Saturday, 22 March 2014

North Korea - Lankov and Sweeney

North Korea has for many years been something of a hobby of mine. My uncle was in Korea during his national service in the Navy, but would never talk about it. when I was a child I was curious. Much later, when I was at the BBC Monitoring Service as a foreign affairs editor on what was at first a print publication called the Summary of World Broadcasts, later on line and these days much changed of course (I started that job in 1984) I was given responsibility, kind of, for North Korea. Understanding what its news media were saying, keeping an eye on what they were putting out, that sort of thing. I began to study Korean in the late 1980s and went to South Korea for a while too, but that is another story. North Korea was a hoot, at times. The language used by KCNA, the Korean Central News Agency, North Korea's English-language voice, was especially colourful. They would refer to the South Korean media as "venal trumpeters" and "corrupt penny-a-liners". The South generally were "splittist flunkeys". You get the kind of thing. Now, after the Cold War, North Korea seems even stranger. Huge triumphal arches, miraculous happenings to do with the Kim dynasty, and so on.

So, I was interested a few months ago to read a book written in English by a Russian, Andrei Lankov, who lived and worked in North Korea for years, called "The Real North Korea". Leaving aside the inevitable infelicities in English, especially in the use of articles (he is a Russian after all - Andrei, let me edit your next one: I understand the grammar and structure of Russian and Korean and I'm a native English professional editor, you won't find another one like me) it was utterly fascinating. North Korea, he tells us, when formed in 1945, had to be communist of course, but there were no communists in it then. So they had to find some, and bring them from the USSR and other places where the likes of Kim Il Sung were hanging out. He it was who called the Chinese Cultural Revolution, in a private conversation with Brezhnev in 1966, "idiocy". No flies on Kim the Elder, I've always thought. North Korea remains the only country ever to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, as not a lot of people know. It is worth reading this book for the vignettes of life in that secret state, for the pictures never seen elsewhere, some of them taken by the author, of the lives of ordinary North Koreans - and for a different perspective. It is especially worth reading for his analysis of what has kept the Kim dynasty in power for all these decades against the odds, why the regime, entirely rationally, will not change, and, also entirely rationally, why it must. He has added to the sum of historical knowledge.

A different perspective again is to be found in the book by the journalist John Sweeney, "North Korea Undercover" which chronicles a visit he and others made as tourists. He says "understanding North Korea is like figuring out a detective story where you stumble across a corpse in the library, a smoking gun beside it, and the corpse gets up and says that's no gun and it isn't smoking and this isn't a library." The book's working hypothesis is, Sweeney says, "that Kim Jong Un's talk of nuclear war is a confidencc trick and that the Pyongyang bluff is blinding us to a human rights tragedy on an immense scale." That seems about right, and it is time more of the international community took an interest. Though I can quite see why the international movers tend to discover a prior appointment and scurry away when the subject comes up.

Sweeney is not immune to the desire to take the piss that often comes over those who encounter North Korean propaganda - I certainly succumbed to it regularly in the 1980s - he calls Kim Il Sung, rather splendidly, "God the Mother", Kim Jong Il "Bad Elvis", and the current incumbent, Kim Jong Un, "Fat Boy Kim". He too though, like Lankov, glimpses what he calls "the survivalist logic lurking in the dark". No one knows for sure what the elder two Kims were like. Sweeney cites "someone" as saying that the best book about North Korea was written in 1592, and is called "Richard III". I lay my cards upon the table as a passionate Ricardian, and move on. Although I note, and recommend, the film version of that play which stars Sir Ian McKellen, is set in a totalitarian regime of some kind, and has the Lady Anne a junkie.

What is particularly to be recommended about Sweeney's book is the fact that he includes interviews with many North Korean defectors to the South, and this book brings their stories together in one place in readable English, which I do not think anyone else has done.

Read both these books - you will understand totalitarianism a little better. It has not gone away from this world, despite the grounds for optimism I believe there are - death-squad regimes have largely gone from South America and the Iron Curtain is down, but let's not all relax quite yet - and the fact that such a regime can still exist when we all thought it could not is all the more reason for finding out more about it.

As an aside, the official ideology of North Korea, called Juche or Chuche, depending on which transliteration system you prefer, is known in North Korean propaganda as "the Chuche idea". There is no exact translation of that Korean word into English, but it has almost the exact same meaning as a name in the Irish language - Sinn Fein. Not that...

I once had a grey tomcat I called Chuche. He had to go to another owner after a while, who changed his name to Freddie. Pity really.

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