by Bruce Cumings; New Press, New York,NY 2003
The Democratic People's Republic of Korea is nothing short of surreal: mass games held in huge stadia, monuments everywhere to Kim il-Sung and Kim Jong-il, kids' schoolbooks teaching math through examples involving dead American soldiers: "Paik killed 12 American soldiers, Sun killed six. How many Americans did the brothers kill?" A 105-story pyramid stands at the edge of the capital city: made of substandard concrete, it remains an empty shell more than ten years after its groundbreaking as the "world's tallest hotel". Meanwhile, most traffic remains on foot. Until very recently, disabled people, the very old, and pregnant women were banned from Pyongyang. Likewise, it's not unusual to see fake shoppers at the "Paradise" department stores, who pretend to 'buy' the expensive foreign goods, hand their parcels in at the door, and go back to do it all over again. Meanwhile the Dear Leader watches James Bond movies, stuffs himself with dainties, and has his hair permed while training his nuclear arsenal on the West Coast.
Bruce Cumings has written this wistful little gem of a book in hopes of bringing some understanding to Americans about this strange, sad, little country. I write this without irony: he actually likes North Korea the way that some feminists used to like the idea of living in purdah (safe, protected, without men...much), and some still love Cuba. He hates globalization, Republicans , and Americanism; the Kim government represents the last remnants of Marxism/Leninism by way of Josef Stalin, therefore he's willing to jump through any rhetorical hoop to defend it.
It's clear that in order to do so, he has to excuse a lot. Juche, the ideology of the Kims, is notoriously thorny to translate: the first sentence of one beginner's handbook in English runs "The characteristic of the Juche idea that is fundamentally different
ideas is shortly that this idea is a man-centred philosophical thought." (It doesn't get much better after that....think Jacques Derrida on crack, being translated by a moron.) The ideas boil down to that the Kims are the fathers of the nation, if not Gods, Korea itself is your true mother, sacred and a unified whole, and every other nation can go take a hike, as far as they're concerned. This he glosses over as "Neo-Confucianism", and justifies this by a long and rambling explanation of how Asian families work, which bears little resemblance to anything else I've read on the subject. His stream-of-consciousness writing style makes its final point by talking about how Peace Corps volunteers found South Korea a haven of horny housewives. Similarly, he defends the gaudy archetecture of Pyongyang: it's not totalitarian, it's postmodern! before sliding off into snide remarks about Versailles and the Kennedy Center in Washington. Besides, it has to be big, bigger, biggest: the Koreans are still smarting over being a Japanese colony, poor things, so they need to heal and cover over these wounds with massive buildings. (If this looks like a trend, it is.) Now and then, he makes the ritual gesture of saying that North Korea is hellish, but then he recovers quickly by pointing out the plastic 50's theme-park quality of the American side of the border station at Panmunjom, where the glass partition between the two countries is guarded by a grimacing GI Joe that resembles "a cross between Slim Pickens and Rambo". So there!
When all else fails, he plays the old canard about how "Mussolini made the trains run on time": he quotes DPRK statistics about how everyone has a home, there's no unemployment, and zero crime to speak of. It may be backward, he enthuses, but at least it's 'unspoiled', he pleads, Kim Jong-il has 'let Koreans be Koreans', who, as he is quick to point out, have had a long history of social stratification, slave and peasant labor, and life under various emperors, and as yet, little experience with actual democracy, modernity, and social mobility. Poor things! They're probably...foreigners, with ways different than our own.
I don't know Korea, but something tells me that Koreans don't spontaneously build 105-story concrete pyramids in the manner of ants, nuclear reactors, or warheads, either.
On the subject of life within the country itself, he spends many pages in a kind of poetic trance. Visitors' photographs taken in the capital and elsewhere show a flatly prosy quality to everyday life: outside the Kim posters, everything is colorless, slightly outmoded, and very dully itself, inspiring nothing more than a wish that tomorrow might not be much worse than today. All this, and periodic reminders of American atrocities, to a brassy blare of military music from one-station radios that are never, ever, turned off.
To Cumings, all of this gets washed in misty haze. The DPRK, to him, is a gentle country, full of little children, virginal young couples dancing at a village fete, stalwart peasants working bucolically picturesque fields and funny old women with brooms cleaning the streets. (As much as he admires peasant labor, however, it's clear that he sees himself most in the Party beaurocrats of the capital.) The real Korea doesn't want to go to war at all, he tells us: they just want to be their own tight and tidy little bastion of central planning, where everything is OK. Why, he even saw an attractive young girl at the Paradise the other day: buying Gucci handbags for her sisters' wedding presents, she said. Wouldn't it be simply splendid if we could...help them out a little? Just a few billion dollars would do, as an apology for the Korean War.
They'd spend it wisely, I'm sure. Maybe, they'll ... build another hotel.