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Human Rights In North Korea


North Korea says it will dismantle its nuclear test site between May 23 and May 25, ahead of next month's summit meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un in Singapore. The summit announcement was made earlier this week after three Americans imprisoned in North Korea landed back in the U.S. Trump thanked Kim Jong Un for being really excellent to the freed men.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I really think he wants to do something and bring that country into the real world.

SIMON: What the administration hasn't mentioned in recent weeks is the long history of human rights abuses by the North Korean regime. Barbara Demick, of the Los Angeles Times, is the author of "Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives In North Korea." She joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

BARBARA DEMICK: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: What's being left out of what we're learning now? What's everyday life like for so many millions of North Koreans?

DEMICK: Well, North Korea remains the most repressive, controlled country in the world. And, you know, that's something that's kind of gotten lost in the equation. We talk so much about North Korea's threat to us and this remote possibility that North Korea might, you know, send an ICBM our way. But the North Korean regime is mostly a threat to its own people.

SIMON: You've interviewed many defectors from the North Korean regime. Give us some idea of what they've said in the most detailed possible terms.

DEMICK: Well, people still are generally not paid for their labor. The government wages are so low, and the food rations are so low that they're chronically malnourished, underfed. It's a luxury to eat rice. Something like 120,000 people live in political or other prisons. And more than that, I mean, life in North Korea is sort of a continuum. You're either - you know, you might be a political prisoner, or you're stuck living in a really crappy town mining coal or doing some backbreaking labor and unable to leave and unable to make a living. So it's very tough for North Koreans.

SIMON: After referring to Kim Jong Un as little rocket man, President Trump has recently been saying more complimentary things about him that seem to be around the theme that - look - he wants to make a difference. He's different than - let's say his father. How do you see it?

DEMICK: Well, I might agree with the president on some of this. Kim Jong Un very quickly after taking over - I think it was early 2012 - just months - started relaxing some of the restrictions on the market. And that has, to some extent, improved people's lives. It's very controversial to say so, but - so I'd say that there's more economic freedom than there used to be in North Korea. Political freedom - no, absolutely not.

SIMON: Barbara Demick, what do you think about the idea that the United States has an interest in discouraging North Korea from ever using nuclear weapons but that their human rights policies are their own business?

DEMICK: You know, this is the situation with North Korea. We're at a stage, just as President Trump says, of looking for a permanent peace deal with North Korea, which would involve, you know, a treaty that would end the Korean War, which - you know, fighting stopped with the armistice. It would involve, you know, diplomatic recognition at some point - exchanging ambassadors. And it's very difficult to achieve that without looking at human rights. And, you know, I believe that a little bit goes a long way. If - you know, while President Trump is busy on Twitter, he could tweet something. And how about that human rights policy? How about those political prisoners? I know in the past - and I know this from North Korean defectors, people who've been in prison camps - when at times that there was a big push on human rights, things improved.

SIMON: Is it a good idea to have these talks?

DEMICK: I think so. I think the more that North Korea is drawn into the international community, the better for North Korean people.

SIMON: Barbara Demick is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and author of the book "Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea." Thanks so much for being with us.

DEMICK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.