Times staff writer Barbara Demick answers questions about North Korea

Times staff writer Barbara Demick answers questions about North Korea
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, and former NBA star Dennis Rodman at a basketball game in Pyongyang in February. (KCNA / AFP/Getty Images)
Barbara Demick

, the Los Angeles Times bureau chief in Beijing and author of the book “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea,” has reported extensively about North Korea.


She answered questions Friday on Reddit about life inside the reclusive country and about leader Kim Jong Un, who celebrated his 31st birthday this week at an exhibition basketball game where he was serenaded by former NBA star Dennis Rodman.

Here are a few of the questions that generated interest. For more on North Korea, read the full Reddit AMA or follow Demick on Twitter @BarbaraDemick.

Questions from Reddit user would-prefer-not-to:

1) Thanks for doing this. What are your thoughts on international sanctions against trade with NK? I saw Katharina Zellweger give a talk where she decried them, saying that they punish the people for having an odious government and achieve little.

2) I read "Nothing to Envy" and it was one of the best non-fiction books I've ever come across. It read like a thriller with some romance thrown in. It would make an incredible movie. How did you source and fact check those stories?

Demick: I agree with Kathi Zellweger that sanctions mostly punish the ordinary people who live at the edge of starvation. But I'm not sure what other tools we have to maintain pressure on the North Korean government.

Regarding my book, "Nothing to Envy," I focused on one city, Chongjin, so that I could confirm what people said with multiple witnesses. If one North Korean defector tells you about seeing bodies of children who starved to death on the street, you don't necessarily believe them. But if there are dozens describing the same events at the same time, it adds up to a credible picture. Good reporting should have the same standard as in a courtroom -- beyond a reasonable doubt.

Steff99: I haven't; read your book, But I expect I may in the future. Is it really that bad in NK? only I thought the countries economic state may account for some poverty. However, it's not so UN-usual for people work in the fields. it was less than 100 years ago that the entire planet functioned like this. Is it really as bad as they say?

Demick: Good question. The tragedy for North Koreans is that they are living much as they did a century ago, at the edge of starvation, in the midst of a region that has experienced the greatest economic miracle of our time. When North Koreans cross the border into China, they are stunned to learn that the Chinese can afford to eat rice daily, sometimes for three meals daily.

nbyone: Do the people of North Korea ever think about revolting, or do they think the country is relatively "normal" compared to the rest of the world.

Demick: One of the ways the North Korea regime has kept power is by keeping its people ignorant of the living standards in the outside world. That's the underlying lie that supports the regime -- not that their country is "normal" but that they are better off. The title of my book, "Nothing to Envy," is taken from a popular children's song "We have nothing to envy in the world" about how wonderful life is inside North Korea. Here's a Youtube link, sorry no English subtitles.

nlcund: Do you see China's attitude towards NK changing? How do or did the various NK factions line up vs. China?

Demick: Last month, when Jang Sung Taek (the uncle) was executed, the allegations against him included selling natural resources and leasing ports too cheaply to the Chinese. I think to some extent, the purge was directed against Chinese business interests in North Korea. I'm based in Beijing now and I know the Chinese policymakers are very nervous about Kim Jong Un. They think he is an impetuous kid who they can't control. But I don't think they are ready to dump their traditional alliance with North Korea because they don't see an alternative.

bugaosuni: Do you believe the dog story?


Demick: That Jang Sung Taek was eaten alive by a pack of hungry dogs? No, I don't believe the story. But probably many North Koreans will and that will only enhance their fear of the regime. I think the North Korean government sometimes deliberately spreads urban legend to keep people in line.

randomsecret: Do you think Dennis Rodman's "basketball diplomacy" will have any significance in US-NK relationship?

Demick: I always think it's good when Americans visit North Korea -- the more engagement the better as far as I'm concerned. Rodman should have been more thoughtful about how he behaved and what he said. He squandered a great opportunity. But I hope [he] goes again and takes his mission more seriously.

Twitter: @alexzavis