4th August 2017

Nothing to envy essay 1


The characters we respond to the most sympathetically are those who experience both suffering and triumph.

We respond sympathetically to Mi-ran’s suffering at the beginning of the text. Mi-ran is a 12-year-old girl from Chongjin, and she is the first character the reader meets. Her father was a south Korean captured in the Korean war and taken as a prisoner of war, and because of her father’s background Mi-ran and her siblings are restricted of progress. Due to low social status (songbun) her father soon becomes submissive on the North Korean way of life, Mi-Ran is limited by her “tainted blood” which meant she was in a hostile class, she could never move up in that class the only way was down, this means she was restricted from education, travelling, she was only allowed in certain places, the text quotes “North Koreans over lower ranks were banned from living in Pyongyang” and also “What was the point with burdening them with the knowledge that they would be barred from the best schools and the best jobs, that their lives would soon reach a dead-end?” Because of Mi-ran’s songbun we respond sympathetically towards her suffering, as a 17 year old girl from New Zealand I could only imagine how living a life this restricted would affect me where i could not travel anywhere, gain my dream job, be with the man I loved and live a life in the shadows. Like Mi-Ran I have my whole life ahead of me, and having my horizons limited due to my fathers status very much like Mi-Ran when she quotes “They had to expect that their horizons would be as limited as those of her father.” 

Frustrations are emphasised when childhood sweethearts Mi-Ran and Junsang whose relationship was frustrated by the latter’s higher social standing. She was introduced as a 12-year-old in love with a boy slightly older than her Jun-Sang, their relationship was suppressed by the rules and regulations within North Korea. It starts out as an innocent love that is shared between the characters but she realised because she was born to a lower class, they would have to sneak out at night as that was the only time they were able to see each other. As Mi-Ran matures she finds out she is treated less than Jun-Sang as he is from a higher class. I sympathise for Mi-ran as she struggles knowing her boyfriend Jun-Sang with higher status than herself, will move forward in society and be accepted into the highest of education, highest ranking jobs whereas Mi-ran will never be able to move up in society she will always be the one at the bottom of the food-chain. If i was to put myself in Mi-rans shoes i would feel like a disappointment to my boyfriend and although he may not think that I would constantly feel as if I was bringing him down and stopping him from growing towards his full potential, constantly feeling selfish for staying with him. It’s these many reasons as to why we sympathise with Mi-ran in the non-fiction text “Nothing to Envy.”

Mi- Ran was fortunate enough to gain an education even though when they reached college age, Jun-sang was sent to a privileged engineering school in Pyongyang, whilst Mi-ran was a teacher in the remote city of Chongjin. Mi-ran later on became a teacher, however by the time she became a teacher the famine had reached North Korea, many were dying from starvation and poor health, those people included some of her students. The extent of how serious the famine was becomes clear as the non fictional text quotes “Their big heads lolled on the top of scrawny necks; their delicate rib cages protruded over waists so small that she could encircle them with her hands. Some of them were starting to swell in the stomach.” Her suffering is also shown in the lines of “People who came from Japan usually married their own kind anyway, they would fix him up with a girl who had Japanese money or he’d meet a smart sophisticated girl at university. Mi-rans romantic, poetry quoting boyfriend was simply out of her league, face the facts, she told herself.” From these details, we feel sympathy for Mi-ran’s suffering because we realise that it not only affects Mi-ran just for a short period of time but it affects her entire life. To have a life like Mi-ran where she could never reach her full potential of happiness, not to mention fact she could never marry Jun-Sang due to her low songbun, I can only sympathise for Mi-ran as I cannot fully relate to her life in North Korea, when I live in the safeness of New Zealand where there are little restrictions unlike North- Korea. 

A place in the non fiction text where the reader experienced triumph for Mi-ran began with her sister So-hee and her friend whom travelled back and forth to China. Mi-ran picked up the courage and was hopeful that herself and her family could defect out of North Korea and leaving it’s overruling tendencies. After days of carefully planning their escape, Mi-ran and her family decided to take the risk of leaving North Korea one night, by crossing the Tumen river to China in attempt to contact Mi-rans fathers relatives in South Korea.“Mi-ran told herself they were going just for a short trip to make a telephone call, but in her heart, she knew she might never come back, whether or not their South Korean relatives would accept them.” Finally at the age of thirty, Mi-ran and her “strapping young” husband and a child had settled down in South Korea along with a million dollar apartment. After many years of being suppressed from her full potential due to the harsh ways of North Korea she now had everything she had once wished for, “She had achieved the Korean dream… the handsome husband, the baby boy, the graduate degree practically in the bag.” Mi-ran defeated the stereotype of those who had “tainted blood” by refusing to live a mediocre life. Although Mi-ran had experienced a great triumph in her life many sacrifices had to occur that she had to endure in order to live her new triumphant life in South Korea. One of those sacrifices being leaving Jun-Sang and their long term relationship by keeping such significant secrets from him, when she disappeared without a trace and had to destroy any evidence of her relationship with the man she loved. Mi-ran destroys her letters from Jun-Sang as the non- fiction text quotes “The letters had to be destroyed. She ripped each one into tiny pieces before throwing them out.” This makes us respond sympathetically for Mi-ran because although she experienced such a great deal of triumph she had to balance that triumph with sacrifices and suffrage. It shows me that sometimes in order to make a better life for yourself, you have to chose what is worth keeping and realise that in cases some people/ things will be sacrificed in exchange for an even better gift in life.

Mrs Song

Mrs Song is a pro-regime housewife, unlike Mi-ran she is first introduced in the text to the audience during her time of triumph. Mrs Song is a very strong believer of marshal Kim il-sung,  dusting her beloved portraits of him which hang in her living room and also watches over her apartment building aiming to catch gossipers who are against the regime. Because of her high “songbun” due to her being a decent of martyr. Mrs Song was blessed with a son to which she believed “redeemed her in the eyes of her family” this is because she had three daughters before having her fourth child. This statement is supported as the text tells us her mother in law even cooked her a seaweed soup for the first time to show appreciation to finally giving birth to a son. At this very point she was in a time of triumph in her life, with a healthy family and what seemed to be a promised bright future just due to the fact she was of higher class. Mrs Song had a lot going for her as she was able to marry a man of the workers party and become one of the smaller percentage of people to be a middle class family with modern technology and an apartment.

Her picture perfect life is soon destroyed as we soon experience sympathy for her when she begins to feel what sufferage is really like when her husband Chang-bo gets arrested for a remark he made about boots in a North Korean shoe factory “hah. If there are so many boots, how come my children never get any?”. His words are soon passed onto the head of the neighbourhood watchdogs, who then passed that serious information to the North Korea’s political police. Chang-bo suffered no true consequences to what he could’ve experienced if he had of been born to a lower “songbun” like those similar to Mi-ran and her family. This experience alone is enough for Mrs Song to experience a sense of suffrage as she was horrified at her husbands disloyalty towards the regime and for the first time in her life had experienced fear as the text quotes “it was not merely that her husband had been disrespectful of the government, for the first time in her life she felt the stirrings of fear.” this is just the start of Mrs Song’s suffrage, “Come darling. Let’s go to a good restaurant and order a nice bottle of rice wine.” Those words were some his last words that Chang-bo whispered to Mrs Song, as he suffered serious hallucinations on his deathbed because of starvation. Nam-oak, Mrs Song’s son experienced a similar fate to his father. When his health began to downgrade dramatically she took Nam-oak to the doctors where “A doctor wrote her a prescription for penicillin, but when she got to the market she found it cost 50 won – the same price as a kilo of corn. She chose the corn.” Her dedication to the regime costed her husband and sons life, due to the great North Korean famine. Mrs Song’s sacrifice she made for corn costed her own sons life and the compromise she made would torture her. “She thought she would just keep walking until she collapsed in the grass. She wanted to lie down and die. But somehow, she didn’t. She started another business instead.” We learn from Mrs Songs experience of suffrage that although compromises are often made, not all of them are for the better and have the outcome you initially pictured at the time, until it’s too late.

Mrs Songs triumph was all a surprise on her behalf, her defection out of North Korea had been planned by her daughter Oak-hee as Mrs Song was told, “Oak-hee was working near the Chinese border… She wanted to repay her mother… but she feared she might get arrested if she came back to Chongjin. Wouldn’t Mrs Song please come to visit her instead?”Mrs Song agreed and was taken “first class” to China.” Once in China Mrs Song initially believed she had been kidnapped when she first realised her daughter was not there but in South Korea, in the beginning Mrs Song refused to live in South Korea with her daughter but she soon came to her senses of how better life was out of North Korea as she quotes “North Korea was years, maybe decades behind China. And who knew how far behind South Korea?” Mrs Song soon on her way to South Korea experienced true triumph as she defected out of North Korea just like Mi-ran. I believe if it hadn’t of been for her loss of the family she never would’ve left North Korea, and never experiencing what life had to offer out from under the firm grasp of the regime in North Korea. We sympathise for Mrs Song because although her suffrage was both mentally and physically exhausting it can often have an unexpected benefit in the long run.

Overall the suffering and triumph of these two characters ultimately cause the reader to react more sympathetically to the characters and in time become more invested and emotionally attached to the characters in the text. I also learnt that it’s important to fight for what you believe in and learnt how to define dictatorship. Through Mi-ran and Mrs Songs suffrage and triumph we learn what defectors had to go through in North Korea and the fight they went through in order to gain true freedom, that some people may take for granted.



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  1. Kiera, this is a very good start. However, you will need to finish this essay for your 3.4 Portfolio- please see me.


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