Blowhard, Esq. writes:
Yet again, tensions are flaring between the North and South on the Korean peninsula. Following a nuclear test in North Korea in February, the West increased its sanctions and then the U.S. flew a couple stealth bombers over South Korea just to let the DPRK know who’s boss. Kim Jong Un has said the armistice that suspended hostilities with the South in 1953 is no longer valid and “war is probably just hours away.” Although I’m sure it’s no fun if you’re a resident of South Korea or Hawaii, this sort of saber-rattling from the North has become almost routine over the past few years.
Are any UR readers interested in North Korea? Me, I’m fascinated. I was born in the 70s, so the Cold War was my introduction to geopolitics. Whereas today’s young people fret over catastrophic climate change, my childhood was marked by anxiety over mutually assured destruction and nuclear fallout. My first globe, which I still have, says Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on it. (Hey, I just discovered you can watch The Day After in full on YouTube. That movie freaked me the fuck out.)
So given this background, anything having to do with communism, nuclear war, or Orwellian dystopias always exerts a pull on my imagination. Consequently, about a year and half ago, I burned through a number of books and other materials on North Korea so I thought I’d share a few impressions and throw together a little guide to some of the better resources on this most peculiar of countries.
The Micro View: Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick
This is the one that got me hooked. Journalist Barbara Demick weaves together the stories of a number defectors as they describe their daily lives under the Kims’ oppressive rule — lives marked by extreme poverty, mass starvation, a cult of personality, and great ignorance of the outside world. For an example of the latter, one of the defectors is fascinated by the technological marvel that we know as nail clippers. I’ve recommended this book to four friends all of whom read it and were as blown away as I was. Here’s the book’s website. Here’s an 11-minute speech Demick gave back in 2011.
The Macro View: The Cleanest Race by B.R. Myers
While Demick’s book is more emotionally engaging, Myers’ is more intellectually satisfying. Reading any account of life in the country, one inevitably asks, “How can the people take this? Why don’t they revolt?” Myers, an American who has lived and taught in South Korea for decades, is one of the few Westerners (the only?) who has attempted to understand the North Koreans on their own terms. In this book, he does a close reading of North Korean propaganda, movies, novels, the cult of personality, and other state-sanctioned myths against the backdrop of the country’s history as a Japanese colony.
Myers argues that, far from being the last Stalinist holdout, the government and society are built around maintaining racial purity. North Koreans are less worried about the corrupting influence of Western consumer goods than they are with any outside force that will taint their essential and unique Koreanness. Although it makes us enlightened modern liberals mega-uncomfortable to admit this, a nation founded on racial lines can prove itself strong and enduring such that when, say, there’s a massive famine and the people are forced to live on grass and tree bark, they’ll find a way to endure and pull together. Thus, many of the country’s citizens are not merely victims being exploited, they’re willing participants. “The [Kim] regime has always enjoyed a higher degree of uncoerced mass support than the outside world is willing to recognize,” Myers writes. What if the country as it exists is indeed the will of the people?
In addition, while the Western press likes to portray the Kims as buffoons, it should be noted that the Great Leader and Dear Leader were canny politicians. (Whether Kim Jong Un will show the same facility of course remains to be seen.) The Kims kept the important military brass small so they could maintain tight control over them. Incumbency was preserved by promoting important family members to powerful posts. Much like the Castros, and despite repeated predictions of imminent collapse, the Kims have held onto power for going on 60 years. Stuff like that doesn’t happen by accident.
OK, so these aren’t that different thematically from the Demick book, other than each volume focuses on a specific individual whereas Nothing to Envy has a much larger cast. In the case of Aquariums and Paradise!, both are told in the first person and the co-writers do a good job of preserving each author’s voice. Furthermore, Aquariums and Camp 14 are prison memoirs as both authors spent time in the gulag. As if things on the outside aren’t bleak enough. Here’s Shin Dong-hyuk, the subject of Camp 14, witnessing the execution of his mother and brother:
“Execute Jang Hye Gyung and Shin He Geun, traitors of the people,” the senior officer said. Shin looked at his father. He was weeping silently. When guards dragged her to the gallows, Shin saw that his mother looked bloated. They forced her to stand on a wooden box, gagged her, tied her arms behind her back and a noose around her neck. She scanned the crowd and found Shin. He refused to hold her gaze. When guards pulled away the box, she jerked about desperately. As he watched his mother struggle, Shin thought she deserved to die.
Shin’s brother looked gaunt as guards tied him to the wooden post. Three guards fired their rifles three times. He thought his brother, too, deserved it.
The Graphic Novel: Pyongyang by Guy Delisle
Delisle, a French animator, spent about two months in North Korea as a liaison teaching North Korean animators at an education film studio. The book neatly summarizes some of the recent history of the country while also portraying the propaganda all Westerners are subject to when visiting.
The Great Man Narrative: Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader by Bradley Martin
I’ve only glanced through this almost 900-page combined history of the country and biography of the Kim family. As you can see from the cover, the NYRB says it’s the “best book ever written about North Korea” so who am I to argue? If you want an incredibly detailed (there are 140 pages of endnotes) traditional history, this is the volume to go with. I read pretty slowly, though, so it would take me months to get through the thing.
The Travel Guide: The Bradt Guide to North Korea
Man, I’d love to visit there but the culture shock would be too much for my delicate, pampered, decadent capitalist sensibilities. Besides, by all accounts the food there is terrible but I’d feel like a grade-A asshole for turning any of it down when you know many of the country’s citizens are barely subsisting. Not to mention, as the Vice series below shows, getting into the country ain’t that easy. Thanks to this guide, I learned that the Deluxe Hotels “have guaranteed hot water and electricity” while the city’s lone Third Class one has “clean but not luxurious rooms, bathrooms with hot water, weird sentinel tower on one corner.” The Korean Film Studio, producer of such megablockbusters as Daughters of the Revolution (don’t think it’s on Netflix), features sets of “the totally decadent Seoul city, awash with US- and Japanese-run brothels, go-go bars, casinos and all so decadent that they don’t eat dogs but pamper them.”
The YouTube Series: The Vice Guide to North Korea
There’s a National Geographic documentary streaming on Netflix, but I thought this 3-part, 1-hour VICE series was a lot better. Hell, I wouldn’t blame you if you skipped the books altogether and just watched this.
The Photo Galleries: