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Reporter Gets Rare Glimpse at North Korea

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Reporter Gets Rare Glimpse at North Korea

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Reporter Gets Rare Glimpse at North Korea

Reporter Gets Rare Glimpse at North Korea

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Los Angeles Times reporter Barbara Demick has just published a lengthy profile on daily life in the North Korean city of Chongjin. Demick tells host Jennifer Ludden it's a rundown, industrial area whose residents are still traumatized by famine from the 1990s.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

North Korea's authoritarian government has always restricted communication with the outside world. Unauthorized contact with foreigners is a crime. As a result, little is known about daily life in this famine-torn country. But over the past year, Los Angeles Times reporter Barbara Demick has managed to get a glimpse of life in the northeastern city of Chongjin. She's never been able to visit, but she's painted a virtual portrait through interviews with some 30 people: many defectors from the city; others who still live there but met with Demick on trips to China. Demick has also seen secretly recorded video of the city. Her two-part series about Chongjin appears in the Los Angeles Times today and tomorrow. We reached Barbara Demick at her base in Seoul. I asked her to tell me what Chongjin, North Korea, looks like.

Ms. BARBARA DEMICK (Los Angeles Times): I think the word that everybody first uses to describe it is `bleak.' North Korea is, in general, a very monochromatic country, and Chongjin on top of that is a former industrial city that has sort of rusted into ruin over the last 10 years. So you have really miles and miles of rust belt. And I think some of that strikes you is the absence of billboards, advertising. There are almost no cars. It is a bit of a throwback to, you know, 50, 60 years ago.

LUDDEN: You also write there's hardly any garbage.

Ms. DEMICK: There's very little garbage in North Korea. I mean, there's just not enough of anything to go to waste. And what little waste there is gets recycled.

LUDDEN: Chongjin is a port city. It's about 50 miles from the Chinese border. Now your story focuses on a number of the people that you interviewed. You start with a 64-year-old retired math teacher, and this is one of those you spoke with who still lives in Chongjin. Tell me about his daily life.

Ms. DEMICK: He was really an amazing story. This is a very articulate, organized, determined person. And he, in order to survive, basically works all the time. He gets up at 4 AM, he goes out and cuts grass that's partially for his own family's food and partially to feed rabbits that he raises to sell at the market.

LUDDEN: And why does he have to get up at 4 AM to do that?

Ms. DEMICK: Well, everybody else is looking for grass. I mean, it's just a constant struggle to, you know, eke out enough money to get that, you know, pound of food a day that you need to survive.

LUDDEN: Over and over in your articles, people tell you about watching their family members, their friends, neighbors, co-workers drop dead from starvation.

Ms. DEMICK: I'm always a little surprised when I talk to North Koreans how matter of fact they are about death and about describing truly horrible things that happen to them. And I was really stunned by one young woman who was a kindergarten teacher who watched as pupil by pupil, half her class, you know, dropped out and many of them died of starvation. And she, you know, managed to, you know, tell me this without smudging her mascara. I think people are very shell-shocked still. And having worked in situations with refugees and in wars, I don't think I've seen people quite as traumatized as these North Koreans.

LUDDEN: The height of this famine was in the mid-'90s. Do you know are there still people dying in the streets, or has that tapered off?

Ms. DEMICK: I don't think people are dying in the streets the way they were in the mid- to late '90s, but they're certainly still dying. You know, what happens in a slower famine is that people don't die of hunger, per se, but they're so weakened that anything kills them.

LUDDEN: You write that things are changing, that at one point--you know, Chongjin is on a port and yet no one can go and fish even for food for themselves because all fish are supposed to belong to the state. But now you write that they have opened up some newly sanctioned markets. What's happening there?

Ms. DEMICK: The North Korean government has belatedly legalized markets to some extent, and there are at least seven legal markets, big markets, in Chongjin. They are regulated. The vendors wear licenses pinned to the their shirt. But for every legal market, there are many more illegal markets. This is a regime that is clever enough to realize that they have to open escape valves, and I think they have by ignoring a large amount of market activity. Most people can't afford the fee for the license, so they sell outside on, you know, tarpaulins or carts.

LUDDEN: What about contact with the outside world? Is there any more of it?

Ms. DEMICK: There are a lot more contacts with the outside world. And people from Chongjin especially, since it's relatively close to China, have really found out a lot about the outside world. There's a whole, you know, scam going on where they get mobile telephones from China that then pick up signals at the border. And this is a revolution. You know, this has really punctured the illusions because they're learning that people in China, you know, are rich compared to them.

One woman told me about how she came out to China, you know, in hopes of getting some food and maybe doing some work. And she described crossing the Tumen River from North Korea into China and coming to a farmhouse and she saw a bowl of rice with a little meat in it sitting on the courtyard. And she was still wet from crossing the river, and she looked at that and thought, `Is that for refrigeration? What is that doing out there?' And then she realized it was for the dog, and she said it just hit her that dogs in China lived better than, you know, doctors in North Korea.

LUDDEN: Hmm.

Ms. DEMICK: And it was--you know, all of her illusions came crumpling down. And this is what the regime knows, is that any inkling of the outside world is very detrimental to regime security.

LUDDEN: Barbara Demick is a reporter with the Los Angeles Times based in Seoul. The second part of her article on the North Korean city of Chongjin appears in tomorrow's paper. To see some of the secretly taken video of North Korea, you can find a link at our Web site, npr.org.

Barbara, thank you.

Ms. DEMICK: Thanks very much.

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