A newly installed Republican US president, eager to sweep aside the work of his Democratic Party predecessor, scuttles a hard-won multilateral agreement with an aggressive nuclear-weapons wanna-be, making the world more unstable and the US a less reliable diplomatic partner for friends and foes alike.

That’s the tale of Donald Trump and Iran. But first, it was the story of George W Bush and North Korea. Bush’s cancellation of nuclear accords with Kim Jong Il, current North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s father, set the stage for Trump, if he plays the cards right, to restore the relatively favorable situation Bill Clinton’s administration forged a quarter-century ago.

That’s the view of renowned foreign correspondent Barbara Demick, whose reporting from Sarajevo for The Philadelphia Inquirer and from Seoul for the Los Angeles Times has won awards from the Asia Society, the Overseas Press Club and the American Academy of Diplomacy, as well as a Pulitzer Prize nomination.

Demick’s now legendary book, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, chronicles the lives of six defectors over 15 years, including the harrowing famine of the mid-1990s, the ordeals of their escapes, and their new, often difficult, lives in South Korea.

The book grew out of Demick’s groundbreaking reporting on Chongjin, a heavily industrialized city of about 625,000 some 800 kilometers from Pyongyang.

Nothing to Envy won the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction in 2010 and was a finalist for the US National Book Award. Speaking at the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival in Bali, Demick explained that the famine of the mid-1990s in North Korea was profoundly traumatic for the country, leading to greater repression.

Barbara Demick-North Korea-Journalist-Author-Twitter
North Korean expert Barbara Demick. Photo: Twitter

“There was always a lot of repression,” said Demick, now the Los Angeles Times’ bureau chief in New York. “But for a while during the famine, when things were really bad during 1994, ’95, ’96, [the authorities] didn’t stop people from wandering around. It used to be that to go from one little town to another little town, you needed a travel permit.

“But people started wandering to look for food, and kids who crossed the border into China looking for food weren’t stopped that much. But then when the food situation got a little better, they had unleashed this spirit of self-enterprise, and they had to crack down very harshly.”

The famine also broke popular faith in the Kim dynasty as government corruption became widespread, though the need to believe in something remained. “It’s interesting that most North Korean defectors become Christian,” Demick said.

She thinks it’s inevitable that the two Koreas will grow closer. But the gulf between them is vast, greater than the pre-unification division between East and West Germany. “The Germans were divided for about 45 years. North and South Korea have had more time to grow apart,” said Demick, who was based in Berlin during the 1990s.

“There was some communication between East and West Germany. But you still can’t send a letter from North to South Korea, can’t make a phone call, not to speak of an e-mail or a WhatsApp message. The degree of separation is like nothing else in the world,” she said.

A man cycles over a bridge as chimneys of a old power station belch smoke in the background in Pyongyang on April 8, 2017. Photo: AFP/Ed Jones
A man cycles over a bridge as chimneys of an old power station belch smoke in the background in Pyongyang, on April 8, 2017. Photo: AFP/Ed Jones

“When I’ve gone to North Korea with South Koreans on tourist trips to Mount Kumgang [a famous destination on the east coast just above the Demilitarized Zone], older South Koreans would say it looks like South Korea in the 1960s and ’70s. North Korea has been stuck in a time warp.”

Demick suggested a time warp is what the Trump administration seeks in its relations with North Korea. The Singapore summit between Trump and North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un last June was “a good thing. I don’t think it will lead to denuclearization, but it certainly eased tension,” she said.

“But the Clinton administration got it the most right,” Demick explained, citing the 1994 Agreed Framework between the US and North Korea. North Korea agreed to give up its plutonium program in return for energy assistance.

An international consortium including the US, South Korea and Japan agreed to supply oil and build and construct a light-water reactor to help North Korea meet its energy needs.

“When Bush got in power, he completely axed the deal,” Demick said. “You can go on and on about who was cheating: the North Koreans were dabbling in a secret highly enriched uranium program, but the deal didn’t actually cover highly enriched uranium. So they were cheating in principle.

“It was not a perfect deal, but it was much better than anything we’ve ever had. The Bush administration hated the deal because it was a Clinton deal, and they basically killed it as a knee-jerk reaction.

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US president Bill Clinton greets North Korean officials at the White House in 2000. Photo: Facebook

“Then in the second Bush term, they tried to put together a new deal but they weren’t able to. At that point, North Korea had very little plutonium. We were much better off.

“And not much happened under [president Barack] Obama. Obama just kind of ignored them. Trump’s people say that Trump has gotten closer than anyone else, but it would be good if we could get the Clinton deal back.”

After five years in Seoul and a year as a visiting professor at Princeton, Demick served as Los Angeles Times’ bureau chief in Beijing. She does not buy the argument that China is a benign force for stability in the East Asia. And she believes at least one regional player shares her doubts.

“The North Koreans will never say this, but they’re more afraid of China than the United States. They’ll say that China is their friend and the US is the great enemy. But I think they fear China’s undue influence on Korea.

“Much of the motivation behind the nuclear program is to take control of their own national security. They don’t want to be dependent on China the way they were during the Korean War.”

The North Korean view is also governed by one of the most enduring principles of geopolitics, Demick added: “The US is far away.”