Hi Reddit. I am the Times bureau chief in Beijing and author of the book “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.” Ask me anything about life inside the reclusive country and about Kim Jong Un, the world’s youngest head of state who celebrated his 31st birthday this week.

Here's my proof. Here's more proof

UPDATE: Thanks for your questions. I've got to go to lunch. I'll try to answer a few more in the afternoon.

Comments: 146 • Responses: 25  • Date: 

LilkaLyubov17 karma

I adored Nothing to Envy because it was a view into how ordinary North Koreans thought and experienced during the famine of the 1990s. Now, I remember reading another AMA (in fact, the very reason I signed up for Reddit) of a North Korean defector who left North Korea much later than the defectors in NtE. He indicated that there is a huge shift in how the youth of NK perceive the regime--they go through a lot for appearances' sake, but they don't believe in the Kims much like some of the characters in NtE seemed to. Have you seen this in your work? And, my burning question, have you considered writing a follow-up to NtE with the next generation of defectors?

BarbaraDemick13 karma

Absolutely right. Young North Koreans listen to S. Korean and Chinese pop music smuggled in on MP3 players. They watch illegal dvds and emulate foreign fashion. They despise propaganda. Although also true, young North Koreans will still join the party and go through the motions of believing, if it advances their careers. Actually young Chinese are not all that different. I did a profile a few years ago for The New Yorker of 17-year-old North Korean.

ardnasxc12 karma

What's with the sensationalism by the media when reporting on the country?

BarbaraDemick22 karma

People are inclined to believe anything about North Korea, the more bizarre the better. Executions using packs of hungry dogs, Christians run over by steamrollers, etc. There was a story going around once that when somebody was caught stealing food, they were burned to death and their family required to light the fire. I told a North Korean that story once, and he laughed- pointing out correctly that firewood was way to scarce to kill anybody that way. Unfortunately, the outlandish stories take away from the real tragedy-- which is that millions of North Koreans perish slowly, painfully as a result of chronic malnutrition.

bugaosuni10 karma

Do you believe the dog story?

BarbaraDemick19 karma

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.

would-prefer-not-to10 karma

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?

edit: threw in Amazon link.

BarbaraDemick22 karma

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 defectors 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.

flippityfloppityfloo9 karma

Hi Barbara,

What do you believe are Kim Jong Un's top three international relations priorities today (overt or covert)?

Thank you for coming and doing an AMA on this topic.

BarbaraDemick15 karma

Kim Jong Un wants North Korea to be accepted as a nuclear power. Like his father, he has no intention of giving up nuclear weapons, which he believes are the only thing that prevent him from being unceremoniously ousted like Saddam Hussein or Gaddafi. I think he also wants foreign investment and the lifting of international sanctions in order to build the economy, but not if it means giving up nuclear weapons. North Korea introduced a new slogan last year called "Byungjin,'' meaning simultaneous, the idea being that they develop the economy and the nuclear program at the same time.

BarbaraDemick9 karma

Thanks for your questions. I've got to go to lunch. I'll try to answer a few more in the afternoon. Barbara Demick

StarwarsIndianajones9 karma

What is the biggest publicly held misconception about the country? (if any)

BarbaraDemick18 karma

North Koreans are well-educated and rather savvy people. Until the 1980s, North Korea had a higher living standard than South Korea and certainly China. North Korea is a country that fell out of the modern world, but it was once part of it.

randomsecret8 karma

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

EDIT: More info for those who haven't heard of this yet.

BarbaraDemick14 karma

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 it goes again and takes his mission more seriously.

nlcund8 karma

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

BarbaraDemick12 karma

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.

lmelk7 karma

Mrs Demick, I would like to know if, in your opinion, the attitude of north korean people towards the principles of "juche" has been changing in recent years

BarbaraDemick14 karma

I don't think North Koreans take "juche" seriously anymore. I've heard many first-hand stories about how they sit through the lectures and ideology sessions without paying attention, just going through the motions and mouthing the words if they have to.

nbyone6 karma

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.

BarbaraDemick12 karma

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.

Steff996 karma

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?

BarbaraDemick11 karma

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.

demoticusername5 karma

Any plans to make Nothing To Envy a movie? It should be!

BarbaraDemick17 karma

There is a group of British filmmakers who are trying to make an animated feature.

rustbot4 karma

Are you familiar with B.R. Meyers's book The Cleanest Race? And if so, what do you think about his assertion that North Korea is actually paranoid, ultra-right-wing state, steeped in ideology akin to fascism, posing as a communist nation? Any other thoughts on his views on how North Korea and/or Korean ethnic nationalism may be misperceived in the West?

BarbaraDemick11 karma

I agree with B.R. Myers. In my own book, I described North Korea's ruling ideology as well as "Confucian communism (that) bore greater resemblance to the culture of imperial Japan, where the emperor was the sun to which all subjects bowed, than to anything envisioned by Karl Marx."

Damadar3 karma

How did you feel when the news broke about nuclear threats from North Korea?

Did you think the threats were credible, or just posturing?

What do you think the US could do to fix the North Korean problem?

BarbaraDemick11 karma

Good morning. North Korea threatening the United States with nuclear weapons is a little bit like the Mouse That Roared. Although North Korea has crude nuclear capabilities and is fast developing ICBMs, it is not capable of attacking the US, not the mainland, not Alaska, not Hawaii. It is conceivable that they could reach U.S. forces in Asia, particularly near the DMZ separating the Koreas.

cgallello3 karma

Hi! I just want to say that the way you captured the detail and experience of life on both sides of the DMZ made me really love your book. No other book on North Korea that I've read has been able to capture that quite like yours.

Now my question - what do you think will cause the biggest impact in opening up North Korea? I see so many organizations that are doing great things around bringing information into North Korea and helping refugees, but it's hard to judge which ones are really getting the best bang for their buck.

BarbaraDemick8 karma

I think anybody engaging with North Korea is helping open up the country. The North Koreans need food, medicine, electricity, etc., but as you point out correctly, what they need most is information.

dwallace373 karma

Are North Koreans really as crazy as they're portrayed to be in the media? We even saw that story about Kim Jong Un feeding his uncle to a pack of dogs, which turned out to be false -- but people believed it (and still do). Could it be that a lot of what we think we know about North Korea is actually false? And really, why do they dislike the U.S., yet Kim Jong Un goes on TV and says he wants us to get along?

BarbaraDemick7 karma

I think Kim Jong Un would like to get along with the United States in order to get international sanctions lifted and to rebuild the North Korean economy. But not at the cost of shedding his nuclear weapons. So we are at an impasse.

2basco3 karma

If a large part of cooperation between North Koreans and the NK regime is due to the belief that they have "nothing to envy" about the outside world, what would be the most powerful evidence that they would see as evidence to the contrary?

BarbaraDemick6 karma

Any dvds or media from the outside world are corrosive to the North Korean regime. When North Koreans see images of South Korean homes, the appliances and displays of food, they see how much poorer they are.

SeanJ842 karma

What did you have(or planning on having) for lunch?

BarbaraDemick3 karma


Cpctheman2 karma

Thanks so much for doing this AMA!

-What are the living conditions like for the average North Korean? Are the majority of citizens sympathetic towards their government or is their allegiance purely fear-based?

  • How much of the information from the North Korean government is actually factual and not hyperbolized or modified to shed positive light on the country?

BarbaraDemick3 karma

The first questions-- North Koreans are not starving these days, but they live at the very edge. They eat one meal a day, primarily corn and a few vegetables. They want to believe in their own government but find it increasingly difficult.

y_u_heff_to_be_mad2 karma

You mentioned you are in Beijing. What is the general consensus in China about North Korea's shakeup in December?

BarbaraDemick4 karma

The Chinese are quite threatened by the shakeup in North Korea. Much of it was designed to sever Chinese business relationships with North Korean trading companies.

RyanTally2 karma

What are your thoughts about NK and the manufacturing of meth? Any truth to that? Are they a big player?

BarbaraDemick3 karma

There is a huge meth industry in North Korea. It is centered in Hamheung, the city which was once the headquarters of the state-run chemical industry. I'm not sure how much meth is being exported, but I know that many North Koreans use meth as an everyday drug.

htfu52 karma

How much smaller would the N. Korean population be today if the USA hadn't provided aid over the last 20 years?

BarbaraDemick3 karma

Good question. The US was for many years the largest provider of food aid to North Korea. I can't quantify how many lives were saved, but certainly there were many.

dick_wool-3 karma

Since everyone in North Korea hates and blames the west anyway, why bother aiding them?

would-prefer-not-to3 karma

It isn't their fault they were brainwashed and have no access to competing views.

BarbaraDemick13 karma

If we had only one news source available in the United States and it was telling us that our leaders were god, that everybody else was out to get us, that we had to prepare to die in imminent war, we would believe it too. North Koreans are smart people: as soon as they get a glimpse of the outside world or hear a foreign broadcast, they wise up. That is why the North Korea regime goes to such pains to prevent outside news from seeping in. I wrote a story about this about this in the LA Times, that I think explains.

animal_crackerz-8 karma

Your proof is from the 7th Jan saying that you will do an AMA today, how do we know someone didn't created a fake account to pose as you?

BarbaraDemick5 karma

I've tweeted from my verified account.