A sharp-eyed look at a cold and hungry outpost of the Axis of Evil.
Former Newsweek bureau chief Martin first traveled to North Korea in 1979, and what he found was a near-religious cult of personality centered on the person of Kim Il-sung, known variously as the Great Leader, Fatherly Leader, Respected and Beloved Leader, and so on, a partial listing of whose reputed achievements “would have aroused the envy of a Leonardo da Vinci or Thomas Jefferson.” And of a Priapus: as Martin writes in this sprawling and not often titillating work, Kim and his son and successor Kim Jong-Il apparently each take seriously the notion of being the father of their country, each setting aside great numbers of women for personal service. The list of special favors continues on and on: as his country descended ever deeper into poverty and famine in the late 1990s, Kim Jr. “kept a 10,000-bottle wine cellar and liked shark’s fin soup several times a week,” hosting banquets that lasted for days on end; when Kim Sr. reached his 70th birthday, his son order the construction of a commemorative version of the Arc de Triomphe, “larger than the Paris original,” just one of the many monuments built in a program that would be a major drain on the country’s economy. But no matter: the Kims, Martin writes, have created a command economy par excellence as part of the exceptionalist doctrine called juche, which means something like “national self-reliance” but really translates to something like Great-Leader-first. As for whether the bizarre Kim Jr.’s North Korea is a threat, Martin suggests that the nation’s nuclear arsenal should give the world pause. But, he adds, that doesn’t seem to be stopping Asian companies from “teaming their capital with the cheap labor of the North, where workers for foreign-invested joint ventures earned $100 to $400 a month.”
Martin goes on too long, but offers much good information along the way about a decidedly strange and dangerous land.