Saturday, May 08, 2010

Looking North

North Korea fascinates me, so I'm looking forward to reading these two books I just got: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick, and The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters by B.R. Myers.

Why am so interested? It's hard to articulate, but the place is just so bizarre. Here's this whole country full of people living according to the lies their leaders tell them, with no access to news of the outside world. It's a bit like China during the Cultural Revolution, but it's happening now.
(One of my Chinese students told me something that perfectly illustrates a paranoid regime: Remember how American parents used to say, "Eat all your dinner; there are children starving in China"? What they meant was "Be grateful for what you have," right? In China, the government interpreted that for the people as "Eat all your dinner so the Chinese children don't get any.")

In North Korea, children are starving today, but we don't hear about it. The government recently cracked down on independent food vendors and farmers' markets operating outside of official channels. But these vendors were a vital source of income and/or food for many North Koreans. The government outlawed them and it devalued the national currency, wiping out people's savings overnight. Reportedly panic buying and near riots ensued. That led to unprecedented government backpedaling and at least one execution of a state official.

And the family of that state official is likely now in the North Korean gulag. If you sin in North Korea, your family will pay.

But we only get this information in dribs and drabs and hints and innuendos. There are people who build their whole careers around trying to suss out what the North Koreans are up to.

It matters what they're up to because they've got nukes. And they're working on building rockets that can carry those nukes a long, long way – across the Pacific, if possible. And they're sharing what they know with Iran and who knows whom else.

There are many more crazy things about North Korea that interest me. Kim Jong-Il is a piece of work, let me tell you. And his kids! (One of them got nixed as a successor because he got caught trying to sneak into Japan with a fake passport. Why? He wanted to go to Disneyland!) It's ludicrous and really, really scary at the same time.

A couple of books I've already enjoyed are The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag by Chol-hwan Kang and Pierre Rigoulot, and The Reluctant Communist: My Desertion, Court-Martial, and Forty-Year Imprisonment in North Korea by Charles Robert Jenkins. Two fascinating memoirs that sparked my interest to learn more. You might try them, too. And do pay attention when North Korea is in the news; it may be more important than you think.


  1. I too am completely fascinated with North Korea - "bizarre" is the perfect word. Thanks for the book links, I'll definitely have to check them out.

  2. Every time I see another news story from there, I think, "What is up with them?!? They're crazy!"

    I'll try to post a review when I'm done. The memoirs were both good reads, though.