For reasons I don't fully understand, I've spent a fair amount of my reading time over the past month educating myself on North Korea. During the past few years I've become aware of my ignorance about the issues surrounding the country and its people, and I don't think I'm alone. It's been something I wanted to fix. Above all, I've been interested to understand how a situation like North Korea could come about at all. It seems unfathomable that a people could become enslaved and exploited by its own leaders, leaders who simultaneously install themselves as gods and destroy their "worshipers." And yet because it has happened, and happened so successfully, I feel that I need to understand it in order that I might guard against it in my own civilization, community, and life.
To that end I started reading. My first two books were both about North Korea's infamous concentration camps. Blaine Harden's "Escape from Camp 14" is a shocking retelling of Shin Dong-hyuk's birth, life, and ultimate escape from one of the more brutal camps. I had finished the Hunger Games trilogy some weeks previous, and tweeted that this book, the "4th in the Hunger Game series," is by far the most brutal. What upsets so many parents and school teachers in the Hunger Games novels, the way its sadistic narrative so easily and compellingly flows, is similarly present in Harden's book; the only difference is that this isn't fiction. Here we encounter a child born to parents with no time or energy to love him, who view him as competition for food, who he can no more trust than hoped to be trusted by, with punishment, relentless indoctrination, hard labour, murder, death, and impossible living conditions taking the place of childhood, education, life, and hope.
From Harden's book I went to "The Aquariums of Pyongyang," which is Kang Chol-hwan's account of life in another of the camps. What compelled me to read another account was that, unlike Shin who had been born into slavery, this account was about an affluent family who found themselves on the wrong side of the government's suspicions. The two men couldn't have been more unlike in their station and backgrounds, and yet their fates were similar. Laying the two accounts beside one another, and listening to the echoes of the horrors experienced by each man, it was shocking and terrifying. Instead of some historical document with enough distance in time to erase the hardest lines of the picture, these men talked about the same period in which I grew up. While I was a child here in the west, these men and their families were suffering unspeakably. We aren't only talking about something that happened, but something that's happening still today. I am deeply saddened at the thought of so many hundreds of thousands still held in these camps.
Finally I had to know more about what made this all possible, and I turned to Bradley K. Martin's "Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty." This is a massive book, but very engaging. I am still in the midst of it, and would highly recommend it to anyone willing to spend some time really digging into the history of North Korea's leadership and culture. His research and journalistic style make this both informative and engaging.
I'm not going to write about North Korea, since I don't know enough to provide good information. But I wanted to recommend these books for anyone who is interested in learning more about the country, its people, its past, and its future. It's important that we in the west do more than simply laugh at parodies of the Kims, become distracted with talk of failed rockets, or make fun of the acts of the leaders; behind them, well hidden from view, are a people under terrible oppression who deserve much more.