North Korea's Arirang Mass Games
Few outsiders have seen North Korea, in spite of the increasing international urgency to understand it. Perhaps for this reason, stories from the hermit kingdom hold a unique power over us. Like books about China written from behind the bamboo curtain, our only understanding of this "workers' paradise" comes from state propaganda, and sensationalistic accounts from defectors—many of which can never be verified. But for all the accounts that go unchallenged, there are also books like the ones below, ones written by scholars and journalists working to shed light on the mysterious DPRK.
Former Los Angeles Times Korea correspondent Barbara Demick draws on extensive interviews with six refugees in Seoul to weave a people's history of the DPRK spanning the 1960s to the late 1990s. These refugees all hail from the same town in the northern part of the country, and though their lives never intersect, when pieced together in this semi-novelistic tale they form a compelling portrait of the second-tier city of Chongjin. Demick's interview montages make for innovative reporting: By allowing her subjects to speak for themselves, she introduces nuance while capturing the unique psychological state that isolates the people of North Korea from the rest of the world.
Although this eight-hundred-page tome might intimidate readers, Bradley Martin's history of the DPRK is fast-moving and full of engaging defector anecdotes. Martin is an esteemed journalist who has covered both Koreas since 1979, and Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader is perhaps the most detailed and historically inclusive book on the country available today. It details the political rise of Kim Il Sung, the early days of North Korean prosperity and court politics in Pyongyang; and it attempts to unravel the cult of personality surrounding DPRK leaders. An important media commentator on North Korea, Martin's support for better relations between the US and North Korea—a tack favored by some Western European nations—has earned him a reputation as a controversial figure.
North Korean analyst and noted contrarian B.R. Myers might be most famous in literary circles for A Reader's Manifesto, his critique of American literature. In The Cleanest Race, Myers attempts to explain the North Korean worldview to those of us too polluted by Western rhetoric to know better. Going beyond propaganda analysis, Myers fights the assumption that all North Koreans are brainwashed and lack intellectual autonomy. Although he doesn't call the regime's philosophy fascist outright, he does draw parallels to Japan's government during WWII.
Don Oberdorfer's account of the divided Korean peninsula was inspired by his service during the Korean War, and his decades of experience as a journalist. Focusing on the odd love-lost relationship between the two nations, The Two Koreas takes a necessary look at the entire peninsula, before and after the country was divided in 1945. Having been published just after Kim Jong-Il's acession more than ten years ago, however, this "Contemporary History" no longer lives up to its title. But certain things haven't changed. Oberdorfer's conclusion, written about Kim Jong-On, remains prescient: "the struggle on the Korean peninsula remains unsolved... As of the Autumn of 1998, it appears unlikely that North Korea will survive in its present form over the long term."
The Abacus and the Sword, written by Japan historian Duus, is a bible of sorts for Koreans seeking to unravel the origins of their peninsula's colonial occupation. For East Asian scholars, Abacus is a groundbreaking historical study of Meiji expansionism and Japanese colonial strategy in what was formerly Japan's largest colony. Undeniable connections are drawn between Japan's centuries-old beliefs and it's contemporary thinking: the notion of a superior and pure race, and the country's paranoia toward "the West." Duus ascribes the rise of Japanese fascism to this paranoia, and a sense of Western-derived inferiority that generated what he calls "backward imperialism."
In this refugee memoir, a boy narrates his life growing up in the DPRK during the famine of the 1990s. Hyok's vivid childhood impressions, relayed through the French journalist who helped him document them, offer guileless insights into an ailing society. His childhood memories are painful: classmates compete with rodents for grains of rice or slowly die of starvation, and later, his family escapes through China. He eventually makes it to South Korea, where he reflects on the discrimination he endured as a refugee in Seoul.
"Aquariums" is a labor camp memoir that will turn your stomach: It's the book that human rights activists and Christian groups quote when testifying about the horrors of the regime. It's also a political tool itself. Imprisoned for ten years, Chol-hwan Kang laces his own gruesome story with labor camp statistics and hearsay from other defectors. Within the refugee memoir genre, it's particularly graphic, and its appearance reminds advocates around the world that there is still plenty worth fighting for.
Lee Ambrozy is the editor of Artforum's Chinese language website.