‘North Korea Confidential’ shows how citizens flirt with consumption in their everyday lives


Special To The Japan Times

What is life really like for the more than 24 million citizens of Asia’s so-called hermit state — the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea?

North Korea Confidential, by Daniel Tudor, James Pearson
224 pages.
Tuttle, Nonfiction.

The occasional reports from defectors do appear but, in general, mainstream media has little to say beyond second-guessing the dynasty of Kim Jong Un or trying to predict its demise. This, of course, is by design: It’s in the regime’s interest to limit the flow of information both in and out of North Korea.

“International media representation of North Koreans tends to strip them of their agency. The DPRK citizen is shown as either a blind follower of state propaganda, or a helpless victim of it,” Daniel Tudor and James Pearson write in their new book “North Korea Confidential.”

The reality is a lot grayer. It’s also worth noting that both Tudor and Pearson are part of the “international media” — Tudor is a former Seoul correspondent for The Economist and Pearson is a Reuters correspondent based in Seoul.

As they repeatedly point out, the changing situation in North Korea over the past quarter century has been due not only to the Kim dynasty (the status quo is arguably in the leadership’s best interest) but, more importantly, to the devastating famine in the 1990s that killed hundreds of thousands and destroyed the social contract. The famine — christened as the “Arduous March” by the regime — weakened faith in the state and ushered in a sort of North Korean capitalism.

“Thanks to corruption and a thriving black market, people can buy their way into favor and out of trouble, in defiance of the state’s wishes. It also means people can use this newfound wealth to buy whatever they want: DVDs, black market food, even skinny jeans are now available to be bought, sold and bartered for,” Pearson tells The Japan Times.

“These are incredibly important developments, which — although not new to Pyongyang watchers — are notably absent from the mainstream literature on North Korea. We are long overdue a contemporary, up-to-date, clear, concise and measured account of what life in North Korea is really like,” he says. “That’s why we wrote ‘North Korea Confidential.’ ”

The book is divided into seven chapters covering areas such as leisure time, communications, tastes and trends, and how markets work in this nominally communist state. The chapter on crime and punishment makes for harrowing reading — especially conditions in the political prison camps, or gwalliso, with their Orwellian-sounding “total-control zones” and “revolutionizing zones.”

But it’s not all grim reading. The book shows that North Koreans are as susceptible to the wave of South Korea’s cultural exports — from K-pop to Korean TV dramas — just as much as their Asian neighbors are. This is facilitated by technology, especially the proliferation of USB drives, which are easy to hide and smuggle. This means that the North is far from being the “hermit” kingdom that it is often portrayed as. Mobile phones are also available and highly prized, as are smartphones but, this being North Korea, their smartness is limited — the phones can’t connect to the Internet.

Tudor and Pearson do a commendable job of looking beyond the North’s nuclear stockpile and recent red herrings such as the basketball diplomacy circus to look at life and society in North Korea, which is certainly not as monolithic as often portrayed.

“Although the state likes to emphasize ‘single-minded unity’ in its propaganda, North Koreans have competing wishes, desires, and needs — just like anywhere else,” says Pearson. “Whilst few on the outside disagree that North Koreans should be afforded more basic rights, many might be surprised to learn that it is perhaps economic, and not political, freedoms which they most desire.”

One minor gripe with the book is that a map of the peninsula would have been helpful, especially as its focus is not constricted to Pyonyang, the capital.

There is no doubt that change is coming to North Korea but to what degree and how fast is anybody’s guess. The process has already begun and, in some areas, the North is superior to the South.

“Not only is North Korean beer better, there are actually more varieties. And this will outrage South Korean conservatives, but the kimchi in North Korea is better as well,” says Tudor. “Having said that, North Korea is worse at just about everything else.”