[Book Review] North Korea Confidential – Reality and the narratives we choose to tell ourselves

north-korea-confidential-9780804844581_hrNarratives are tricky things. Often we need them to make sense of what we see and hear, especially when it concerns a society that differs so much from our own. However, the way a narrative is constructed tends to colour our views, or confirm expectations or views that we already had.

Narratives  about North Korea in the media tend to focus either on its nuclear weapons program, the frivolities of its leaders, its anti-Americanism or its human rights situation. Ever since North Korea was branded an ”axis of evil” by former US president George W. Bush, the image of a  brainwashed society blindly worshipping a leader who spends extravagant amounts of money to satisfy his own desires rather than to provide for his people has become all-pervasive.

As the authors of North Korea Confidential, Daniel Tudor and James Pearson, point out in the introduction, ”It has become natural when dealing with North Korea to focus entirely on Kim Jong Un, geopolitics or the nuclear weapons program — but to do so is to miss a huge amount of internal change taking place, both at the top and bottom of North Korean society.”  We also tend to forget that North Koreans are people like you and I, not simply puppets bowing under the weight of a corrupt government

If you choose to read this book to confirm the narratives you’ve been fed, you won’t be disappointed. However, you might be surprised to learn that Kim Jong Un is not actually the one in charge and that smoking is a popular pastime in the country.

After the introduction the book is divided into seven chapters, each discussing an aspect of North Korean society such as the leisure activities of the country’s inhabitants and crime and punishment, with the afterword attempting to provide an indication of sorts as to if and when the North Korean regime will fall.  The chapters are in turn divided into sections which go into more detail.  I personally found the section on social class, found in chapter 7: Social division,  and another on “fashion capital” Chongjin in chapter 5: Clothes, Fashion and Trends enlightening. Also interesting is chapter 1: The North Korean markets: How they work, what they are and how much things cost, with which the book immediately highlights the most significant change taking place in North Korean society, namely the thriving “gray market” economy. One section, amusingly titled Won (and Yuan) for the Money , describes the North Korean government’s attempts to control the rise of private market activity. Smaller sections highlighted in grey provide some more historical background and examples throughout the book.

The overall writing tone is neutral and matter-of-fact, though some sense of both wonder and admiration is evident in the chapters describing North Koreans’ daily lives. The centre of the book consists of several pages of pictures of the Arirang Mass Games and ordinary North Koreans going about their business, among other scenes.

Even as someone who studies the Korean peninsula full-time, I found this book to be very informative.  I would say the manner alone in which this book is written is excellent were it not for the sheer depth of research and expertise that is evident in every chapter.  North Korea Confidential provides an easy and accessible overview of the country,  also to those who do not study Korea and wish to see beyond the popular “Look at how outrageous the North Korean regime is” spiel.

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Tara

A Korean Studies student by day and writer by night, possibly a vampire. Loves penguins, sleep, and arts of all kinds. Most often found lurking somewhere in the Netherlands.