It’s a cliche to call North Korea the most isolated country in the world. Those of us living outside the country often have very little idea of what life there is like, often only seeing what its government would like us to see: military parades, missile launches, and joyous crowds.
One image that, rightly or wrongly, can come to mind when discussing North Korea is Kim Jong Un clapping and laughing at a nuclear missile test while his people suffer. The young dictator cuts and eccentric figure: an obese thirty-something with a zero fade haircut in a baggy Zhongshan suit. His friendship with NBA star Dennis Rodman and handshake with Donald Trump have sealed his cult figure status among Western audiences. But Benjamin R Young’s Guns, Guerillas and the Great Leader reminds us of a time when North Korea involved itself more constructively on the world stage promoting its anti-imperialist ideology in the Third World.
Ann Shin, Canadian of Korean extraction, is perhaps best known as a filmmaker. My Enemy, My Brother, about two Iraqis on opposite sides of the conflict, was shortlisted for a 2016 Academy Award. Another was the well-received The Defector: Escape from North Korea. Shin has now turned her hand to fiction. Her debut novel The Last Exiles is, goes the blurb, “inspired by real stories”.
Lindsey Miller spent two years in North Korea from 2017 to 2019 when her husband was posted to the British Embassy in Pyongyang. Miller (some research reveals) has a career of her own (she is currently musical director at the Royal Shakespeare Company) and finding herself (one supposes) somewhat at loose ends as a diplomatic spouse, started taking photographs.
There must be a temptation to approach Paek Nam-nyong’s Friend, presumably the first “state-sanctioned” North Korean novel available in English, much as Samuel Johnson did “a dog’s walking on his hind legs: It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” Skeptics will rapidly be disabused.
Ideology grappled geography in a civil war with no end. As the Korean War froze along the trenches and barbed wire entanglements, harbingers of the final line of control that was to divide North from South for a lifetime, the United States fought and sought a political triumph as a surrogate for military failure on the battlefield. Armistice talks in May 1951 started, hiccuped, stopped and then were reborn and recycled as Washington stubbornly—to the chagrin and incredulity of its own negotiators—refused to abide by the 1949 Geneva Convention requiring the simple repatriation of prisoners of war (POWs) at the end of military conflict.
Former Monty Python’s star Michael Palin aims with North Korean Journal to do for Pyongyang what The Life of Brian did for the New Testament. He almost succeeds.