From the former director of Asian Affairs at the National Security Council, an eye-opening view of the closed, repressive dictatorship of North Korea.
Cha (Foreign Service/Georgetown Univ.; Beyond the Final Score: The Politics of Sport in Asia, 2008, etc.) first visited North Korea during George W. Bush’s second term with then-governor of New Mexico Bill Richardson to try to defuse nuclear-testing tensions. The author was amazed at the chasm between party haves and everybody else, confirming all that he knew about the authoritarian country. Cha aims to get at some of the pressing questions since Kim Jong-il’s death and the succession of the utterly unknown younger son, Kim Jong-un—e.g., what happened to this once-vigorous dictatorship, and why does the populace do nothing about it? How can the West know so little about what really goes on there? For Cha, the key that unlocked the regime’s secrets was its nostalgia for the good old days of the 1950s and ’60s, when China and the Soviet Union were bolstering North Korean industry and military, while the South was still an agrarian backwater. American aggression during the Korean War left a lasting bitterness, and while the South was grappling with American ambivalence toward its leaders, the North under Kim Il-sung embraced the ideology of juche, or self-reliance, and the cult of the Great Leader. As a result, writes Cha, the North Koreans are simply too oppressed to revolt—not to mention the devastating effects from “Olympic envy” of trying to catch up to Seoul’s 1988 hosting, and the terrible famine of the mid ’90s. The author looks closely at the Kim family, the terrible economic decisions that plunged the country into poverty, the shocking gulag system, its paranoid nuclear proliferation program and the tenuous relations with South Korea.
A useful, pertinent work for understanding the human story behind the headlines.