition of 15 nations fought for the South and pushed back Kim Il-sung’s forces, who were now also backed by China. The war ended in armistice three years later, having accomplished next to nothing. The border along the 38th parallel had hardly moved, and 3 million people had lost their lives.