Inside North Korea, Last Week's Looming Threat

A still from Pulgasari (Kim Jong-il, producer)

North Korea is called the Hermit Kingdom for a reason. Juche, the ideology upon which Kim Sung-il founded the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, is broadly translated as "self-reliance," an ideal of independence, pride, and the ability to solve one's own problems. Juche has guided North Korea's policy in matters of the economy, self-defense, and foreign relations,  intentionally encouraging isolation from the international community since its 1948 inception. For decades, everything being relative, this worked; North Korea's industrial farming-based economy surged while their southern counterparts' lagged. But when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, so did North Korea's supply of cheap oil, sending the country into a downward, inward spiral from which it has yet to recover. Since the prime directive of any regime is regime-preservation, the Kim dynasty has turned ever more paranoid and secretive. A desperate militarism deals with its perceived external threats, while draconian tactics suppress any problems at home. Here we are.

This is a long way of saying that we don't know much about what goes on inside North Korea, and the literature reflects this. There are very few prescriptive titles - at least that aren't polemics - because there aren't any prescriptions. (See Mark Bowden's piece in The Atlantic for a short list of bad options.) Books often fall into three categories: speculation about the daily lives of North Koreans, thrilling escape narratives, and strangely, portrayals of the DPRK as a kind of absurdist experiment: a collection of totalitarian clowns with goofy hairdos playing army. It's easy to do and not always inappropriate, but also dangerously reductive with what we think we know about the capabilities of a Taepodong-2 missile - the prose equivalent of nervous laughter.

Still, let's give this a shot. Here are a handful of books trying to make sense North Korea's people, history, and culture.


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My Holiday in North Korea: The Funniest/Worst Place on Earth by Wendy Simmons
This is perhaps the best example of the "nervous laughter" response. Simmons thought it would be funny to vacation in North Korea, and for the most part her observations, filtered through an absurdist world-view, are entertaining and illuminating. But the humor is a bit of a veneer - a ubiquitous a pair of "minders" and the barrage of anti-American propaganda are constant reminders of the stark realities beneath, the ones that will persist once the trip is over.

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A Kim Jong-Il Production by Paul Fischer
As it turns out, the middle Kim might have been less interested in his duties as a tyrant than in indulging fantasies of becoming a legendary film director. But if you've got the resources, you might as well use them. During his time as Minister of Propaganda - in an effort to goose North Korea's motion picture industry - Kim Jong-il orchestrated the kidnapping of South Korea's leading actress and its most celebrated director. Fischer's A Kim Jong-il Production is both a grim and weird account of delusion at every scale. (See Fischer's selections for the best movies ever produced by Kim and the Hermit Kingdom.)

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Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
Nothing funny here. Demick's National Book Award-finalist follows six North Korean families over the course of 15 years, an era of increasing isolation, famine, poverty, and repression following the collapse of Soviet support. Though originally published in 2009, these stories of ordinary citizens - their struggles and disillusionment - stands as an important reminder of the humanity of those most impacted by this dysfunctional regime.

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The Orphan Master's Son: A Novel by Adam Johnson
Sometimes the available facts aren't enough to tell the story. Johnson augments his own experiences traveling in the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea with vivid imagination, telling the story of government kidnapper Jun Do and his seemingly random fall into the prison camps and dungeons of the torturers and re-programmers. This Pulitzer Prize-winner might be fiction, but it's no less believable for it.

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The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot by Blaine Harden
Harden's second book on North Korea (see the "escape narratives" below for the first) takes us to the dawn of the DPRK for his take on what makes the Hermit Kingdom tick. In applying his journalistic acumen to the task of tracking two pivotal players - "Great Leader" Kim Il-sung and No Kum Sok, a young fighter pilot silently waiting for the chance to make a high-stakes flight to the south - Harden has created an expert meld of geopolitics and personal struggle. (Read Harden's primer on North Korea for the Amazon Book Review here.)

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The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea by Bandi
A set of seven tales about life under the rule of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, The Accusation is another entry from the fictional side of the DMZ. The stories themselves are remarkable for their crystalline depictions of life in North Korea, but it's their author who makes this collection especially compelling: "Bandi" (derived from Korean for "firefly") is a pseudonym for a writer currently living in North Korea.

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North Korea Confidential: Private Markets, Fashion Trends, Prison Camps, Dissenters and Defectors by Daniel Tudor and James Pearson
Maybe humor isn't an inappropriate tactic in wrapping one's head around the DPRK. Tudor and Pearson explore the lives of ordinary citizens in modern North Korea through a variety of sources - including interviews with Pyongyang politicians, defectors, and diplomats - exposing not only the banality and occasional horror of tyranny, but also the surprising sense of absurdity that Koreans themselves deploy in dealing with it.

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Without You, There Is No Us by Suki Kim
Pyongyang University of Science and Technology is where many of North Korea's most privileged young go to learn English. Suki is one of their teachers, but she also carries an enormous, potentially ruinous secret: she's gone to PUST as an undercover missionary. The premise is fantastical, even farcical  (Who would do this?), but her observations of the students - who swing between acting like typical teenage knuckleheads and young tools of the regime - are nothing but unnerving.

The Escape Narrative

Estimates of the number of defectors who have fled North Korea since 1953 range from 100,000 to 300,000. Needless to say, escape isn't easy. If you make it, you'll almost certainly never see your family again, and they may even pay harsh penalties for your actions. If you don't, the costs will be personally catastrophic. (And one can't help but wonder what number to assign to that group.) Here are a few first-person accounts from those who risked everything for freedom: 


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Comments (1)

Facinating, with all going on concerning N Korea, a better understanding of who and what they are, and their leadership, is necessary to prepare for any eventuality we may face.

Posted by: Doug Walters | Wednesday August 16, 2017 at 4:54 PM

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