Acquiring reliable, firsthand information about North Korea is difficult. For one thing, opportunities to visit the country are rare. Though tourists are admitted, mainly for the hard currency they bring, they are required to travel in supervised groups. These are tightly scripted affairs with little opportunity for impromptu dialogue with locals. As for journalists, missionaries, think tank analysts and other inquisitive types, they are largely kept at bay.

North Korea in a Nutshell: A Contemporary Overview, by Ralph Hassig and Kongdan Oh
280 pages

Then there is the country’s notorious penchant for theatrics and hyperbole. Think of its military parades, with its thousands of goose-stepping soldiers, or of its bombastic rants against the United States and other “imperialist” enemies — is this for show, or is this strength? Stories of disgraced officials dispatched in gruesome fashion, some allegedly by artillery gunfire, are also common, if not always true. All this makes it easy to dismiss North Korea as a bit of a farce.

This is a mistake. Kim Jong Il, the diminutive father of current supremo Kim Jong Un, was often lampooned for his pompadour, his fondness for platform shoes, beige tracksuits and oversized shades, but it was under his leadership that North Korea grew its nuclear capability and vastly expanded its arsenal of ballistic missiles.

Writing about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), to use its official name, is thus full of pitfalls. The authors of “North Korea in a Nutshell” — Ralph Hassig and Kongdan Oh, the latter a researcher with three decades of experience at RAND Corporation and the Institute for Defense Analyses — mostly, but not entirely, avoid the traps of the trade.

Their survey is broad. It ranges from the nation’s foreign relations, the structure of the government and its economy and the role of the military to the outsized influence of the Kim family as well as culture, education and the state of human rights. Their narrative does not break any new ground, but it covers the country’s history skillfully.

One area in which the authors fall short is in their documentation of sources — their use of footnotes is relatively sparse and somewhat random. For instance, in an otherwise informative section on the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chosen Soren in Japanese), which was established in 1955 to represent the interests of ethnic Koreans sympathetic to Pyongyang, the authors claim that by the early 1990s, remittances to North Korea were as high as half a billion dollars a year. They go on to state that it is also “likely that a considerable amount of Japanese technical equipment, some of which aided the North Korean weapons program, was smuggled” into the DPRK. That might be true, but readers will want to ascertain how the authors came to these conclusions. Alas, no citations are offered.

Informed North Korea watchers will be frustrated by these scholarly lapses, but those reading about the country for the first time will be more forgiving. They will find that “North Korea in a Nutshell” is an effective introduction to one of Asia’s most captivating — if frustrating and at times even threatening — nations.

Martin Laflamme is a Canadian foreign service officer. The views expressed in this article are his own.

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