The increased tensions on the Korean Peninsula—with the Trump administration threatening to get tough with the North Korean regime of Kim Jong-un (sometimes via Twitter) and the North Korean nuclear program progressing apace—has engendered fear from Seoul to Washington. President Obama told his successor that North Korea was likely to be the most serious foreign policy threat of the next several years; Trump himself even admitted to listening to the Chinese leader discourse on the subject and has spoken of offering China more favorable trade terms in exchange for cooperation in limiting North Korean action.
To discuss the Korean situation, I spoke by phone with Barbara Demick, currently the New York bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times and the author of Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, a harrowing account of six North Korean defectors. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed the reasons for China’s large influence over North Korea, whether the current North Korean regime is rational, and why Trump’s bluster—“the crazy card”—might be beneficial.
Isaac Chotiner: Is North Korea getting more aggressive, or is it just acting the same way and the weapons programs is just coming to fruition?
Barbara Demick: Well, obviously the leadership has changed. Kim Jong-un is younger and less predictable, but I think the North Korean behavior is pretty much the same. They are still spewing out these over-the-top threats about turning Seoul into a sea of fire and launching thermonuclear war. What’s different is that they are closer to having the capabilities to really do so.
But the regime’s posture does not seem different to you?
I think it’s more of the same. You have new people coming in and a new administration in Washington coming in and waking up and saying, “we are shocked, shocked to find that North Korea is developing nuclear weapons.” They’ve been doing it for a while and they’re making steady progress, and it’s not exactly news. I think there’s a lot of hype that goes on, especially with cable television reporting that there’s about to be nuclear war. I’ve been watching this since 2002. These nuclear crises are remarkably similar. There is kind of a Groundhog Day thing with them.
I did an interview with [former Defense Secretary] Bill Perry and talked about the 1994 crisis when the Clinton administration wanted to take out a reprocessing plant at Yongbyon, their main nuclear facility. They had computer simulations and the prognosis of what would happen is that the North Koreans would probably do some small attack with conventional artillery in retaliation but that the South Koreans, supported by the U.S. would retaliate. There’s a very high probability that this would escalate and that the North Koreans, if they felt they were losing their country, would have every incentive to really go crazy—the “last lash of the dragon’s tail” theory—and could really do major damage to the region. This calculus is more or less the same as it was in 1994. But in 1994 they knew exactly what to hit. This time, what are they going to hit? Now they have nuclear facilities all over the country. They’re hidden away. They’re underground. It’s not so easy to do an effective air strike.
Has North Korean propaganda changed recently?
Not really. It seems remarkably consistent. I think there’s more change in Washington than there is in Pyongyang. They’ve been in this time warp, really since the Korean War. They use the threat from Washington, they use this constant state of war to prop themselves up. It’s an excuse that they give their own people for why the economy isn’t better. The tensions actually serve them very well.
We tend to interpret foreign leaders through an American prism. What do you think Trump looks like through a North Korean prism?
This is kind of interesting because the North Koreans have always played the crazy card. Now it's Trump who’s playing the crazy card. I’m not making a judgment here about whether he’s really crazy or not crazy, but I think they perceive him as very unpredictable, which is perhaps not a bad thing. By being impetuous and tweeting all sorts of implied threats, he’s scaring them and also scaring the Chinese. As I said, that’s their card. That’s the favorite card in the playbook. The fact that he’s stolen it or is playing their game is I think putting them kind of off. They don’t know how to interpret it.
Playing a card is something you consciously do. It implies that the North Korean regime at some fundamental level is rational or more rational than we give it credit for, right?
Most of the North Korea watchers believe the regime even under Kim Jong-un is quite rational. They are a weak, poor, small country, and they’re using these nuclear weapons, which are often referred to as the weapons of the weak because they’re not conventionally strong as a way to keep themselves afloat. I think they very much know what they’re doing. Also, just because they’re paranoid and think somebody is out to kill them doesn’t mean they’re wrong.
I think the phrase is, “even paranoids have enemies.”
Yeah. They saw what happened to Qaddafi after he gave up his weapons. They often refer to Libya. Libya’s the prime example that they point to. They feel without their weapons they’re totally at the mercy of the Americans, the South Koreans, and also the Chinese, although the Chinese are their putative allies. They also fear being swallowed up by China. One reason that they have developed these weapons of mass destruction is they don’t want to be completely dependent on China for their security.
The usual analysis of North Korea is that the Americans have to get the Chinese to put pressure on the North Koreans. If there was a real change in Beijing about what they wanted from North Korea, what would that actually consist of? And is it possible?
I do think it’s possible. They can block any North Korean money in Chinese banks. It’s believed that North Korean controlled trading companies have used the Bank of Dandong and also the Bank of China very indirectly. They could stop the flights from Beijing to Pyongyang. I think nowadays the only flights to Pyongyang come through China. Beijing controls almost all the fuel oil that goes into North Korea. They’ve been reluctant to cut that off, in part because that would affect the delivery of food.
Keep in mind almost everything that goes into North Korea comes through China, whether it’s a hairbrush or an umbrella or a missile part. Their access is through China. You’ve got the [Demilitarized Zone] to their south. You’ve got the Sea of Japan to the east, and there’s not much that comes in through Japan these days. Very tiny border with Russia. Everything is coming through China, and I think China does have a lot of power. I think China could easily make the North Korean regime collapse. They have a harder time bending them to their will, but they do have a lot of power.
Is there an actual potential for the Chinese to change their approach though?
I think there is the potential for change. Trump’s implied threats were designed not just to scare the North Koreans but to scare the Chinese. The Chinese want stability on their border. The Chinese are sort of allergic to change, oddly enough. I think if they’re convinced that the Trump administration is going to do something radical, they might get a bit on the program. I’m just going to try to be a little bit optimistic because nobody else is. I think U.S. and Chinese interests are not so different right now.
The Chinese don’t like North Korea developing weapons of mass destruction. They want North Korea to reform its economy so that they don’t have 22 million starving people across the border. I think the U.S. certainly does not want a nuclear North Korea. They don’t want a heavily armed, missile armed North Korea. They also don’t want people starving. The U.S. has been more inclined to regime change, but I think practically speaking at the moment the world is very messed up. We don’t need another failed regime. I think everybody would like to keep North Korea in its place: North Korea without weapons. I don’t think we’re that far off in terms of what we want.
So it seems like you’re saying that Trump’s “crazy card” might actually have been helpful here, vis-à-vis both North Korea and China.
Well, I think it has been. I think Trump has scared the North Koreans, and I think he’s even more so scared the Chinese. The Chinese are quite risk-averse. As I said the Chinese Communist Party really wants stability on that border, and if they’re convinced that Trump could do something serious, I think they will be more cooperative.
The fear would be that it’s not a card, in our case.
Well, you know in order for the mad man card to work, it has to be convincing. That’s the rub here.
That’s not a reassuring thought.
He’s tried various techniques with the Chinese, and he’s offered concessions on trade. I think he’s making it clear that he’s very serious about this. Oh my God, here I am, defending Donald Trump.
Desperate times. Finally, can you describe the lives of people in North Korea? Have they been doing any better or worse over the past couple of years?
Since Kim Jong-un took over in 2011, I think it’s gotten a little bit better for ordinary people, assuming that you’re not a government official who has been, you know, purged or executed. I think at the grass-roots level, one of the first things Kim Jong-un did was reverse some of his father’s restrictions on the market. I think day-to-day that’s made life somewhat easier for ordinary people. It’s not great, but I do think it’s easier. Kim Jong-il had this ongoing war against the markets: banning sales of Chinese products, soy beans, any kind of grains, being very strict about what hours markets could be open, and that’s how people make their living and support themselves. Kim Jong-un did ease some of those restrictions. He’s also launched this showcase building campaign in Pyongyang to build everything from nicer apartments to his Dolphinarium, and his amusement parks, so I think he is trying to at least superficially make it easier for the elite to remain loyal to him.
On the other hand, the intolerance of any kind for—I won't even call it dissent—any kind disapproval or resistance, the price of that has become higher, so I think overall human rights are not better. Certainly anybody in the elite, in the government who has not gone along with his will has been purged.