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Understanding, visiting and living in North Korea

by Hugh Cortazzi

NORTH KOREA IN THE 21ST CENTURY: An interpretative Guide, by J.E. Hoare and Susan Pares. Global Oriental, 2005, 253 pp., including index, references/bibliography, b/w illustrations, £14.95 (paper).

Jim Hoare opened the British Embassy in Pyongyang in 2001 and was the first British diplomat and charge d’affaires resident in Pyongyang. He and his wife Susan Pares, who accompanied him there and worked with the United Nations, have provided in this book a valuable introduction and guide to North Korea, a country about which very little is known in the West and one that is generally referred to by various cliches.

The first and most important part of the book, “Understanding the DPRK” (Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea), outlines the basic facts necessary to understand the nature of North Korea today. Its first chapter, “Politics with North Korean Characteristics,” describes the attitudes and methods employed by the regime. The authors point out that in North Korea “what matters is not what you are now, but what your family once was. There is, in other words, no escaping one’s past.”

The indoctrination process, the personality cult and the emphasis on conformity are explained. The “labour camps” and the reports of human-rights violations are described, as is the bizarre and ghoulish way in which the dead Kim Il Sung has been retained as president and is “revered” in ways that make the cults of Stalin and Mao Zedong seem tame. The book brings out the way in which history has been “interpreted” to support the regime and how the Confucian emphasis on loyalty and the relationship between rulers and ruled are exploited.

The North Korean slogan juche (self reliance) was first expounded by Kim Il Sung in 1955 and is reiterated endlessly in regime propaganda.

The chapters in this first part of “North Korea in the 21st Century” — which cover the rise and fall of North Korean economy, society, cultural values, and the outside world — provide a succinct analysis of the country and its postwar history.

Among the fascinating nuggets of information offered here is a brief description of the Ryugyong hotel, known to Koreans as “the 105-story building,” which was never completed: “the vast pyramid crowned with a crane that has never been retrieved now adds a surreal touch to the Pyongyang skyline,” which, we are told, foreign visitors are not supposed to photograph. Another example of the peculiar ways of the regime is the fact that, although for a time mobile phones were allowed (in May 2004), “the right to use a mobile phone was withdrawn from all users, foreign and Korean.”

Amid the sorry state of North Korean agriculture and the decline of industry, the authors note that real change is occurring. Despite the continuing shortages of food, energy and clean water, “North Korean society, at the start of 2005, is clearly in better shape than it was seven to eight years before.” There is some development of markets: “The impression now is of a society that is becoming differentiated and unequal.”

The state remains ubiquitous and all powerful, as is clear from the comments on the state of religion and the arts. Since the late 1980s, five churches have been or are being built in Pyongyang. “The initiative, attributed to Kim Jong Il, to construct an Orthodox church in Pyongyang and to provide it with a congregation illustrates the decisive part the state plays in religious affairs.” The arts “are encouraged, not for their own sake or as an outlet for individual ability and sentiment, but primarily as an element in official policies. . . . In few places has the subordination of intellectual activity to ideological considerations become so entrenched.”

In their chapter on “The Outside World,” the authors trace the history of North Korea’s foreign relations and “the very limited exposure” of its diplomats to the rest of the world. This “produced a generation with great suspicion of outsiders and a dour and unyielding approach to negotiations.”

The authors outline the development of relations with South Korea and give a fair, if brief, summary of the problems between North Korea and Japan. Their account of the negotiations over nuclear development is a useful analysis of a complex issue. Their conclusion, which is only briefly stated, is not, however, one that U.S. President George W. Bush is likely to endorse: “More sensible than a confrontational and hostile approach is that one that draws the DPRK ever more into the wider world, and one that accepts that the North does fear a genuine threat from the massive armed forces of the United States.”

The second part of Hoare and Pares’ book, “Visiting and Living in the DPRK,” is essentially a guide to the country. It deals with everything from visas to hotels and restaurants, doing business in the country and places worth visiting, though some of these places mentioned sound as if they would be more attractive to tourists if communications and hotels were drastically improved.

Finally, “A Brush with History,” the third part of “North Korea in the 21st Century,” is an entertaining account by Hoare of the difficulties and frustrating problems he encountered in establishing the British mission in Pyongyang. Through patience and persistence he eventually got permission for the opening of satellite communications, which he rightly considered essential in these days for the efficient conduct of diplomatic relations.