Appearing in the Weekend Australian, Review magazine, 5-6 May 2018
Defectors spill the beans on starving Hermit Kingdom
Ask a North Korean: Defectors Talk About Their Lives Inside the World’s Most Secretive Nation
By Daniel Tudor
Tuttle Publishing, 288pp, $29.99
North Korea: The Country We Love to Hate
By Loretta Napoleoni
UWA Publishing, 250pp, $19.99
It seems to hang on the hazy horizon, communicating by way of bizarre announcements and occasional explosions.
North Korea is such an unlikely country that it might be a parallel dimension, and would even be faintly comical if nuclear weapons were not in the mix.
The recent thaw in relations has shed some light on the power structures, but little is known about how ordinary people lead their lives.
Daniel Tudor’s remarkable book is a start on changing that. It is based on a weekly column, Ask A North Korean, published by an American online newspaper based in Seoul. The column invites readers to put questions to North Korean defectors, and it is hugely popular in South Korea. The book is a series of in-depth interviews with four defectors, covering everything from politics to fashion.
One surprise is that so many people have escaped from North Korea. There are more than 30,000 living in Seoul and many more in China and elsewhere.
Perhaps it should not be surprising: a central theme of the book is the raw toughness of living in North Korea. Outside the major cities, hunger is an everyday reality; in the cities it is a little better but there is still not much food security.
The good news, such as it is, is that the economy is slowly improving. The famine of the 1990s was a turning point for the country. Shortages of everything brought the black market into the open, and a wave of small businesses sprang up to provide what the lumbering state-owned enterprises could not.
The government tolerated the move, knowing there was no alternative. Eventually, something like a private-sector economy running parallel to the state-managed system developed. It was enough to keep the country afloat, at least, and it has continued to grow.
One of the biggest businesses is the trade in television programs and news from South Korea and China, mainly on USB sticks, which has undercut the government’s monopoly on information. Another booming activity is the sale of home-brewed liquor — a way to escape from the grinding reality, presumably. Second-hand clothes from Japan are also big sellers.
For its part the government does not seem to be particularly interested in economic management. Kim Jong-un, like his father and grandfather, sometimes talks about “juche”, a loose idea of national self-reliance, and he seems to see small private businesses as fitting into the framework. He also says, according to several of the interviewees, that nuclear weapons are more important than food.
That, and the raising of the Kim clan to near-divine status. The rules of their veneration keep changing, leading to a level of confusion on what is required.
This can be dangerous, as any hint of a lack of love for the leader can mean a one-way trip to a prison camp, not just for the individual but for their entire family. It is like Stalin’s terror as performed by the Keystone cops. Most people just keep their heads down, go through the motions, and bow when they are supposed to.
The defectors in the book have little to say about the North Korean elite, mainly because it is largely separate from the general population.
They note, however, that since the economy began to privatise, many people in the circle around the Kim family have become very rich, usually from skimming a portion of government business.
This group is known as donju — “masters of money”. It appears that no one believes in socialism or juche any more.
For the elite, the goal is more money. For the Kims, it is staying in power. For most of the population, it is surviving.
If Ask a North Korean is the view from the bottom up, Loretta Napoleoni takes a different perspective in North Korea: The Country We Love to Hate. She claims the book is “dispassionate” but this is hard to accept. In fact, she has never been in the country (according to the book’s publishers), even though she makes a variety of claims about what she calls the North’s “glorious” past.
Some are strikingly odd: in her account of the Korean War, for example, she somehow neglects to mention the 300,000 Chinese soldiers who came in on the North’s side.
There might be a reason for this: she sees the North-South conflict as a proxy war between the US and the Soviet Union, and acknowledging China’s involvement would upset her paradigm.
This is not to say she wholeheartedly supports the current North Korean regime. She calls juche “the Scientology of totalitarianism” and points to the government’s involvement in the global drug trade and other illicit activities.
Nevertheless, Napoleoni seems to fall into that caste of European academics who take the view that any enemy of the US is at least worthy of a sympathetic hearing. She applauds Kim Jong-il (father of the current leader) for “outsmarting” Bill Clinton on a deal called the Agreed Framework, under which the US promised aid in return for North Korea freezing its nuclear program. In fact, North Korea reneged on the deal before the ink was dry, which Napoleoni sees as pretty clever.
Interestingly, she says sanctions will never be effective and any diplomatic contact is unlikely. Given this, it is hard to know what Napoleoni would make of the events of the past few months. She would probably say Donald Trump had nothing to do with it, that he just happened to bumble along at the right time.
It’s nonsense, of course.
Bellicose language, tougher sanctions, and a willingness to sit down to talk about nukes are the new elements Trump brought to the game, and the approach seems to have worked. How it will play out is still not known, but it might be appropriate to give some credit where it is due.