North Korea: Another Country

North Korea: Another Country by Bruce Cumings starts off as a very slow read. The book is divided into six chapters yet the first two–about the history of the Korean War and the DPRK’s nuclear record–take up the first half of the book just between themselves. It took me so long just to get through these two chapters. They were interesting, yet boringly written if that makes any sense, and I can only say that I am surprised I never fell asleep while reading them. The next four chapters in the second half of the book proceed at a quicker pace and were a breeze to finish. 

Of all the books that I have read so far on the DPRK, Cumings is unlike any other American writer in that he often comes to the defence of the North while putting down the United States. The author makes a sincere effort to understand why the North acts and reacts as it does on the world stage, when other authors would merely find excuses in blaming the North’s “despotic dictators”. Cumings often portrays the US as ignorant and racist, and having no clue behind its military policies on the Korean peninsula. As a result, Cumings comes across as an apologist, ready to defend the North for its actions while condemning the US and its shuttered view of the world for always getting things wrong in its foreign policy, whether it be its involvement in Vietnam or Iraq. Cumings has taken a lot of heat for his seemingly anti-American, pro-DPRK views, and he shocked me with his constant hammering of American foreign policy and its journalistic integrity: 

“Predicting the behavior of crazy people is by definition impossible, and American officials constantly harp on Pyongyang’s unpredictability. I would argue, to the contrary, that North Korean behavior has been quite predictable and that an irresponsible American media, almost bereft of good investigative reporters, often (but by no means always) egged on by government officials, obscures the real nature of the United States-Korean conflict. The media has had the wrong stories in the wrong place at the wrong time; the absurd result is that often one has to read North Korea’s tightly controlled press to figure out what actually is going on between Washington and Pyongyang.” 

As seen above, Cumings also has a similar low opinion of Western, specifically American media in their reporting about North Korea. While even I, a self-professed “Friend of North Korea” was shocked by his constant USA-bashing, I have to admit that his assessment of the Western media was bang on:  

“With the occasional exception, most of it [ = the news the Western media report about North Korea] is uninformative, unreliable, often sensationalized, and generally fails to educate instead of deceive the public. Given the mimetic nature of our media, the same stories circulate endlessly; often they are contemporary variations on the same old tales that have been around since North Korea became our enemy sixty years ago: they’re about to attack the South, their leader is nuts, their people are brainwashed, the regime will implode or explode. Literally for half a century, the South Korean intelligence services have bamboozled one American reporter after another by parading their defectors (real and fake), grinding the Pyongyang rumor mill, or parlaying fibs that even a moment’s investigation in a good library would expose.” 

There are very dry moments in North Korea: Another Country, which seem all the more to drag on by the copious amount of endnotes. Endnotes are not themselves an annoyance, but they become so when they are not easy to find in the notes section since there are no chapter headings to inform the reader what chapter the notes apply to. Throughout my entire read I had to keep a bookmark or a finger holding the place where my last endnote was explained.  

The Financial Times called North Korea: Another Country “tart and witty”, yet these tart and witty moments were few and far between. Cumings wrote about Andrew Holloway’s experiences in Pyongyang, where he worked reediting the English translations of the works by the Great Leader Kim Il Sung. Holloway, coincidentally, worked at the same job as Michael Harrold, who wrote about his own experiences in his book Comrades and Strangers: Behind the Closed Doors of North Korea, which I reviewed earlier this year. Cumings writes about Holloway: 

“Like the ambassador, Andrew Holloway was appalled and mortified to find out about the depth, ubiquity, and never-ending self-parody of regime propaganda, but he got to know it better than most, because his job was to polish its English representation in various publications. Within just a week or two, he could barely stand his daily portion of hagiography, gross exaggeration, unseemly self-importance, ridiculous excess, profound solipsism, and all-around mind-numbing drivel that it was his lot to put into something resembling English and that is the butt of jokes around the world–when anyone is paying attention.” 

The only chuckle I got out of North Korea: Another Country was reading about the reaction Cumings received while on a tour outside of Pyongyang: 

While in the North Korean city of Kaesong,

“I was surprised by the large numbers of people standing around in midday, gaping at us as if we were Martians”. 

This is not unlike other reactions I have read when North Koreans see foreigners. I suppose I will have this to look forward to, especially since I will be visiting some cities and towns that only last year were open to tourists for the first time ever.

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