China Plays Middleman Between North, South Korea

As South Korean military drills continue with the U.S., North Korea said the drills could lead to a full-scale war. The two countries separated in 1945 and the animus between them has ebbed and flowed since. Barbara Demick, of the Los Angeles Times, has written a book on North Korea called Nothing to Envy. She's now based in Beijing, and talks to Renee Montagne about why China is a key player in the drama.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

South Korea continued military drills today with the U.S. while North Korea said the drills could lead to a full-scale war. The two Koreas have been split since 1945. And the animus between them has ebbed and flowed ever since. Barbara Demick is a correspondent for the´┐ŻLos Angeles Times. She was based in South Korea and has written a book on North Korea called "Nothing to Envy." She's now based in China, which is also a key player in this drama.

Welcome.

Ms. BARBARA DEMICK (Los Angeles Times): Thanks so much.

MONTAGNE: Now, to understand the Koreas today and what's going on, it seems we have to understand two painful episodes from the 20th century. The first one was Japan's occupation of Korea.

Ms. DEMICK: Yeah. Korea, or the Koreas. They were then just one Korea, was occupied by Japan from the early 20th century, approximately 1910 until the end of World War II.

MONTAGNE: And during this occupation by Japan, and especially during World War II, Japan did some really terrible things in Korea.

Ms. DEMICK: That's right. Many, many Koreans were taken as slave laborers to Japan, including young women who were forced to become comfort women, basically forced into prostitution - really, they were slaves. And for the Koreans left in Korea, they were forced to learn Japanese, to change their names to Japanese names. The men had to cut the top knots off of their heads. They wore their hair in this very traditional style. So the Korean culture was obliterated.

MONTAGNE: And then with the triumph of the allies over Japan, the Japanese left Korea, but that led to what you might call the next major trauma: partition.

Ms. DEMICK: That's right. The story which is quite famous now is that two Pentagon officers huddled over a National Geographic map, knowing nothing about Korea, and said oh, how about putting the line here, 38th parallel?

MONTAGNE: And why was Korea partitioned?

Ms. DEMICK: The Americans were afraid that the Soviets would take all of Korea, so they thought by making this line, they could forestall losing all of the peninsula. But the result is it's a very awkward division. Seoul is very close to the demilitarized zone and within range of North Korean artillery, and it's never been a very workable arrangement, as was evident by the 1950s - or 1953 Korean War.

MONTAGNE: Where does China fit into all of this?

Ms. DEMICK: China essentially rescued North Korea during the Korean War and virtually all of North Korea's fuel. Much of its food, fertilizer comes from China. China is its lifeline. But at the same time, China does a lot of trade with South Korea, so they're always juggling in between. And I think this is where you hear, you know, a lot of criticism right now of China for saying hey, you know, the Chinese are the one player in this game who can cut off the North Koreans and make them comply with international standards.

MONTAGNE: Just a last question. A lot of speculation about the possibility of the North Korean regime collapsing. What is your view on that?

Ms. DEMICK: I go back-and-forth on this question. The North Korean regime has essentially collapsed economically, but the political and military structure is still very strong. And China seems determined right now to prop up North Korea. They have made it very clear that they would consider a North Korean collapse destabilizing to China and to the region. And, you know, gosh, if they provide enough support, they may be able to prop it up.

MONTAGNE: Barbara Demick is the Los Angeles Times correspondent in Beijing and the author of a book on North Korea called "Nothing to Envy."

Thank you very much for joining us.

Ms. DEMICK: Sure.

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MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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