Q&A with Barbara Demick, author of award-winning book on North Korean defectors

Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times journalist and author of the 2010 book, “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea,” spoke at Baylor University’s Free Enterprise Forum last week. Her critically acclaimed book examines the lives of six North Korean defectors living in South Korea.

In an interview with the Tribune-Herald, Demick answered questions on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the United States’ policy stances, the potential significance of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and the defectors she came to know.

Though most of your reporting was done from South Korea, what was your experience in North Korea?

Especially as a journalist going to North Korea, you generally have at least two minders — one minder to mind the other minder. So anybody you interview is in the presence of somebody working for the North Korean government. You can’t interview them about the actual quality of their lives. You get stock statements professing their loyalty to the regime. For example, if you ask them how the food situation is, they say, “Thanks to Kim Jong Un, all of our needs are taken care of.” Which is not true, but that’s what they say.

What first sparked your interest in North Korea?

Mystery, I suppose. There are not that many mysteries in life anymore. Not that many places that people can’t go. Most of the coverage of North Korea concerns their weapons programs and the totalitarian regime, but I wanted to do some writing that would show what it’s really like to be a North Korean and what it’s like to be in North Korea.

Because there wasn’t any fiction, at that point, that portrayed it, and there wasn’t any nonfiction that portrayed it. We knew a lot about North Korea’s political system and their weapons. We really didn’t know how people lived.

How would you describe the lives of the people you chronicled?

Grim, but with moments of happiness. I don’t think that people in North Korea are uniformly miserable all the time, but it’s a very tough life. I think most people really just struggle to feed themselves.

What are the little moments of happiness?

My book is really a love story. It’s about two teenagers who have a very innocent relationship. It’s a first love, and when I started reporting the book, one of the main characters is a young woman who’s a kindergarten teacher. I had been talking to her mostly about the famine and people who had died and really tough, sad stories.

And then I asked her if she has any happy memories of North Korea. And she told me this story about her first love, this young man and how they would walk in this park in the dark because it was the only place that was private and there were beautiful leaves, they would kick the leaves. She remembered how happy she was at that time. It was a very innocent, first-love relationship. North Korea is very prudish. It progressed only as far as holding hands. I often asked North Koreans about happy memories, and some people told me they had no moments they were happy. Certainly others did. North Koreans, like South Koreans, are very close to their families.

There are moments with children and their spouses. It’s a tough life, but I think the reason that more North Koreans don’t defect is that they know once they leave, they’re never going to see their families again and that’s a really hard thing to take. Still, in 2018, there’s no email between North Korea and South Korea. There are no telephone calls. There’s no letters, no stamps. There’s really no way of communicating with your family once you leave. There’s a little bit of a secret route through China where people can sometimes communicate, but these Koreas are still so divided like no place else in the world.

How are the lives of the defectors in your book now?

I think they’re happy. I think the dark spot for them is that in the ’90s and early 2000s when people defected to South Korea, they imagined the country was on the verge of collapse, and they would go to South Korea, get themselves settled and that eventually the situation would change and that their relatives would come to visit them or else they could go visit their relatives in the north. I think they didn’t anticipate that the Koreas would be divided this long. The people in my book are living in South Korea and are doing well, although not all North Korean defectors do well in South Korea, but I think they miss relatives and family.

How did Kim Jong Un develop his mindset?

I can take a guess at it. He was raised with this belief that his family was destined to rule, that the Kims are sacred. They’re like the emperors of old, and I would guess that he believes, because he’s part of that bloodline, that he is destined to rule and that that’s his place. How he became so ruthless, or his education, I really don’t know.

What are the differences between Kim Jong Un and his late father, Kim Jong Il?

I actually think that he’s tougher than his father. I never heard of cases of his father killing anybody in the family. Kim Jong Un has had his half-brother and his uncle both killed; one was executed and one was assassinated. I think Kim Jong Un is also more market-minded. Since he took over in 2011, the North Koreans have done quite a bit to open up the markets to trade and have sort of loosened some of the controls on the population. I think he is simultaneously tougher but more open to economic reform.

What kind of image does Kim Jong Un want to the project to the United States?

Obviously, he wants to look tough. But he also wants to look popular, as though he has the undiluted support of all his people. And I think he genuinely does have quite a bit (more) support than his father.

Why is that?

I think because the economy has improved under Kim Jong Un. He’s allowed people to trade more in the markets.

Under Kim Jong Il, it really was a much stricter form of socialism, where he wanted all the food to be doled out by a central distribution system. It was really a very pure form of communism of a sort that hasn’t really lasted anywhere else into the 21st century. And Kim Jong Un has been more open to market reforms, and I think that’s why the economy has improved despite the sanctions.

The Otto Warmbier situation was disturbing to follow from the United States. Is there anything that American diplomats could have done to prevent his death?

I don’t know. His case is very unusual. It’s very different from other instances where Americans have been taken hostage. I don’t know why he was treated so badly. He was given a very harsh sentence, but I think most people thought all along the U.S. diplomats thought the North Koreans were waiting for an opportunity to barter him for somebody else and were surprised by his bad treatment.

How would you describe the foreign policy stance toward North Korea under President Donald Trump’s administration?

That negotiations start with North Korean willingness to give up their nuclear weapons. I think that’s where the standoff has been. They have not wanted to take a more gradual approach in saying, ‘Let’s talk about a freeze or confidence-building measures.’

Is there any indication or any chance North Korea would ever give up on its nuclear weapons program?

Not immediately, no. I think that’s why there’s a standoff. They feel that without their nuclear weapons, their regime, their leadership would go the way of Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi. I don’t think anybody who follows North Korea thinks that they would give up their nuclear weapons at this stage.

I think people think that it would be possible over a period of years to have a negotiation where the weapons are frozen or eventually given up, but it would be down the road. And I think North Korea has wanted to go as far as possible, technologically, with their nuclear program before they negotiate. I think they do want to negotiate with the United States, but they want to negotiate as a nuclear power.

Vice President Mike Pence said new economic sanctions are coming against North Korea. What are the ramifications of that?

I think by the time the Olympics are over, we’ll be back to where we were before with the hard-line policy against North Korea, increased sanctions and kind of a stalemate. I’m not really optimistic that the Olympics will change anything.

At the Olympics, the North Koreans and South Koreans marched together. How significant was that?

At the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, the North and South Koreans marched together, and that was the first time. That was really emotional. That was just a huge breakthrough. People were crying because they really felt it was a breakthrough.

This time, I think it was much more cynical. I think this was calculated on both sides. The North Koreans wanted a chance to kind of grandstand and show their soft power by sending athletes and these attractive cheerleaders and Kim Jong Un’s sister. It really was a soft power thing to pretend they’re not this rogue regime.

For the South Koreans, it was also calculated because by having the North Koreans there, it was a guarantee that they wouldn’t sabotage the party.

I do think that the South Korean government is sincere about wanting to improve relations because they don’t want to be caught in the middle of a war between the U.S. and North Korea.

But it wasn’t like this great breakthrough that happened in 2000, and then it didn’t go anywhere. This time it was really very cynical.

What should Americans know about North Korea?

They should know that there are 25 million real people living in North Korea, and they’re not monsters. They are, in many ways, captives of this very repressive regime. They are regular people who care about their children and their homes and their health and what they’re going to have for dinner. It’s a more textured place than you might imagine.

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