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The Extraordinary Lives Of Ordinary North Koreans


North Korea has been making waves with a round of escalating threats recently, just the latest in a series of acts that range from the belligerent, like February's nuclear test, to the bizarre, the much publicized visit with former NBA wild man Dennis Rodman comes to mind.

Since taking over from his father in 2011, Kim Jong Un, now only 30 years old, has taken a hard-line approach to international diplomacy. What's often missing in the coverage of North Korea are the voices of its 24 million citizens who live under the rule of one of the most authoritarian regimes in the world.

To help us better understand recent developments and how they affect average North Koreans, we're joined by Barbara Demick. She's the Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times and author of "Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea." Barbara Demick, thanks for being here.

BARBARA DEMICK: Thank you very much.

LYDEN: What do you make of the recent surge and rhetoric and posturing from Kim Jong Un and North Korean leaders?

DEMICK: North Korea's whole idea is to create a crisis to solve a crisis. They're so poor and they're so desperate that they realize that this bombastic rhetoric can drive the South Korean stock market down and get the U.S. in a tizzy. And it's a game they've been playing for many, many years.

But I think this time, one of the things that's different is that we have this 30-year-old leader who may actually believe his own rhetoric, may really believe he runs a mighty country that can vanquish the imperial enemy. And if that's the case, we could be in trouble.

LYDEN: Barbara, remind us of what life was like for the average North Korean citizen in the 1990s. First of all, there was the famine that occurred under Kim Jong Il, and that news did get out.

DEMICK: The people were just completely, utterly miserable, hungry, cold, dirty, overworked. But they couldn't even ask, you know, why is there no food? And if they did ask, they got in trouble. One of the women in my book, her husband made an offhand comment when they were watching television. There was a program about this factory making boots for children. And the man said: How come my kids haven't gotten these boots? And he was nearly taken away. He couldn't say: My kids have no shoes.

LYDEN: Kim Jong Il died in late 2011, and he was succeeded by his younger son Kim Jong Un. Has life changed for North Koreans since he took power?

DEMICK: Not very much, although I would say up to this recent crisis, there was, for the first time in a long time, a bit of hopefulness in North Korea. Kim Jong Un came in as a fresh face, so I think there's a great disappointment that he's playing the same game as his father.

LYDEN: You interviewed over 100 North Korean defectors for your book. And when they left, many of them thought that the regime would collapse soon and that they could go back to rejoin their families. But it hasn't happened. It certainly doesn't appear to be happening or expected anytime soon. Why not?

DEMICK: Rather than take any risk of something that would weaken their regime, you know, they've made a very hard choice of regime control over rice. During the famine, they started letting people trade things at the market. One of the women in my book started selling cookies. But her business eventually faced pressure from the government because they didn't want any kind of economic activity. People I've met, you know, said the same thing over and over again. We wish the government would just go away and let us feed ourselves.

LYDEN: So there is the idea that the international community, by pursuing even stricter sanctions on North Korea, might be hurting average citizens.

DEMICK: It's frightening to think about more sanctions. When I've met North Koreans in China, they've said to me: You have no idea how difficult our lives are. We live like dogs. They wake up in the morning wondering what they're going to eat for dinner. They go to bed at night wondering what they're going to find for breakfast. And this is a situation that's been chronic for 20 years.

A South Korean teenager, 18-year-old male, is about five inches taller than his North Korean counterpart. And there are many soldiers who are only about 4'6". The height requirement is supposed to be 4'9". That's the size of my 12-year-old son. But they can't find enough people who are that big. The situation is very desperate.

LYDEN: Barbara Demick is the Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times and the author of "Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea." Barbara Demick, thank you for speaking with us.

DEMICK: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.