Fun on the dark side


Victor Cha
North Korea, past and future
530pp. Bodley Head. £25.
978 1 84792 235 9

John Everard
A British diplomat in North Korea
260pp. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center. Paperback, £12.99 (US $18.95).
978 1 931368 25 4

Blaine Harden
One man’s remarkable odyssey From North Korea to freedom in the West
242pp. Pan Macmillan. Paperback, £8.99.
978 0 330 51954 0 US: Penguin. $15.978 0 14 312291 3

Johannes Schonherr
A history
215pp. McFarland. Paperback, £63.50 (US $75).
978 0 7864 6526 2

Andrei Lankov
Life and politics in the failed Stalinist utopia
283pp. Oxford University Press. £16.99 (US $27.95).
978 019 996429 1

A now familiar satellite image shows the Korean peninsula at night. The South is ablaze with light, as are nearby Japan and China. The North, by contrast, is plunged in darkness but for a single blob: the capital Pyongyang, its monuments more brightly lit than residents’ homes, (North Korea has other large cities, but they show up only as the faintest of pinpricks.) You can feel the metaphor coming. The government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, its official name) keeps its citizens in the dark, not just literally – electricity is in chronically short supply – but by blocking all influences from outside, including the internet. In the other direction it is a different picture. We know far more about North Korea than formerly, yet pools of dark ness remain. Politics is one such, not least the thirty something young man who now rules the DPRK, and who earlier this year was cheerfully threatening all and sundry with pre-emptive nuclear strikes.

Until a decade ago, Kim Jong Un was not even known to exist, despite years of schooling in Switzerland; were our spies asleep? Kim Jong 11, son and successor to the DPRK’s founding leader Kim II Sung, was thought to have two sons of his own. In 2003 a Japanese who calls himself Kenji Fujimoto published a memoir, claiming to have been Kim Jong Il’s sushi chef and con¬fidant for over a decade. His tales of court life in Pyongyang – nude dancing girls (no touching), dog soup on Sundays and more – included the first mention of a hitherto unknown third son, said to be hot-headed and his father’s favourite. Right on both counts, it appears.

Fujimoto feared for his life after these revelations. Yet last July he was invited back by Kim Jong Un, who seems to share his father’s view that there is no such thing as bad publicity. In 2001 Kim Jong II had told Konstantin Pulikovsky, sent by Vladimir Putin to escort him on a leisurely and luxurious journey to Moscow aboard Kim’s personal train: “I am the object of crit¬icism around the world. But I think that since I am being discussed, then I am on the right track”. Like Fujimoto, Pulikovsky spilled the beans. Live lobster was flown in daily as the caravan crossed Siberia. There were silver chopsticks, fine French wines, lusty choruses of old Soviet songs, and maidens “of the utmost beauty and intelligence” (clothed, indeed uniformed).

Pulikovsky’s account, Orient Express, remains untranslated. The same goes for Fujimoto, now with three books out, and the important memoirs of Song Hye Rang, aunt of Kim Jong IPs disinherited and off-message eldest son Kim Jong Nam: formerly of Macau, now in hiding. Even the gripping tale by South Korea’s Burton and Taylor, the film director Shin Sang Ok and his on- off spouse the actress Choi Eun Hee, of their 1978 kidnapping – or was it? – on Kim Jong Il’s orders, life in the North (from jail to pal¬ace) and escape in 1986, has never appeared in English.

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This is surprising. Nowadays books on North Korea pour from the presses: written mostly by outsiders who have never lived there, and occasionally never even been there. In this inspect the light map of the peninsula is reversed. Oddly, there are far fewer non-specialist works on the South: a fascinating and dynamic land, much easier to visit and study. Daniel Tudor, the Economist’s Seoul correspondent, recently published the first general introduction to South Korea to appear for some time; calling it, somewhat unexpectedly, The Impossible Country.

In a coincidence both authors may regret, Victor Cha chose the same adjective for the other Korea, where it fits much better. An academic who served in George W. Bush’s White House, Cha has written what his publisher brashly bills as “the definitive account of North Korea”. There can be no such thing; but this is a serviceable intro¬duction, from a conventional US viewpoint, to the tangles of what an earlier age would have called “the Korean question”. It will disappoint those hoping for an inside view of the battles between hawks and doves that rent the Bush administration, undermining any coherent policy. Cha’s defensive account is less informative than works with no axe to grind, such as Mike Chinoy’s Meltdown (2008).

His virtues include a crisp chapter, “Five Bad Decisions”, on how the North’s economy lost its initial lead over the South (impossible to imagine now) and became today’s malnourished basket case. On policy, Cha rightly urges the need for the US and South Korea to coordinate their contingency planning with China. Beijing has not been keen, but this may change as it loses patience with Kim Jong Un’s antics. The final chapter, “The End Is Near”, predicts that the DPRK will collapse under the weight of its contradictions, and soon. Such forecasts have been heard for two decades, but North Korea has defied them thus far. If it survives till 2020, it will surpass the USSR as the longest-lived Communist (if that is the word) state. Its second hereditary succession looks smooth, yet in May a defence minister was replaced for the third time in a year. The armed forces thrived under Kim Jong II; his son and the Party are now reining them in. Ructions are possible, but Cha’s hopes for something akin to the Arab Spring in the DPRK seem optimistic.

Thousands of Westerners visit North Korea each year; a dozen firms compete to take them. (None pulled out during the recent tensions, though they had some cancellations.) Far fewer Westerners live there. Those who have written about the experi¬ence include two Englishmen, Andrew Hol¬loway and Michael Harrold, whose job was to correct the English in translations of works by the Leaders. Recently the Swiss Felix Abt self-published a book, available online, A Capitalist in North Korea, about his years in the country between 2002 and 2009. It would be good too to have the obser¬vations of aid workers, whom since 1995 North Korea has grudgingly let in, as it needs their help; but none so far seems to have gone into print.

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John Everard wishes they would, so as “to correct the assertions of some who have writ¬ten at length and stridently … on the basis of very limited knowledge”. He himself spent two years (2006-08) in North Korea as Her Majesty’s Ambassador; previous postings had included inaugurating the Brit¬ish embassy in Belarus. UK-DPRK diplo¬matic relations date only from 2000, but already Britain has had six chefs de mission in Pyongyang. James Hoare opened the embassy, writing about this and more in North Korea in the 21st Century (2005, with Susan Pares). Now at SOAS, last year the tireless Dr Hoare produced both a historical dictionary of the DPRK and an edited three volume article collection on both Koreas.

As his evocative title suggests, Everard brings a keen ear and a fresh perspective to an often stale field. An eager cyclist, he could venture off the beaten track. Pedalling a scenic byway to the port of Nampo, “on my way back men appeared on bridges along my route telling me to take the main road”. (The plural suggests he ignored them.) He recounts some surprisingly frank conversations with North Koreans whose identity he rightly disguises, calling them all “she”, which adds a frisson; most were surely he. These were not the woman or man in the street but what he precisely pinpoints as “the outer elite”: those with “stable but not top-level jobs”.

In writers such as Abt, a laudable urge lo correct one-dimensional caricatures teeters into the trap of apologetics. This Everard avoids. With rare balance, he combines full awareness of the nuances and depth of the society with robust censure of the regime. Of course North Koreans are human beings, not robots; whoever denied it? But the DPRK is still a ghastly place nonpareil. He dedicates Only Beautiful, Please “to the people of North Korea, who deserve better”.

The heart of darkness is a vast gulag, where up to 200,000 innocents suffer unspeakably and often indefinitely. This used to be dark in another sense almost no details leaked out. Now the camps can be seen on Google Earth, and many reports have detailed their awful abuses. Some victims have written memoirs, the best-known being Kang Choi Hwan’s Aquariums of Pyongyang (2000). Kang was nine when his whole family was sent to Yodok camp after his grandfather, a Kyoto businessman who answered the fatherland’s call to build socialism – he even brought his Volvo – complained once too often. About 90,000 Koreans left Japan for North Korea, never to return; many were never heard of again. This thread in the DPRK tapestry of misery was the subject of Tessa Morris- Suzuki’s poignant Exodus to North Korea (2007).

Shin Dong Hyuk can trump Kang: he was born in the gulag. Near in age to Kim Jong Un, he recounts a Hobbesian life of constant, vicious, numbing cruelty. Shin even betrayed his own mother and brother for plotting to escape, and watched their executions. Almost as appalling is that few cared in South Korea, to which he miraculously escaped; his first book flopped. It look an American journalist, Blaine Harden, lo make Shin’s shocking story a global hit m twenty-four languages. All credit to him, though it seems strange not to credit Shin as co-author of Escape from Camp II: not even a “with”. The UN Human Rights Council recently set up a commission of inquiry into DPRK human rights abuses; it will report next March. No doubt the regime will continue brazenly to deny everything. For its interlocutors, the dilemma is what to prioritize. If the main task is to curb North Korea’s nuclear and missile activities, human rights tend to be passed over.

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Most North Koreans avoid the gulag, but all go to the movies: a softer form of social control. Kim Jong 11 was a film fanatic; his works include On the Art of the Cinema (1973). Aware that quality was poor, Kim drafted in the Southern director Shin Sang Ok to improve things. Johannes Schönherr, whose North Korean Cinema is the first book in English on its subject, doubts if Shin was kidnapped. Schönherr’s own journey has been picaresque. He is a former East German grave-digger, expelled from the GDR in 1983. His Trashfilm Roadshows (2002) was a romp through the transgressive or bizarre; its index has “Woman Warrior of Koryo” between “Whoregasm” and “Zombie Hunger”. Blagging his way to a film festival in Pyongyang, he found his true metier. Still freelance, he now lives in Japan. Full of stills (all in black and while). North Korean Cinema is eye opening and a word rarely used of the DPRK — fun. Unencumbered by theory, this is a rich narrative history from the 1940s in the present. North Korea’s latest films revert to pre-Shin leadenness: no match for the slickness of South Korean soaps and other foreign fare, which circulate widely on DVD or memory stick the latter easier to hide if the police call.

Such key social changes are well documented in The Real North Korea. Andrei Lankov is a phenomenon. Born in Leningrad, he studied in Pyongyang and is now a professor in Seoul. A historian who has used Soviet archives to write two books (so far) on the DPRK’s early political history, he is also a prolific commentator. Besides writing many an op-ed, he has two long-running columns in the Korea Times, on the dawn of modern Korea and on the North, each already anthologized in book form. Some of the thirteen boxes studding the text of this new book are from such columns, though that is not mentioned. This is the best all-round account of North Korea yet. Its many virtues include apt detail, dry wit, a sure analytical touch, and refusal to preach. Lankov is insightful too on the South, such as the contortions of its leftists. Still fixated on their own long gone dictators (pussycats compared to the Kims), some find virtue in the North: at least it hosts no foreign troops. Dividing a nation also twists minds.

What can be done? Hawks and doves both err. As Lankov puts it, the sticks are not big enough and the carrots not sweet enough. Engagement is better than sanctions for weakening the regime, but North Korea can last a while yet before the inevitable crisis. That could arise in several ways, but whatever happens a soft landing is “not very probable”. Not quite Hilaire Belloc’s “They answered as they look their fees, There is no cure for this disease”; but small comfort for ideologues, certain that being either tougher or kinder to Kim Jong Un will do the trick.

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