The most important story in the world right now is how real the chance of war with North Korea is — and how cataclysmic such a war would be.
Part of the reason the risk of war is so real is that our understanding of North Korea is so sparse. "The Hermit Kingdom" is a world unto itself; a land of deprivation, of tyranny, of delusion. We have no diplomatic relations, no trade, no cross-cultural exchanges. We don't understand Kim Jong Un, we don't understand his people, and they don't understand us. And so, ignorant, we lurch toward nuclear war built atop mutual miscomprehension.
The best view we have into life in North Korea is Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy: The Ordinary Lives of North Koreans. Demick was the LA Times bureau chief in Seoul and Beijing, and she found herself obsessed with this country she couldn't cover and couldn't understand. So she began talking to the people who had left it, the refugees who escaped across the Demilitarized Zone. She asked them to reconstruct their lives, to tell her what it was like, to make everyday life in North Korea intelligible. And they did.
They told her what it was like to grow up, to fall in love, to go to school, to have dinner, and to flee. They told her what it was like to build new lives, to remember past friends, to know their family was in a place they could never visit again, to hear the rest of the world fear and pity the place they had once called home.
I sat down with Demick recently for my podcast, The Ezra Klein Show. We talked about North Korea — about what war there would mean, and how Trump is feeding the regime’s propaganda, and why so many South Koreans believe we’re now the problem. “Trump has given them the greatest gift ever,” Demick says, “because anti-Americanism is the force that gives them meaning. It's their raison d'être.”
But we also talked about North Koreans — about what it's like to live in the most closed society on earth, about what they know and don't know of the outside world, about how their existence can be both ordinary and extraordinary, about what would happen to them if there was a war.
A partial transcript of our conversation follows, edited for length and clarity. You can listen to our full discussion here, or by downloading The Ezra Klein Show wherever you get your podcasts.
Can you talk a little bit about how we came to have a North and South Korea?
That's a good question, because actually, we did it. We divided the Korean Peninsula. At the end of World War II, Korea had been occupied for 35 years by the Japanese. Nobody in the US knew much about it or what to do with it. There had been elaborate plans for the postwar occupation of Germany and Japan, but not Korea. At the same time, there was a fear in Washington that the Soviet Union would be exerting its influence and that it might actually try to seize the entire Korean Peninsula.
Two State Department officers, one of whom was Dean Rusk, who later became secretary of state, huddled in a basement with a National Geographic map of the Korean Peninsula to divide it. The US wanted to keep Seoul, and so they picked the 38th parallel rather arbitrarily. This was really just a line on a map. Korea had never been divided in this way — in fact, regional divisions tend to run east-west, not north-south.
It was infuriating to the Koreans. They had been occupied, and they thought they were going to have their independence. And unlike the Germans, who were divided because of their guilt, because they had been aggressors in World War II, the Koreans had been victims. They were divided because of their innocence.
You write in your book that Kim Il Sung took the least humane elements of Confucianism and combined them with Stalinism. Can you talk a little bit about what that North Korean ideology was and is?
They really looked toward Japan and imperial China. The North Korean regime is very much an imperial structure where the leadership is basically holy. That is their religion. They took elements from the Bible, especially the New Testament, about the son of God, and incorporated this into an amalgam of religion and politics and national ideology, which they call “Juche.”
People are divided up by their loyalty to the regime. You have a core class and a wavering class and a hostile class. These class division were almost like Indian castes. And it often has very little to do with your own behavior. It can be your parents or your grandparents or, at this point, great-grandparents. if you had an ancestor who was a landlord or a Japanese collaborator or a prostitute or a minister, you have tainted blood, and that lasts many generations. Korean family ties are very strong. If you have any relative who's done something like defected or become some sort of dissident, the entire family is punished down to the third degree of cousins. That is one of the ways they keep control.
So North Korea actually took some of the worst elements of political systems in Asia and combined it into a very strong totalitarian system. [For more on the ideologies that fed into North Korea, I highly recommend this video. —Ezra]
In this early period, North Korea seems prosperous enough. It looks to many to be even stronger than the South Korean economy. At some point, South Korea accelerates to become one of the richest countries in the world and North Korea enters a pretty extended period of stagnation and economic crisis and starvation.
What went so wrong in the North Korean economy?
The North Koreans ran out of energy, basically. They never had their own source of fuel oil. Their electrical plants fell apart. They ran out of money to import fuel. The factories closed because they couldn’t afford the raw material and they didn't have the energy, and then they stopped paying salaries and then the workers got hungry and the agricultural output declined. They weren't rotating crops. They were in the Dark Ages as far as agriculture is concerned.
It all spiraled downward, and they had this hubris to say that we're self-reliant. They were very slow to accept international aid when the famine began. They denied it for a long time, and visitors would come to Pyongyang and be shown prosperous-looking people. It was all this fakery.
When things went down, they went down very fast. They really haven't recovered.
Why was the regime able to maintain stability during this period?
They were very clever at convincing North Koreans that it was not their fault. They used this constant anti-American campaign to deflect blame. It's all the fault of the United States, of our sanctions, of the blockades of fuel oil.
They used this anti-Americanism very, very effectively. This is why Trump has given them the greatest gift ever, because anti-Americanism is the force that gives them meaning. It's their raison d'être.
When Trump gets up there and talks about fire and fury and the little rocket man, the North Korean leadership is gonna be thrilled over that.
What daily life is like in North Korea
I'd like to talk about ordinary North Koreans for a bit. We see these ridiculous statements from the North Korean government, this ridiculous propaganda, these absurd news stories, and then we see parades of North Koreans, all dressed up the same way. They can be represented as almost automaton-like.
Let me ask the question this way: What is it that Americans, in your view, don't understand about the daily lives of ordinary North Koreans?
Well, this is the oldest cliché out there, to say they're just like us. They're not just like us, but their concerns are very similar to ours. They care about their kids. They care about their elderly parents. They care about where their next meal is coming from. About keeping warm in the winter.
There are a lot of people in North Korea who have no faith in their regime. They're smart, they know what's going on in the world, but they feel powerless to change it, and they realize that if they were to engage in any act of dissent that it would not just be them, but their whole family, their parents, their cousins, their siblings, nieces, and nephews who would be punished. They decide that it's best to go along with the system.
I remember meeting a coal miner on the Chinese border. He'd gotten out very, very recently. He said to me, "I know that our regime is to blame for our situation. My neighbor knows our regime is to blame. But we're not stupid enough to talk about it." This was already in the early 2000s, after the famine.
That’s another thing that's often misunderstood. People think of North Korea of as this Third World country because it's so poor, but it's really a country that fell out of the First World or at least the Second World. People were very well educated in the past. They had, through the ’70s and maybe ’80s, much higher literacy rates than South Korea. It's a pretty sophisticated population.
Of course, they're completely propagandized. But they're not dumb, and when I've interviewed them, mostly in China or South Korea, they're very warm, smart, funny people.
How sealed off are they in practice? How much does your average North Korean really know about South Korea or the United States, about material abundance elsewhere? What is the real state of knowledge about the outside world?
They've gotten much more knowledgeable about the outside world. It is really hard to hermetically seal a country in the age of globalization. The big source of corrupting the minds of North Korean people is actually China. There's a more than 800-mile border between North Korea and China, and everything comes from China, just like here but even more so. DVDs, hard drives, memory sticks, music, soap operas.
The North Koreans knew for years that South Korea was richer. For a long time, they thought China was poor. In fact, many ethnic Koreans came over from China during the great leap forward, during the famines in China. North Korea was better off.
When North Koreans find out that people in China are eating rice, sometimes eating rice three times a day, they think, "Wow, that's really something," and that's very corrosive. It's hard for them not to know that because during the famine period and even now, North Koreans sneak across the border into China, and they come back with these tales of abundance.
Is North Korea really America’s problem?
Before Donald Trump took office, North Korea was a top concern for President Obama, for President George W. Bush, for President Bill Clinton.
I have often struggled with the question of how much should America care if North Korea has a nuclear weapon and delivery capabilities. We often read these stories saying North Korea might be developing a weapon that could reach Guam, that could reach Hawaii, that could reach the California coast, but a lot of regimes have weapons that could reach America if they so choose. Is North Korea really an international threat? Are they really something that, from an American perspective, we should have so much fear and concern about?
I almost hesitate to say this, but this is a bit of a self-inflicted crisis. We are very far away from North Korea, and we don't really have a lot of interest in North Korea.
I lived in South Korea for more than four years. If you go to an anti-North Korean demonstration in Seoul, there will be 50 old men who are Korean War veterans who will show up, but if you go to an anti-US demonstration, of which I've been to many, you see hundreds of thousands of people. There is very much a view among a lot of South Koreans that we are the problem, that our whole presence there is counterproductive.
Do you agree with that view?
Yeah, kind of. I'm not saying that we should just pull out of South Korea, but we are kind of the problem.
I think almost any South Korean you talk to would say they're much more frightened of Donald Trump than they are of Kim Jung Un. The North Koreans are just doing what they always do. They're always threatening to turn Seoul into a sea of fire and unleash a thermonuclear war, and people in Seoul just shrug about it.
I don't believe that North Korea would launch an unprovoked attack on the United States. Maybe a provocation, which they've done before where they're testing us. They’ve certainly tested South Korea in that way. They sunk a ship, they've shelled an island near the border, but they know that if they start a war with South Korea, which is double their size in population, it's the end of their country, it's the end of their system.
More importantly, for all those people in the elite, it's the end of their life of privilege. If they're not shot in the subsequent fighting, they're going be, at best, refugees in South Korea or China.
One thing that worries me on the American side is that we have constructed a rhetorical framework from which there's no easy exit. There is a thing that's largely already happened, which is that North Korea is a nuclear power that is developing more and more ways to deliver that nuclear capability to farther and farther locations, and we say that is unacceptable. So we’ve constructed a position that’s very hard to climb down from.
That's right. I've not met one policy analyst who believes North Korea is going to denuclearize. Especially after Libya. Libya was the big disaster as far North Korea was concerned because they saw [Muammar] Qaddafi, having given up his weapons and having taken this offer of trying to come into the community of nations, ending up like a wounded dog in a ditch. They're not gonna give up their weapons. They're just not gonna do it.
The other thing that we seem to be asking them to give up, at least in the terms of the North Korean government, is their dignity. Trump has an unusual method of diplomatic communication, and North Korea is a land where speaking out against the leader gives you a death sentence. But Trump calls Kim Jong Un short, fat, little rocket man.
Even in a normal political system, that is problematic and unusual. But how does that kind of personal insult read in the North Korean system, with its much more stringent regulations on what you can say about their leader?
Well, as I said earlier, it's a great gift to the North Korean regime to have genuinely hostile rhetoric coming out of the mouth of the US president. This is what they need. They need to keep this war-like atmosphere going, and Trump is just playing into their hands.
I also think, though, that Trump’s madman act, which is maybe an act and maybe real, has been sort of good in the early stages. I think initially Trump scared them, as he scared many people, and that was not a bad thing. But on both sides you need more than hostile rhetoric. You need active diplomacy, you need some face-saving, tension-deescalating moves. You need to be giving them some escape path.
If President Trump called you into the Oval Office for 30 minutes to brief him on North Korea, to help him understand North Korea, what are the one or two points you would tell him?
I'd say make a deal. There's this huge building in Pyongyang, this pyramid-shaped hotel that was unfinished since the 1980s and the North Koreans have been desperate to get it opened and fixed. Turn it into Trump Tower. How's that?