Making Sense of North Korea

Looking past the nuclear debate on North Korea

| January 27, 2005


In a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, Selig S. Harrison made waves in Washington and Pyongyang by arguing that the evidence Bush administration officials used to declare that North Korea had breached a nuclear accord signed in 1994 looks a lot like the evidence it used to justify the invasion of Iraq. In other words, the books were cooked to serve the pre-determined, interventionist foreign policy goals of the administration's neo-conservatives. Michael Levi lobs back in The New Republic that several of Harrison's claims are false.

Historian Bruce Cumings gives some context to North Korea's stubbornness in Le Monde diplomatique by revisiting the U.S. military's use of Napalm in a carpet bombing campaign during the Korean Conflict, and its threat to use strategic nuclear weapons.

While all of this writing is fodder for an interesting and increasingly crucial debate, the average American knows very little about North Korea and its people. In part this is due to disinterest (the Korean Conflict has been called the Forgotten War, after all, and the amnesiac fog still clouds the country today). Up until now, though, even if there were more interest in the region, basic information was scarce -- in large part because the North Korean government is as secretive as it is repressive. As Nicholas D. Kristof notes, the country is 'perhaps the least understood place on earth.'

Which is why the recently published, Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty is so important. In a review published in The New York Review of Books, Kristof calls Bradley K. Martin's work 'simply the best book ever written about North Korea.' A biography of the Great Leader Kim Il Sung and his son, Kim Jong Il, who later assumed the same moniker, it relies heavily on interviews with defectors to paint a picture of daily life that explains 'the paradoxes in North Korean public opinion' -- or how people can praise a 'Great Leader' while he's starving them. (Two million North Koreans died of starvation in the late 1990s and Kim Jong Il just cut rations to half that recommended by the World Food Programme.)



If the praise proves to be true, Martin's book could prove invaluable as the debate over North Korea rages on.

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