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North Korean Lives

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North Korea is the world’s black hole. A country of goose-stepping soldiers, nuclear ambitions and famine. Kim Jong-Il, the Dear Leader, has failed his people in unforgiveable ways.

But the story has been muffled. He has shut out the media and sealed the country’s borders.

In an unforgettable new book, the Los Angeles Times’ Barbara Demick has pieced together the accounts of those who escaped to paint a deeply disturbing portrait of North Korea — and of the challenges defectors face once they leave.

This hour, On Point: life inside North Korea.


Barbara Demick, Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. She was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in international reporting. Her new book is “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.”

Read an excerpt from “Nothing to Envy” at RandomHouse.com. And see photos and video at the book’s website.

You can also hear a New Yorker magazine podcast with Barbara Demick.

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  • Alex Szczech

    Fascinating topic. Can’t wait to read the book.

  • Andre Kozaczka

    I recently watched a 3 part documentary on North Korea by the folks at vbs.tv. Very interesting and shows you how much things are choreographed for visitors outside of North Korea, and how closely the actions of the Korean people are watched. This book provides an excellent view of what the North Koreans are truly going through.

  • Pat Churchman

    From 1986-87 we spent a year in Dalian, China and took a train trip up to the city that borders North Korea on the Yalu River. We heard some North Korean tv while there. It occurred to me then and I made the suggestion at the time that we should invite a North Korean choir to the US. I should think they’d appreciate and might reciprocate.

  • jack

    while north korea is in terrible condition and the cause is its repressive dictator, shouldn’t USA share some of the blames?

    I deeply believe that a good and functional democracy can be established only when people really understand democracy and desire for it.

    USA has been doing everyting to suffocate countries like north korea and cuba and block their interaction with the rest of the world for half a century, that policy achieved nothing but keeping those countries poor and resulting miliions of death due to lack of food and medicine. As a consequence people in those countries hate USA, know nothing about democracy, and their regimes are able to keep their control.

    If USA had opened the trade with those countries, I bet they would have had a better life, learned more about western culture and democracy, and the dictators would not be able to maintain such a tight grip on their people.

  • steve m

    I loved Barbara’s article in the New Yorker (Nov. 2009). Unforgettable. Well-written.
    I’ll never forget the passages about the North Kornean’s resourcefulness.

  • Kim P

    My mother-in-law grew up in NK, but escaped to SK when the Communist Party was coming to power. She lost a brother in the Korean War. Do you think military records exist somewhere going back to that time?

  • jeffe

    These stories are so tragic, thank you for a rare glimpse in the lives of the people of this poor country.

  • Ken Smith

    Great topic. Here is an excellent short program PBS did on North Korea a few years ago. It’s called “Suspicious Minds.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lj9uNKT07xs

  • Steve V

    I was stationed in Korea shortly after the Korean War ended (near the DMZ). The control exercised by North Korea is total, as this program points out. As to the people of South Korea, I was impressed how hard working they were. At the time I was there the memory of the war was fresh in everyones mind. To a person they liked the Americans and hated the Communist (not the people, but the Party). Considering their history it’s a wonder they have done so well. It speaks to their character. If North Korea invaded the South right now I’d go back in a minute to help defend them (of course at my age I’d just be a liability but if I could I would). They are a great people who deserve our total support.

  • cory

    Isn’t developing an opinion of North Korean society based solely on the testimony of those who have “fled” analogous to a book on Cuban society written from the perspective of the Cuban exiles in Miami?

    I reject the idea that North Korean society is a “black Hole full of famine and goose stepping soldiers”. I have no idea what goes on in their borders, but I do know how our enemies have been depicted in the past. Seldom are the images flattering or accurate.

    I’ll bet that within their borders;
    1. People smile and even laugh.
    2. Children play games and have fun.
    3. People fall in love and reproduce.
    4. Music is played and people dance.

    I simply refuse to accept these images that are fed to us. I’ll admit I don’t know what happens there, but if it was as bad as we’re told I doubt it would have lasted. People will only tolerate so much before you’ll see some sort of uprising. Don’t believe the hype.

  • Andy


    Questioning what is presented to you is laudable. Refusing to accept what is presented to you in the absence of any reasonable evidence to the contrary, however, I can only consider to be an unfortunate decision.

    As the situation currently stands (and has for some time), the rest of the world has exactly two ways to know what is happening in NK, either listen to the official story promulgated by the NK government or listen to the people who have left. I suggest that the latter, although still imperfect as you correctly point out, is still far closer to the truth of what is happening in NK. And I would like to add that there is a strong difference between leaving your society because you lack material goods or political freedom and leaving your society because you are starving to death.

    All four of your points are probably correct. No doubt all four of these things took place in Rwanda during the genocide, in the Soviet Union under Stalinist purges, and in Nazi concentration camps. (And also in the Japanese internment camps in United States during the Second World War.) But that does not mean that I would want myself or my loved ones to live in any of these places. And it does not mean that I would find punishing three generations of someone’s family if they left anything other than abhorrent.

  • Walter Fox

    Besides her book, where can one find that satelite photo that was described at the beginning of the program?

  • András

    That satellite image showing city lights in Asia at night can be found online in various
    places, including the Wikimedia Commons -

    Korean Peninsula at night

    A wider view, showing China, Korea and Japan at night

    These images come from NASA’s Visible Earth project -

  • Ishmael

    Interesting account. Thankfully, these days some of the more popular videos being smuggled into NKorea via China are those of SKorean soap operas, which are pretty popular in many parts of central and E Asia; thanks to the black market, N Koreans aren’t as fully deprived culturally as they were even a decade or so ago. And, the government is beginning to turn somewhat of a blind eye to small private enterprise as China did a couple decades ago.

    A lot of this ongoing sadism by Kim Jung-Il — and that is exactly what it is — can continue to exist because China simply doesn’t want US troops on its border, so N Korea is suffering the fate of a buffer state. It’s been said that if China issues a command to Kim J-I it will be a fait accompli before the conversation was ended by the telephone being placed back onto the hook or turned off.

    NKorea, incidentally, is the apotheosis of Confucianism.

    Kim has to ingratiate the younger one into the military culture first, for several years, before he can take over the dynastic reign.

    NKorea and Myanmar are the most reclusive countries on the planet. They are both sadistic, failed military dictatorships.

  • Matt

    I’d like to listen to this epsiode, but currently only the first hour of On Point is available on iTunes, and the same goes for the podcast directory at npr.org. I hope it gets put online.

  • Matt

    In a downloadable format instead of the streaming audio above, that is.

  • Janet

    Not our concern and I hope we don’t get involved with another 3rd World failure like N.K.

  • Frank the Underemployed Professional

    I think this is one of On Point’s better shows. I really like the shows that inform me about places, activities, or events that I am unfamiliar with more than the political discussions which are often not very enlightening.

  • Sarah

    To Janet, while I agree that we can’t always be heroes and save everyone, I think globally it’s everyone’s responsibility as humans to try to correct the social injustices that others may not be able to fix themselves. If people ignored things like that, it would only spread further, like in WW2.

  • Natalie

    I caught the rebroadcast last night from 10-11 pm. I am an exhausted mother of two small children and was listening on the road. We arrived home halfway through the interview, and I could not turn off the radio. I sat in my driveway with two sleeping children in the backseat, captivated. Thank you for an incredible interview! I can’t wait to read the book.

  • http://www.gather.socialvaccine.com brennan

    Many countries have “subjective space” and my acute focus is America! east and west of “the great divide”
    Korean born V-tech shooter CHO [and Hassan from "subjected" Gaza] are classic examples of specific/QUANTIFIED prime case “would be EXILES” -for- American youth/civil society.
    if we go around, under, past [but never through...x] our own ignorance! we can and will [quietly] find “our own” subjectED persons and use POLICY [sub-politics] to “find&send” these DESPERATE PERSONS, and only the quantified prime cases as the greedy are alway ready to “Capitalize”[cap C] on ignorance and indeed subjective space; we need to choose between “their! sweat shops” and “our! civil society” [quietly] and talk about love[normal culture] instead. [re cory and other...]

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