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I went to North Korea in 1998 and it was, and no doubt still is, a most fascinating, if spooky, place.

Book Review: North Korea

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&#8212there’s an article I wrote about the trip for the Guardian Weekly here&#8212and 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&#8212he 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&#8212freedom for the Korean nation&#8212here, 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&#8212vastly 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)

It seems a believable simile to me.

Yet, strong though this is, the account of North Korea is not the best part of this book. Its first part focuses on America’s relationship with Korea and its approach to the Korean war&#8212extremely revealing and frightening.

Cumings says: “It was the Korean War, not Greece or Turkey or the Marshall Plan or Vietnam, that inaugurated historically unprecedented defense budgets (the budget quadrupled from June to December 1950, from $13 billion to $54 billion, or more than $500 billion in current dollars) and built the national security state at home and a far-flung archipelago of military base abroad, that transformed a limited containment doctrine into a global crusade, and that ignited McCarthyism just as it seemed to…” fizzle, thereby giving the Cold War its long run. (p. 8)

Now you might say that Cumings is making special pleading for his pet subject, but that budget figure is telling.

Eight years after that budget jump, Cuming says, the US brought nukes to South Korea “in spite of the 1953 armistice agreement that prohibited the introduction of qualitatively new weaponry… primarily to stabilize the volatile civil war” (to stop the South attacking the North).

If you suffer from nightmares you might not want to read the next bit…

There were 280mm nuclear cannons and “Honest John nuclear-tipped missiles” and a year later air-borne “Matador cruise missiles.” Later atomic demolition mines, which weighed 60 pounds but had the same power as the Hiroshima bomb, were added. They were moved around in Jeeps, helicopters and carried in backpacks! “That one of them might stray across the DMZ during a training exercise… and give Pyongyang an atomic bomb was a constant possibility.”

“In January 1968 the North Koreans seized the American spy ship Pueblo, capturing the crew and keeping it in prison for 11 months. The initial reaction of decision makers was to drop a nuclear weapon on Pyongyang.”! (p. 53)

Since the weapons were so close to the North, there was a “use it or lose it” mentality. “For decades… the US planned to use tactical and battlefield nuclear weapons in the very early stages of a new Korean conflict, the usual scenario being… within one hour of the outbreak of war”. (p.54)

So we should perhaps most thank Kim Il Sung for the fact there has not been any use of nuclear weapons since WW2. (And you can understand why the regime was, and is, so keen to have nukes of its own.)

But there is credit on the US side&#8212in 1991 President Bush (the older&#8212I dread to think what the younger might do with these at hand) “announced that he was withdrawing all tactical and battlefield nuclear weapons on a worldwide basis, destroying them or putting them into storage”. (p.55) But as Cumings says, from the NK view, US submarines can still sail right up to their coast.

Cumings sums up the North as “a small, Third World, postcolonial nation that has been gravely wounded, first by 40 years of Japanese colonialism and then by another 60 years of national division and war, and that is deeply insecure, threatened by the world around it”. (p.151)

It is, for me, a convincing portrait.

About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.

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