2010 National Book Award Finalist, Nonfiction

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group

Interview by Meehan Crist


Meehan Crist: When did you first start working on Nothing to Envy, and why? Did you know when you started that it would be such an expansive, long-term project?

Barbara Demick: I was hired by the Los Angeles Times in 2001 and assigned to cover Korea out of Seoul. I had a vague idea from the very beginning that I wanted to write something about everyday life in North Korea. I was focused on the question of what it was like to be North Korean. What were they thinking behind the blank stares of the video footage we saw of mass gymnastics or goose-stepping soldiers? Were these people anything like us? This interested me much more than how many fuel rods they’d reprocessed from their nuclear reactor and over time my interest grew. It was shortly before George W. Bush’s famous “axis of evil” speech and it was virtually impossible for somebody like me, a U.S. citizen and journalist, to get a visa. Nothing like being told ‘you can’t’ to make a journalist really want to go. That’s how it was with me. I became obsessed. I felt if I couldn’t get inside their country, I’d get inside their heads. I interviewed as many North Korean defectors in South Korea as I possibly could. In 2004, I decided to focus on one city, figuring it would be much easier to corroborate what people told me. I picked Chongjin, a cold, closed and remote city where many people died of starvation in the 1990s. I collected maps and photographs dating back the early 20th century. Although few outsiders had been permitted to visit Chongjin, there were plenty of defectors. We published a two-part series in 2005 for the Los Angeles Times, which was the germ of the book that became Nothing to Envy.


MC: How did you choose your six subjects, the North Koreans whose lives the book follows for 15 years?

BD: I interviewed more than 30 people for the Los Angeles Times project and then narrowed it down for the book. It was a combination of factors—the most compelling stories, the best memories for detail, the most consistent accounts. I didn’t want exaggerators or embellishers. I wanted stories I could confirm. I liked using people who had at least one friend or relative out of North Korea, so I’d have a second source on everything. That way, I was able to reconstruct the dialogues with a reasonable degree of certainty. Frankly, I ended up picking people I liked and who liked me. The North Koreans in this book had to put up with me and the fact-checkers over a very long period of time.


MC: How did the changing political climate in North Korea over the years affect your ability to report on and write about the lives of the people featured in Nothing to Envy?

BD: It was fortunate that I moved to China in 2007. The towns along the Chinese-North Korean border are the best place to find out what’s going on in North Korea. I made several trips to the border late in the writing process and met with people from Chongjin, among others. It helped to keep my book up-to-date. In the course of my writing the book, the overall quality of life in North Korea improved, then in the last year it got worse again. A year ago, Kim Jong Il decided to shore up his power with a currency revaluation that was designed to close the private markets and confiscate the savings of the middle class. As a result, the standard of living in North Korea is almost as bad as it was in the 1990s, the period I described in the book.


MC: What questions drove you as worked on this book? In other words, what was it that you hoped to better understand by writing it?

BD: What happens to people living in the most totalitarian of regimes? Do they lose their essential humanity?
MC: Your previous book, Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood, focuses on one street in wartorn Sarajevo. How did your work on that book inform the way you approached Nothing to Envy?

BD: The books are similar in that I told a complicated history through the eyes of ordinary people. Both books were based on a microcosm—a street in Sarajevo, a city in North Korea. With Logavina Street, I was also was trying to answer a nagging question: how could a tolerant, secular, heterogeneous community dissolve into ethnic and religious warfare?
MC: In addition to writing nonfiction books, you are the Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. Do you think your work as a journalist has influenced the way you write your books, Nothing to Envy, in particular?

BD: Absolutely. I’ve spent my entire career as a foreign correspondent writing for daily newspapers, the Philadelphia Inquirer before the Los Angeles Times. We newspaper reporters disparage ourselves as hacks—“Oh I’m not a real writer,’’ I’ve said all along. But there is something to be said for a craft (yes, I’ll call it a craft) that requires the writer to be clear, direct, accessible. This is a discipline. A newspaper article has to be written with the assumption that the reader has no prior knowledge of the subject and all essential information is contained within. As I wrote Nothing to Envy, I imagined a reader who was intelligent and curious, but perhaps unable to locate North Korea on a world map or to tell the difference between Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

The other thing I would say in defense of newspaper writing: we have strict rules about not making stuff up. When I started at the Philadelphia Inquirer, we went through a two-day indoctrination session where we were told in essence that we’d be damned to some special hell for journalists if we embellished our quotes or created composite characters.
MC: What was the most unexpected thing you learned in the course of writing Nothing to Envy? How did this discovery help shape the book?

BD: The book didn’t start out as a love story. I was outlining a book about people’s lives in Chongjin that included a section about a young kindergarten teacher who had watched her pupils starve to death. In the course of interviewing this woman, Mi-ran in the book, she told me about how she’d defected without saying goodbye to the man she loved back in North Korea. She wondered if he would forgive her for betraying their love and their country, if she ever saw him again. A few weeks after we had this conversation, she telephoned my office, breathless. Her North Korean boyfriend was in Seoul. He’d defected too. She introduced us. His story, which so perfectly complemented her story, changed the book so that the romance became the bookends at the beginning and end. The romance was not just a powerful story; it allowed me to do what I’d set out to accomplish, to show the good along with the bad about North Korea.
MC: How did you decide on the structure for this book, and how do you feel this particular form serves the book’s content in a way other structures could not?

BD: I go with chronological order. It’s always worked for me. The challenge was flitting back and forth between the people, without making the switches feel contrived. Something I also did differently than in other journalists’ books: I kept myself largely out of the story. I wanted the reader to be completely immersed in North Korea in the 1990s and since I wasn’t there, I stayed out.


MC: Did you look to other books as models for Nothing to Envy?

BD: Yes. John Hersey’s Hiroshima. This is not exactly coincidence. I studied non-fiction writing with Hersey as an undergraduate at Yale, and he always taught us to look for models for our work. I reread Hiroshima several times while working on Nothing to Envy, looking at how he transitioned between people while carrying the story forward, his attention to detail, his respect for his subjects. I was a very disorganized student in college, subject to crippling bouts of writer’s block. I never finished my last paper for Hersey’s course and was graded down for having an incomplete. Hersey told me at the end of the semester to send him something later. If he were still alive, I’d send him the book.
MC: What was the most difficult decision you had to make while writing Nothing to Envy, and why was it so hard?

BD: The hardest thing was to balance my desire to write a book that was rigorously non-fiction with the need to protect families still in North Korea. This book would have been much easier if it were fiction, as I could have used composite characters about whom I perhaps could have divulged more.


MC: What part of Nothing to Envy was the most thrilling to write, and why?

BD: The epiphanies. Each of the six people in the book is going through more or less the same journey. They all start out reciting the same propaganda, singing in this case “We have nothing to envy in the world.” At some point, they figure out that they’ve been lied to all along, indeed, that their whole lives have been lies. I loved writing these scenes. My favorite was the doctor. Starving, she crossed the river into China and stumbled still dripping wet into the courtyard of a farmhouse. She was confused to see on the ground a bowl a bowl of rice with some scraps of meat—she realized at that moment, just an hour out of North Korea, that dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea.
MC: If you could choose one person to read your book, who would it be, and why would you want that person to read it?

BD: Kim Jong Eun, the twenty-something son of Kim Jong Il who was just tapped to be North Korea’s next dictator.


Meehan Crist is reviews editor at The Believer. She holds an MFA from Columbia University, and her work has recently appeared in publications such as The Believer, Lapham’s Quarterly, and the Los Angeles Times. Her nonfiction book, Everything After, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Courtesy of http://www.nationalbook.org/nba2010_nf_demick_interv.html

 

‘Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee’ – A Look Inside North Korea’ with author Jang Jin-sung

February 2, 2015 – Author Jang Jin-sung, on his first visit to the U.S., discusses his new book, Dear Leader Poet, Spy, Escapee—A Look Inside North Korea, which describes his life in North Korea as a psychological warfare officer and one of Kim Jong-il’s revered “court poets,” as well as his dramatic escape to China and South Korea. Jang will also read selections from his poetry and share insights into North Korea shaped by his experiences as well as contacts with North Korean exiles and overseas officials. The evening’s discussion will be led by Dr. Su Mi Terry, a former CIA analyst and current senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute.

10 Days in North Korea. Inside the most isolated country in the world

RT takes an exclusive look at North Korea, the world’s most closed-off country. Life here is isolated from the outside world and every aspect of existence is regulated by order of the “Great Leader”, from the art you’re allowed to see, the books you can read, even to your hairstyle.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is perhaps the least known country in the world today. Based on a political ideology known as ‘Juche’, the socialist government controls every source of information and the national leader, Kim Jong-un, preserves the peace and defends the state’s historical, spiritual and cultural heritage. It’s hard to overestimate the Commander-in-chief’s role in the country: his likeness adorns the streets and squares in every city and village. Through official portraits and statues, he is, literally, everywhere and kindergarten children are taught to sing his praises. Locals adore Kim Jong-un and consider him the Father of the Nation, he encourages everyone to be patriotic and surpass all other nations.
Almost 15% of North Korea’s GDP is reserved for military spending, and long after the Korean War of the 1950s, the country has still not signed a peace treaty with its capitalist southern neighbor. As a result, thousands of families were torn apart by the political divide. The army remains a source of inspiration; it determinates the social structure and stimulates ordinary people to devote their lives to work in the faithful service of the Marshal. The people believe that this military ideology consolidates national spirit and guarantees stability and order.
However, not even tough military methods and an ideological barrier around the country can solve the economic lag or the enormous social and economic gulf between South and North Korea. Self-reliance and self-sufficiency are in stark contrast to the economic reality. Despite developments in labour cooperation, a demilitarized zone, demarcated by a huge wall between the two states, is still amongst the most heavily armed areas in the world.
President of the Korean Friendship Association, Alejandro Cao de Benos explains that due to the generally accepted ideology of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the people will never understand nor accept a western mind-set. From childhood, they are taught to be loyal to their leader and to beware of western values.
For most viewers North Korea remains a mystery but this unique film offers a limited window of opportunity to view Korean lifestyle through the prism of North Korean peoples’ every day cares and joys. RT Doc meets ordinary workers and soldiers to hear first hand, how they lived before being isolated from the whole world.

Saturday Night Movie: Red Dawn (2012)

This 2012 remake of an invasion of America sees the heartland occupied by a heartless North Korean army. The film’s debut virtually crowned North Korea as the only politically correct enemy that could be the bad guy in every film without fear of offending any potential movie audience. Sadly, the film doesn’t have the originality and emotional impact of the first film. Still, it is fine mindless entertainment.

Barbara Demick on Life in North Korea

The New Yorker

Barbara Demick on Life in North Korea

In this week’s issue, Barbara Demick writes about Song Hee-suk, a North Korean woman who struggled through the famine of the nineteen-nineties and defected to South Korea in 2002. (The entire article is available to subscribers; others can purchase access to the issue online.) Demick, the Beijing bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times and the author of the forthcoming book “Nothing to Envy,” gives a rare glimpse into the daily life in the Hermit Kingdom. Demick answered questions over e-mail about how North Koreans see Americans and how they make sense of life in a totalitarian state.

You write that Song Hee-suk, the subject of your article, was still a “true believer” when she defected in 2002. Why, despite a famine that killed several family members and an utter lack of freedom, did she stay loyal to the government?

North Korea is probably the only country in the world deliberately kept out of the Internet. Televisions and radios are locked on government frequencies—it is a serious crime to listen to a foreign broadcast. As a result, North Koreans think that they live in the best country in the world and that, as difficult as their lives may be, everybody else has it much worse. “We Have Nothing to Envy in This World” is the name of a popular children’s song, from which I take the title of my book.

The North Korean propaganda machine had to go into overdrive to maintain this myth during the famine of the nineteen-nineties. North Koreans were told food shortages were due to a U.S. blockade and other nefarious plots of the U.S. warmongers. The hungry stomach shouldn’t believe a lie, but in the absence of any outside information it did.

Mrs. Song told me that up to the moment she left North Korea she held herself responsible for the deaths of her husband, son, and mother-and-law, and it never occurred to her to blame the regime.

She told you she left because of her eldest daughter, Oak-hee. What turned her daughter against the regime?

Oak-hee, who dragged Mrs. Song out of North Korea, actually tricked her into defecting. It is a complicated story.

The mother and daughter had always argued about politics. Oak-hee—almost from early childhood—didn’t march in step with other North Koreans. She didn’t like to wear uniforms or work in collective fields. Her dislike of the regime was reinforced by her experiences during the famine, but I have to say she was born that way: a natural cynic. I know the mother and daughter quite well, as they now live in South Korea, where I myself lived for five years. Mrs. Song usually wears cheerful pastels that make her look like she’s just stepped off the golf course; I’ve never seen Oak-hee, her daughter, in anything but black.

Did the North Korean government deliberately starve its people? Or was it just a result of bad planning?

Of course not. What government would want its own people to starve? It was Kim Il Sung who used to say, “Communism is rice,” meaning the system would succeed by giving the people enough to eat. The famine was caused by mismanagement and the inability to adapt to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic transformation of China.

All that said, Kim Jong Il acted with callous disregard to the suffering of his people. Rather than lose face, the North Koreans denied the food crisis for years and then kept humanitarian aid out of the places it was most needed. The regime executed people who tried to adapt by engaging in private business.

By the way, Kim Jong Il is famous for being one of the biggest foodies in Asia. Throughout the nineteen-eighties and well into the famine, he flew couriers around the world to procure delicacies for his own palate—fresh fish from Tokyo for his sushi, cheese from France, caviar from Uzbekistan and Iran, mangoes and papaya from Thailand.

Has the military ever turned on the North Korean leadership? How did it react to the famines of the nineteen-nineties?

In Chongjin, the city I’m writing about, Kim Jong Il ordered a purge of the 6th Army Corps in 1995, the year after his father’s death. I know many North Koreans who lived in Chongjin at the time; they heard rumors of a coup attempt. I don’t think it’s true. The more plausible story is that Kim Jong Il thought they were taking too big a cut of the lucrative trading at the Chinese border. (The North Korean military runs trading companies that sell everything from pine mushrooms to amphetamines.) During the famine many soldiers died of starvation themselves. But nobody has every confirmed a story that they rebelled en masse.

Are North Koreans still starving?

People aren’t dropping dead on the streets from hunger. But they still die quietly at home of illnesses that are a direct or indirect result of malnutrition.

Your upcoming book is about the ordinary lives of North Koreans. What’s the most surprising thing you discovered while reporting it?

At the risk of sounding like a cliché, that they are so ordinary. We see North Koreans as automatons, goose-steeping at parades, doing mass gymnastics with fixed smiles on their faces, but beneath all that, real life goes on with the same complexity of human emotion as anywhere else.

How did the regular North Koreans you met see the United States?

North Koreans are obsessed with the United States. They hold the U.S. responsible for the division of the Korean peninsula and seem to believe that U.S. foreign policy since the mid-twentieth century has revolved around the single-minded goal of screwing them over. The cruelest thing you can do is tell a North Korean that many Americans couldn’t locate North Korea on a map.

What kind of Western pop culture are North Koreans exposed to?

Foreign culture has a funny way of seeping through the cracks of even the tightest borders. Smugglers buy up cheap DVDs pirated in China, hide them in the bottom of cartons of other goods and then sell them illegally on the black market.

The North Korean regime is terrified of the illegal DVD industry because they allow people to get a glimpse of the outside. Movies like “Gone with the Wind” or “Titanic” are not the threat—they’re period pieces, after all—but movies and television serials depicting modern lifestyles are devastating. Any glimpse of the outside world is corrosive to the regime’s hold over the population. When North Koreans watch soap operas, especially South Korean soap operas, and see ordinary people in kitchens with microwaves and gas stoves, refrigerators filled with food, they realize everything they’ve been told is untrue. They do have something to envy.

Saturday Night Movie: The Interview

The Interview is a 2014 American political satire spy comedy film directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. It is their second directorial work, following This Is the End (2013). The screenplay is by Dan Sterling, based upon a story he co-authored with Rogen and Goldberg. The film stars Rogen and James Franco as journalists who set up an interview with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and are recruited by the CIA to assassinate him. The film is also heavily inspired by a Vice documentary which was shot in 2012.

Rogen and Goldberg developed the idea for The Interview in the late 2000s, with Kim Jong-il as the original assassination target. In 2011, after Jong-il’s death, Jong-un replaced him as the North Korean leader. Rogen and Goldberg re-developed the script with the focus on Jong-un’s character. The announcement for the film was made in March 2013, along with the beginning of pre-production. Principal photography took place in Vancouver from October to December 2013.

In June 2014, the North Korean government threatened action against the United States if Columbia Pictures released the film. Columbia delayed the release from October to December, and reportedly re-edited the film to make it more acceptable to North Korea. In November, the computer systems of parent company Sony Pictures Entertainment were hacked by the “Guardians of Peace,” a group the FBI claims has ties to North Korea.[5] The group also threatened terrorist attacks against cinemas that showed the film. Major cinema chains opted not to release the film, leading Sony to release it for online rental and purchase on December 24, 2014, followed by a limited release at select cinemas the next day.

The Interview grossed $40 million in digital rentals, making it Sony’s most successful digital release, and earned an additional $11.2 million worldwide at the box office on a $44 million budget. It received mixed reviews for its humor and subject matter, although a few critics praised the performances of Rogen, Franco, Park and Diana Bang.