Novels gave way to poetry not for artistic reasons so much as lack of paper. Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s first leader after its establishment, loved novels, so he ordered them officially written for the masses. But when his son Kim Jong-il succeeded him in 1994, the nation’s economy was in full nose-dive after the breakup of its patron state, the Soviet Union. Famine mounted. The paper shortage was severe. Forget long novels, now — shorter poems were commissioned. And so to Pyongyang, Section 5 (Literature), Division 19 (Poetry) of Office 101 of the United Front Department, where our first author today begins.
“Dear Leader: My Escape from North Korea” (Atria, 2014) is an incredible story, which I read on my very last nerve: As I turned the pages, North Korea was threatening to attack the nearing USS Carl Vinson, and the nuclear threat was climbing. Sometimes facing the source of your fear helps. So know, at least, that “Dear Leader” is perhaps the best written of all the escape-from books. That’s because it’s by an elite poet named Jang Jin-sung — who once met Kim Jong-il because he adored Jang’s ode to a gun barrel. Seriously.
Thanks to the equally poetic translator Shirley Lee, Jang describes how Kim used the arts “as a crucial part of his ambit of absolute power.” Every writer in North Korea is given assignments and strict guidelines. Write outside these rules, and you commit treason. Jang had to produce poems extolling Kim, but under a South Korean pseudonym; because North Korea plans to reunite with the South someday, the regime sluices a continuous stream of propaganda over the border. To make his poems convincing, Jang is allowed to read South Korean newspapers to absorb their tone. But read about a free country, and you start thinking of freedom.
When Jang breaks a rule, the choice becomes gulag or defection. His escape is heart-pounding. Jang and a friend clandestinely cross an iced-in river to get to China, where a (paid) helper shelters them and (barely) keeps the police at bay. John Sweeney, a London Observer reporter, also uses subterfuge, but to get into North Korea. In “North Korea Undercover: Inside the World’s Most Secret State” (Pegasus, 2015) Sweeney poses as a history professor. He says 25,000 defectors had left the Hermit Kingdom by 2015. No wonder, since the place is like “the set of some weird version of ‘The Hunger Games.’ ” Sweeney is reliably cheeky throughout. Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il’s son and today’s bouffant-sporting leader, is “God-the-lousy-Elvis-impersonator,” and the nation’s brand of Stalinism is “home-baked Jabberwocky plus a Brobdingnagian cult of personality.”
The book toggles between history and vignette. So we learn that geography, too, has promoted isolation: North Korea is hemmed in by mountains, cursed by bad soil, and boasts no valuable minerals. Sweeney features a nice mix of voices too, like Nick Bonner, the founder of Koryo Tours, which brings outsiders to North Korea, because “[w]e believe very strongly in engagement,” and Izidor Urian, a former Romanian diplomat who served several Kafkaesque decades there.
All intriguing but what, she asks selfishly, about the dangers to us? And so I consulted “North Korea and Nuclear Weapons: Entering the New Era of Deterrence” (Georgetown University, 2017). The collection’s editors are Sung Chull Kim of the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University and Michael D. Cohen of the Department of Security Studies and Criminology at Macquarie University. Here, I learned that it’s always existential for North Korea: “Ignoring the world and being ignored by it was impossible; it was located in the wrong place for that. Thus, from the start its leaders felt required to be threatening and bellicose to survive.”
North Korea believes it can read us like a book: They gather nuclear arms unto themselves because they’ve seen that America topples dictators who’ve reduced or given up their WMDs (see Saddam Hussein and Moammar Khadafy). So how do we deter and de-escalate? There are bad and worse options, though clearly China and Japan must broker a greater role. But my last book — it’s way out there, but in a good way — proffers another path.
“Stop North Korea! A Radical New Approach to the North Korean Standoff” (Tuttle, 2017) is by Shepherd Iverson, an anthropologist teaching at Inha University in South Korea. He says that coercion and diplomacy have failed, and before the dictatorship perfects nuclear-tipped missiles, we must reunite the two Koreas via an incentive plan — i.e. an “enormous bribe.”
Consider North Korea, with its starvation and backwardness, as an underperforming corporation; the world offers its “shareholders” (the political elite, the military, the population at large) a financial incentive to oust the “CEO.” Iverson suggests each general gets $1 million to depose Kim, lesser officers up to $100,000, and all citizens double their income (full price tag: $175 billion). Sound crazy? Well, was the Marshall Plan crazy? Think of it as a kind of poetic justice. And safer than the alternatives.
Katharine Whittemore is senior writer at Amherst College. She can be reached at Katharine.whittemore @comcast.net.