Skip to main content

Glimpses of Amazing Deprivation

An interview with Barbara Demick

Q: How many times have you been inside North Korea?

A: I first traveled maybe six or seven times to a tourist area beginning in 2001. It was relatively easy to go to Mount Kumgang, a tourist resort on the east coast. It was designed for South Korean tourists, but American tourists went, too. Initially, I could not get a visa to go to Pyongyang, the capital, until 2005. It was tough times to be an American and a journalist. George W. Bush had just delivered his Axis of Evil speech, and Americans were persona non grata. That was part of my obsession with North Korea: If a journalist is told you cannot go someplace, you soon get fixated, kind of like a cat with a string. That bred an obsession in me about the details of everyday life in North Korea.

Q: The decision to do the book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea began when?

A: From the beginning, I realized I knew a lot about North Korean history. There was a lot written about their weapons program and the Communist Party in North Korea, which is called the Workers Party, but I had very little idea of how people lived, how they cooked, what they did for fun, how they got married—that whole human element was missing. In the coverage of North Korea, I only saw the people as these automatons marching in parades and doing mass gymnastics—I never saw a certain humanity behind the people.

Q: When you went as a tourist did they have minders for you or is that only after you got your journalist visa?

A: Always. Wherever you go in North Korea, you are watched. And that is not just Americans. In fact, it is more so for Asian tourists who could blend in more easily. People do not just get visas for North Korea. You always go in a group, and you are always escorted.

Q: How did you obtain access to the North Koreans to learn the details about their lives that you were interested in and that became the basis for your book?

A: There were several thousand North Koreans living in South Korea; they were North Korean defectors, but many of them had come recently, and I found they were surprisingly eager to speak to me. There were also North Koreans who were living and working illegally in China, and when I asked them about the details of their lives and their hunger, they opened up. The people had suffered great traumas, and the conversations would begin with “nothing special happened to me.” Then I would find out they had lost a child or maybe watched their child or their spouse starve to death. Something had happened to all of them—they all had extraordinary stories, and I think they were anxious to have somebody bear witness.

Q: When you were in North Korea, what could you observe of their daily life?

A: Very little. They do everything to keep journalists and visitors away from ordinary North Koreans. One of the things I liked doing when I was in Pyongyang was taking walks in the evening, because people would often have little single light bulbs in their homes, and I could walk by in the evening and peer in. The main thing I noticed was the homes were all identical, with the portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il hanging in the same position. Tourists are kept away from regular people, but when I did go out of Pyongyang, I could see things. I was driving to Namp’o on the west coast, and I saw these homeless children walking along the street as described in my book wearing factory uniforms that were much too big for them, and I saw homeless people sleeping in a park—I could see this from the bus, so I got little glimpses of reality.

Another thing I noticed when I was going to the tourist enclave was the little villages around us. At night, those villages would disappear completely, and I could tell there was absolutely no electricity—none at all. I could not see a speck of light. There is an absolute darkness in North Korea I had never seen before. We were staying in the tourist enclave that had electricity, but I could look into the landscape and everything disappeared. I do not think I have ever seen that anywhere else. After I made many trips, I began to notice those things.

Q: What are the conditions in the capital?

A: The people in North Korea are ranked by their loyalty to the regime, and the privileged people live in Pyongyang. By and large, the people in Pyongyang have enough to eat. I did not see too many who are fat, but they are not starving. That being said, there were a couple of times when the buses would get lost and go off the route, and I could see how shabby things were. Once when I went to the Grand Monument statute of Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, there were soldiers who had come to pay tribute and lay flowers. We watched them all bow down, and when they bowed down their trousers lifted just enough off their ankles that you could see none of them were wearing socks—this was the end of October, and it was quite chilly. They were wearing the kind of shoes they should have been wearing socks with. I got glimpses like this of the amazing deprivation.

Q: What is the riskiest thing you have done for a story?

A: I would say the time I spent in Sarajevo. My first book, which has just been republished, Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood, is similar in that it is about ordinary people’s lives in Sarajevo during the siege of 1992–95. I lived in Sarajevo for much of that period. I would say that was by far the riskiest thing I have done. The North Korea project was not dangerous in any way. People have said to me, “Oh, you were so brave,” but most of the reporting involved sitting in nice restaurants with North Korean defectors and listening to them for hours and hours. It required a lot of patience, but it was not dangerous.

Q: What is a day in the life of a Beijing bureau chief like?

A: It starts early, because of the time differences from the moment I get up, which is about 6:00 a.m. The paper is being “put to bed” as we say, and it is pretty tough, because my editors start work at about 11:00 p.m. my time. Often they are asking me, “What are we doing today?” “What is today’s story?” or “How about this for today?” and I have been up since 6:00. On the other hand, if it is slow, I can slip away for a nap, but it has been very busy these days. The whole nature of the journalism business has changed. We do a blog, and we update the web. There is no time when we can say the print run is finished and the paper is out, and now we will go off and drink martinis—it does not work like that anymore.


Q: The remake of the Cold War film Red Dawn is coming out this year. What do you think about the North Koreans being the new enemies of the U.S.?

A: From what I heard about it, they originally planned to use the Chinese, but they wanted the film to show in China, and they did not want to offend China, because that is a good market. It is sort of risk free to pick on the North Koreans. Not that they do not deserve it, but it struck me that nobody ever says “you have maligned the North Koreans” or “you are going to offend the North Koreans.”

Q: What opportunities do you think exist for the U.S. and the North Koreans with the new leadership?

A: I had been hopeful, because the new leader, Kim Jung Un, is in his late twenties, and he does not have a long track record. Nobody is trying to send him to a tribunal for crimes against humanity, and he came in with a clean slate, but I do not think that will last long. In fact, his record may already be muddied. We had a missile test this year, but I did think there was a great opportunity for the U.S. to move forward with a new leader.

Q: How do South Koreans perceive the situation in the North and what does that mean for the prospects of reunification?

A: South Koreans in recent years have been more worried about the prospect of North Korea collapsing than of North Korea attacking. South Koreans are fearful of Korean unification and the economic and the social costs. There is a lot of rhetoric on both sides about being one Korea, and how much they long to be together. I think there is more fear than longing.

Q: Why do the Chinese fear reunification of North and South Korea?

A: They worry North Korea might be absorbed into South Korea, and then there would be a U.S. ally country right on China’s border. They also fear that with a united Korea, the Koreans within China might be agitating for more autonomy. There are about 3 million ethnic Koreans in northeastern China. I would not say Korean nationalism is strong in China, but that could change with a unified Korea.

Q: One of the reasons your book is so effective is the narrative style you chose. How did you decide on this approach?

A: I wanted the book to be accessible to readers who had never been to Korea and might not really know much about where Korea was. I thought by telling a human story with universal elements readers could be lured into learning something—it is an old journalistic trick. I like writing in the form of a story. People want to know what is going to happen next, and that keeps them reading. I also like to try to bring it down to a very personal level, because it is hard for American readers to identify with North Koreans or, in the case of my Sarajevo book that is similar, Bosnians.

While I was writing, I felt like I was in North Korea and in their lives. Part of it was that I did not have much access to North Korea or to that town, but I carefully picked people to write about, and I have to thank them for being articulate about telling their stories. For example, Mi-ran was a great story teller. I did not make up any of the book. Some of the wonderful details came from her. She talked about going to visit her boyfriend at the university and seeing the silhouette of his face in the guard’s light, and she could tell he was smiling. I picked people who were very articulate, and I had a lot of access to them. I also picked people who wanted to talk and who wanted to tell their story.


Q: How has talking with these North Korean refugees changed you?

A: I took nothing for granted after that. Their lives were unbelievably hard and brutal given the events in this book took place very recently. Any work overseas as a foreign correspondent makes you appreciate the creature comforts—the central heating, the showers, the toilets that flush, the hot meals, and everything we have.

Q: Or socks, such a simple thing as socks?

A: Or sanitary napkins. Everything. Every aspect of their lives was so difficult.

Q: Do you have any favorite books you would recommend about North or South Korea?

A: There is a new book by Blaine Harden called Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West. It is a memoir of a boy who grows up in a prison camp, and it is a very moving book and a natural corollary to mine. It details an even more brutal side of North Korea. There is also a good book about South Korea called The Koreans by a writer named Michael Breen that is quite excellent. On a work of fiction, I love the Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson; it came out early this year. Although it is fiction, it is also very revealing about North Korea.

Q: By the time this is published, you will have spoken to an audience of primarily Asian studies, international relations, Korean, and journalism majors at BYU. What advice would you give them to help them in understanding North Korea and Asia?

A: When you are studying other places, try to think of yourself from the perspective of the people who live in these places rather than from an American perspective. We have a tendency to think “How does this affect us?” “Will this country’s approach to politics or international relations be pro-American or anti-American?” It is hard to get in the mindset of other people.

Demick’s reporting on North Korea won the Overseas Press Club award for human rights reporting, the Asia Society’s Osborne Eliott award, and the American Academy of Diplomacy’s Arthur Ross Award. Before joining the Los Angeles Times, she was with the Philadelphia Inquirer as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Her Sarajevo reporting won the George Polk Award, the Robert F. Kennedy Award, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Demick grew up in Ridgewood, New Jersey.

For nearly ten years the Kennedy Center’s Book of the Semester has introduced important ideas to students and faculty at Brigham Young University from renowned global thinkers, policymakers, scholars, and journalists. Not only do we encourage the campus community to read and explore important international, interdisciplinary themes, we also provide direct access to speakers on campus, as well as a chance to come together with others. Past themes have addressed the rise of China, just war, and the globalization of Christianity.

In summer 2012, the Kennedy Center welcomed Barbara Demick to campus at the suggestion of Gordon Flake, a member of the Kennedy Center’s global advisory board (CVLC) and executive director of the Mansfield Foundation, located in Washington, D.C. As a close observer of East Asia, Gordon picked up on what we have discovered in the book Nothing to Envy, namely a beautiful work of narrative nonfiction that offers up deep and disturbing insight into North Korea—an almost unknowable, isolated country that mirrors our worst imaginings of an Orwellian nightmare. Alumni are invited to join the conversation by reading the book, watching the lecture online, and interacting on Twitter (@BYUKennedyCtr) using the hashtag #KennedyLive.