Suddenly US publishers are rushing books on North Korea into print. Yesterday and today [27 & 28 January, 2010] the old grey lady 'the New York Times' and the 'Wall Street Journal' reviewed Barbara Demick's 'Nothing to envy' and BR Myers 'the Cleanest race'. The NYT went the WSJ one better by talking of Ralph Hassig and Kongdan Oh's 'Everyday life in the hermit kingdom'. Last year, Columbia University Press brought out Kim Yong's 'Long road home'. And the granddaddy of them all Chol hwan Kang's 'Acquariums of Pyongyang' has not gone out of print. Why the more than unusual interest in what all these books, in one way or the other, describe North Korea as the land of unremitting repression and a vestige of Stalinism?
Bad mouthing the Kim dynasty is nothing new. Former US president Bill Clinton went to Pyongyang in early July 2009, to seek the release of two American journalists, who in chasing a scoop of North Korean refugees fleeing to China, crossed the border at the Tuman river, and got caught by North Korea's border guards.
Euna Lee and Laura Ling were tried and found guilty on illegal entry to North Korea, with a pinch of salt of spying thrown in. Sentenced to 12 years each of hard labour, the US ended up sending Mr. Clinton on a private errand of mercy to seek their release. Meeting Kim Jong il, to whom the 42 US president delivered a letter from Barack Obama, he obtained the release of these two young women.
Now soon their account of the their 'travails' in a Pyongyang court and stay in the comfort of the equivalent of house arrest in a dacha, will soon appear in print.
For a country dismissed as opaque, US jouranlists and researchers and analyst are piecing together enough material for a book. Yet in spite of first hand accounts or the parsing of what North Korea thinks of itself, on the whole, violations of human rights not withstanding, the accounts are anecdotal at best, and simply add to a pile of a never ending telling of Pyongyagns' wart, with some variation.
More broadly speaking, heaping tales of woe and suffering on Pyongyang, will not bring North Korea back to the six party talks in Beijing, nor quiet the renewed cold war which both South Korea and the US are intensifying.
Narratives are a poor subsitute for a political solution to outstandin matters going back more than 60 years between North Korea and South Korea and the US.
Speaking of the bottom line, more likely than not, sales of these books will not cover costs...and then thinking conspiratorially, it is likely that huge dollops of private and government money are defraying expenses and advances.