North Korea expert Barbara Demick’s now legendary book, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, chronicles the lives of six defectors over 15 years. Demick explains that the famine of the mid-1990s in North Korea was profoundly traumatic for the country, leading to greater repression.
“For a while during the famine, when things were really bad during 1994, ’95, ’96, [the authorities] didn’t stop people from wandering around,” said Demick, now the Los Angeles Times’ bureau chief in New York. “But people started wandering to look for food, and kids who crossed the border into China looking for food weren’t stopped that much. But then when the food situation got a little better, they had unleashed this spirit of self-enterprise, and [North Korean authorities] had to crack down very harshly.”
The famine also broke popular faith in the Kim dynasty as government corruption became widespread, though the need to believe in something remained. “It’s interesting that most North Korean defectors become Christian,” Demick said.
She thinks it’s inevitable that the two Koreas will grow closer. But the gulf between them is vast, greater than the pre-unification division between East and West Germany, said Demick, who was based in Berlin during the 1990s. “There was some communication between East and West Germany. But you still can’t send a letter from North to South Korea, can’t make a phone call, not to speak of an e-mail or a WhatsApp message. The degree of separation is like nothing else in the world,” she said.
Demick suggested the Singapore summit between Trump and North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un last June was “a good thing. I don’t think it will lead to denuclearization, but it certainly eased tension,” she said.
After five years in Seoul … Demick served as Los Angeles Times’ bureau chief in Beijing. She does not buy the argument that China is a benign force for stability in the East Asia.
“The North Koreans will never say this, but they’re more afraid of China than the United States. They’ll say that China is their friend and the US is the great enemy. But I think they fear China’s undue influence on Korea. …Much of the motivation behind the nuclear program is to take control of their own national security. They don’t want to be dependent on China the way they were during the Korean War.”
The North Korean view is also governed by one of the most enduring principles of geopolitics, Demick added: “The US is far away.”