French Friday: Nothing to Envy

Yesterday, I returned Nothing to Envy; Ordinary lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick to the library.

I read the book with my book club early March. Published in 2010, Nothing to Envy opens a fascinating and rare window on North Korea as seen through the lives of six ordinary citizens who defected.

It took years for these men and women to realize that they were living a lie and some more to undertake the dangerous journey out, since they could trust no one. In North Korea, even a whisper is suspicious and  denunciation is rampant.

As I went through the remarkably well-researched book that reads like a novel, I kept comparing what the author depicted to what I had seen in Russia in 1986. The different period of time struck me as irrelevant, since the lifestyle of too many ordinary North Koreans in the 21st century is still quite similar to the way people lived in the Russia I visited before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

My first impression when I landed in Moscow was to witness a very powerful country. This was due to the heavy military presence. Then, the city appeared as old fashioned. Clothing, shoes, cars, shops were outdated, as if the country had been cut from the rest of the world for forty years. Not too far from the truth.

Restaurants, hotels, and other amenities were specially designed for tourists. The black market blossomed. But for ordinary citizens food was meager and long lines formed outside the stores, where mostly women shopped.

I had just met a woman in Paris who knew someone in Moscow. One name was my ticket to the hidden life of Russian people. Gifts of toilet paper, soap, magazines, perfumes, and feminine products allowed me to sip tea in a Soviet apartment. Even with one single kitchen and bathroom shared by three families and walls so thin people spoke in whispering voices, it was far more interesting than visiting yet another museum, mausoleum, and any authorized landmarks.

Black tea replaced coffee and was left to infuse for so long that everyone had stained teeth. The first time I noticed mine I freaked out. I had no intention to see a dentist. But my good French toothpaste took care of the issue. Vanilla was the only ice cream flavor, and only tourists ate caviar after a guided tour of a fishery. I bought a matryoshka or nesting dolls and a colorful scarf in a shop only open to tourists.

Young girls and boys’ impeccable English shamed me. Our door to the other side, one of them told me. Every few feet people stopped me to buy my jeans, my earrings, and my books. I gave away my stash of fashion magazines and sample of beauty products, brought especially for these moments. My clip-on earrings were in high demand and I left several pairs behind.

Totally throwback 80s. But Russians girls went crazy for the earrings I wore back then 🙂

I took very few photos when I was there. We were not as obsessed with visuals as we are now. Besides, was it appropriate to capture on camera people waiting in lines and was it interesting to take another photo of the sites westerners were allowed to see?

Years later, I’m thankful to the visitors who took pictures and to the Internet that allows me to share them with you. This selection of photos and this YouTube video depict with accuracy what I personally saw when I toured Moscow.

As much as I feel fortunate to have seen a tiny fraction of what life was behind the iron Curtain, I was uneasy there. Not because I didn’t feel as free and safe as I did in France, even if both were true. Mostly, I kept questioning the rationale behind the trip.

Did I go out of curiosity? Did I feel I had to see for myself before making my own opinion? Was I on a ‘mission’ to bring some needed products? Wasn’t I somehow cautioning the regime if I booked a tour to visit? What did it mean to visit a country that violated human rights? To which extent was it acceptable to know there was another reality behind closed doors?

Those were my thoughts when I was in Russia and Ukraine and witnessed the waiting lines in front of the shops, the men drunk on cheap vodka, the propaganda painted on the walls, Red Square and its impressive buildings and landmarks, and the insatiable appetite of the young men and women for everything from the West.

Also, as much as the comparison between France and Russia was impossible, I could only admire the people’s resilience and love for their land. Something that was less apparent in my own country.

I found the exact same traits of characters in the North Korean people Demick depict in her book. Their love for their native land and their courage go beyond the imaginable. When they suffered the most horrific famine in the mid 1990s, a sad ironic result of the opening of the Eastern Europe world, their creativity knew no limit. Women were particularly imaginative and became exceptional entrepreneurs, creating the first markets in the country.

The friend who hosted our book club this month had gathered tons of info about the author and North Korea. Among them, I highly recommend Barbara Demick’s short speech at the Oslo Freedom Forum in 2011.

As I slipped Nothing to Envy in the Book Return chute, I thought of a conversation I had with my husband.

He has made several extensive professional trips to Asia in the past and has always wanted to return, with me this time. North Korea is not on his list. South Korea, where he went, is not either.

A country divided in two doesn’t feel right, he says.

But you’ve been to Germany, I argue, when there were two Germanies. And I’ve been to the USSR.

It was in the 1980s, he points out.

Right. The two Koreas have been separated since 1953, while the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961 and fell on November 9, 1989.

Before that memorable day, significant events had, however, marked ineluctable changes. Czechoslovakia had opened its borders to all residents from East Germany who wanted to leave for the West. Since the summer, hundreds of people had defected through Hungary, Austria or Czechoslovakia. Just days before the Wall fell, protests from both sides of Berlin had happened with no police intervention in East Berlin. Profound changes were underway and they started with the people.

When Barbara Demick spoke after the parution of her book she lamented the absence of North Koreans at the podium. Only a few years later, Yeonmi Park and Hyeonseo Lee, two young North Korean women who defected, spoke up. Suki Tim, a South Korean citizen, went undercover in North Korea, posing as an English teacher.

Their stories are heartbreaking, deeply moving, and inspiring. I listened to them, thinking of the title of the book, inspired by the hymn that young North Korean children sing every day in school:

Our father, we have nothing to envy in the world.

Our house is within the embrace of the Workers’ Party.

We are all brothers and sisters.

Even if a sea of fire comes toward us, sweet children

Do not need to be afraid,

our father is here.

We have nothing to envy in this world.




  1. I have looked into N. Korea twice. Once at the DMZ and the other time in Dan Dong, the largest Chinese border city, facing Sinuiju, North Korea. The NGO I work with sends food and supplies into N. Korea by train. We went very close to N. Korea by boat and saw people washing their clothes in the river. Their boats and buildings were old and rusty. There was also a false amusement part which was lit up at night I guess trying to give the illusion of fun and prosperity. There are restaurants where beautiful young North Korean women perform traditional Korean songs and dances and then go to the tables and tell the guests how wonderful life in North Korea is.
    Travel gives perspective to the lives of others. I believe that if more people traveled and gained an understanding of others our world would not be in the mess it is today with the us versus them mentality.
    Thank you for this post and your reflections on your trip to the Soviet Union and I’m looking forward to reading Nothing to Envy.

    • I thought about you when I wrote this post, Claire. Your experience in Korea is fantastic. Everything you say about North Korea is in the book and also said by the two young women who defected. I agree with you on the unique opportunity we get when we travel. 100% with you. However, it’s hard to go with the pretend, no? I did it and still grateful for the chance, but I felt like an outsider and observer at the same time.
      Thank you so much for your great comment. I noticed you wrote others that I need to read now:)

  2. Très intéressant, merci.
    Cette incursion en URSS me rappelle un voyage très encadré en Tchécoslovaquie, 1981.
    Ainsi que tu le fais remarquer, prendre des photos n’était pas un réflexe, et nous étions surveillés. Mais j’ai tout dans les yeux. Prague est maintenant une destination si courante …
    Bonne fin de semaine – amicalement

    • Merci, France. Tu as raison à propos de la banalité des voyages maintenant. C’est formidable que le monde soit si ouvert et que davantage de gens puissent découvrir d’autres pays. Mais je suis contente comme toi d’avoir vu « autre chose. » Prague en 1981 c’est un autre monde…
      Merci encore et bon week-end.

  3. Much food for thought here, Evelyne. Thank you!

  4. Living in one of the dictatorships is hard to imagine, Evelyne. The hymn at the end is chilling, and seems to say it all. Excellent post. –Curt

    • Thank you, Curt. The book is phenomenal as it really opened my eyes. This is one thing to know and another to listen to the people who have lived in the dictatorship. And the hymn is bone-chilling, for sure. Thank you for stopping by. Hope all is well for you and Peggy.

  5. What an amazing piece, Evelyne, so much food for thought…Your Russian trip was so moving and so fascinating… I wonder what things are like now under Putin and his iron fist…as for North Korea… one can only hope that the Trump talks may be the tiny chink that can crack open the frozen ice of the terror and tyrrany…

    • Agree with you on so many points, Valerie. The book was such an eye opener. The most shocking was to read that most of the defectors had a hard time to adjust to their sudden freedom and were homesick. Not unlike people who endured abuse. There is little we can do, I’m afraid. Just to be informed and listen to the people’s stories.
      Thank you so much for stopping by and for your thoughtful comment.

  6. That’s heavy. I’m glad you shared this, as well as your experiences in USSR. There must be millions of interesting tales from those who’ve now lived through many versions of their homeland.
    Dictatorships make me sad. So sad.

    • Funny that you mention heavy, Joey. Originally, I had planned Parkland and the high school students’ movement. I thought it was very heavy. Then, I returned this book to the library and I’ve really learned a lot more than I expected. Bone-chilling.
      My next post will be less heavy, promise 🙂
      Hope all is well for you. Thank you for taking the time to stop by and comment.

  7. I think those of us who have come from one country to live in another have a different way of looking at the world, whether we stayed to build a life forever, or eventually came back to where we began. We were just watching the story of Jews in America and thinking that mine is one of the families that isn’t Jewish anymore. I am, but my son isn’t nor is my granddaughter. The choice in being America was to be American and assimilate or not. It must be a very strange thing to come from a world so restricted to a place so essentially without rules.

    Let’s hope it stays this way.

    I will have to look for the book. I could use something that makes me think.

    • Knowing your beliefs and interests I think you would find the book fascinating. I certainly did. The research is impeccable since the author is a longtime journalist and the writing engaging. Above all, the people’s stories are incredible. Hard to believe we live on the same planet.
      What I found sad but understandable is how hard it is for the people who defect to adapt to freedom. Somehow they missed the rules, like you say. And of course, they missed their families. In all cases they left alone and often without telling anyone.
      The book is not very recent. You should easily find it at your public library.
      Thank you for another visit, while I’ve been absent from so many blogs recently.

  8. J’aime beaucoup ce genre d’article. I like very much as your article like this. Congratulations…
    André Bouchard

  9. What a fascinating post Evelyne. I have yearned to visit Russia and find your account of your visit in 1986 so interesting (the same year I moved back to California…) Who would have thought your clip on earrings would be such a hit? You made a very interesting point about visuals not being such a ‘thing’ back then. It’s so good to have a record, and I am one to talk as I have always been keen on taking photos, but it has got to the point today it seems that every waking moment gets recorded! Okay for some, I suppose! How the world has changed since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Thank you greatly for bringing this book to my attention, I am going to get it for my husband who is intrigued with North Korea. Btw, interesting that both North and South Korea competed beneath the same flat at the winter olympics. The little song at the end is so poignant… See you soon my friend!

    • Thank you, Sherri for stopping by and for commenting on my post. If your husband wants to know more about North Korea, this is the book. The links I include are great to listen to the author. Very factual and direct. The other links are poignant.
      Like you, I take more photos than I ever did. Sometimes I catch myself reaching for my phone, for no specific reasons and I put it away. These devices are as familar as our toothbrushes and like brushing our teeth they have entered our routine. I love the way we can connect so easily, snap pictures so easily, do so many things so easily, but I think many of us realize that there is a limit to constant connection.
      Solitude and silence become rare and concepts for the elite who retreat to seclusive places to cut themselves from this permanent noise.
      I think we can do it simply by cutting down on our time on social media and on being more attentive of the pictures we take.
      Thank you again for your kind visit. Best to you.

      • I will show hubby the links, he will be very interested, thank you again Evelyne. I do just the same with my phone…taking the time to just enjoy the moment and as you say, be more attentive, is so important to remember. Always a pleasure to visit you, you were first on my list today of blog rounds, and then there you were over at the Summerhouse! Great minds and all that 😉

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