I promised some time ago a post on North Korea, or rather on Bruce Cuming's book of that title, and finally here it is.
First, a digression. I went to North Korea in 1998—there's an article I wrote about the trip for the Guardian Weekly here—and it was, and no doubt still is, the most fascinating, if spooky, place. I doubt I'll ever forget the television news, with the presenters' frenzied enthusiasm, or the way in which I became invisible in the streets of Pyongyang, even the simplest of eye contact seeming to be forbidden, or perhaps too frightening, for the inhabitants.
Cumings is no apologist for the regime—he describes Kim Il Sung at age 68: "he was a cross between Marlon Brando playing a big oil mogul in a film called The Formula, walking with feet splayed to handle a potbelly and hands amidriff thus to pat the tummy, combined with the big head on narrow shoulders, and the blank, guttural delivery of Henry Kissinger." (p. 148)
Yet he makes the obvious, but often missed, point, that the regime can't be quite so dysfunctional as American and South Korean propaganda would suggest, since if it were, it could not have survived.
He says, yes, there probably are, as Amnesty International reports, 100,000 political prisoners. "Does this system promote human freedom? Not from any liberal's standpoint. But from a Korean standpoint, where freedom is also defined as an independent stance against foreign predator—freedom for the Korean nation—here, the vitriolic judgments do not flow so easily. This is a cardinal virtue among a people that has preserved its integrity and continuity in the same place since the early Christian era." (p. 151)
So what is Kim Jong Il really like?
... not the playboy, womanizer, drunk, and mentally deranged fanatic "Dr Evil" of our press. He is a homebody who doesn't socialize much, doesn't drink much, and works at home in his pajamas, scribbling marginal comments on the endless reams of documents brought to him in gray briefcases by his aides ... He is prudish and shy, and like most Korean fathers, hopelessly devoted to his son and the other children in his household—vastly preferring to sequester himself with them, rather than preside over the public extravaganzas that amaze visitors to the DPRK. ... The Dear Leader has tired of all the absurd hero worship, too; he told a visitor, "All that is bogus. It's all just pretence." [p. 163]
As for what being an "ordinary" North Korean might be like, Cumings quotes Anthony Namkung, "who attended an evangelical Christian missionary school: 'It helps in understanding North Korea if you have lived in a fundamental Christian community ... Just like the North Koreans, we believed in the absolute purity of our doctrine. We focused inward and didn't want to be tainted by the outside world.'" (p. 173)