Cover image of "North Korea Confidential," a book about North Korea

Practically everything you know about North Korea is wrong. That, at least, is the inescapable conclusion to take from reading Daniel Tudor and James Pearson‘s new book, North Korea Confidential.

I exaggerate, of course. North Korea is, without question, one of the poorest countries in the world. It’s ruled by a brutal dictatorship that operates a system of political prisons that would do Josef Stalin proud. It’s a nuclear power and given to saber-rattling. And one family, the Kims, is the country’s ruling dynasty, now in its third generation.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Though all that, and more, is, indeed, true, Tudor and Pearson draw on extensive research to demonstrate that the impression we Westerners get from the news media is still highly misleading. The North Korean people are not slogan-chanting automatons enslaved to adulation for Kim Jong Un (their “Dear Leader,” or “Great Leader,” or whatever else he might be calling himself). Kim Jong Un is not a lunatic; his father or grandfather weren’t, either.

Nor is he the sole, undisputed leader of the nation; “he has inherited a system [created by his father] in which one rather shadowy organization may possess more power than he does.” North Korea is not a Communist country, nor has it been for nearly two decades. And there is virtually NO chance that the country will collapse, the victim of its own considerable internal contradictions.

In chapters devoted to the market economy; leisure time; the power struggle at the top; crime and punishment; clothes, fashion, and trends; communications, and the country’s social class structure, Tudor and Pearson paint a picture of a complex society struggling with the conflicts of the mid-twentieth century while the outside world labors to drag it into the twenty-first.

Here’s the gist of the message in North Korea Confidential: ever since the tragic famine that overtook North Korea in the mid-1990s, the desperate urge for survival has led people at all levels of society to build a rudimentary market system that has become the foundation of the country’s economy. The famine was so severe and far-reaching — costing at least hundreds of thousands if not millions of lives –in a country whose population now stands at just twenty-four million — that the government was unable to continue distributing food, as it had ever since Kim Il Sung industrialized the country in the years following the Korean War.

Once the distribution of free food was disrupted, the North Korean people found ways to grow their own food, or forage for it, and to sell or exchange food for other necessities in homegrown markets that sprang up in defiance of the Party and the government. And those markets have grown in importance to the point where the gray economy may overshadow the official one.

The great famine undermined respect for the regime

Equally important, the famine undermined respect for the Kim dynasty’s government. Though vocal criticism of their leadership is still rare (and viciously punished), people demonstrate their independence in a variety of ways: they seek out DVDs and thumb drives containing South Korean and Chinese music, films, and TV shows (and even an occasional American movie); they listen to South Korean, Chinese, and US-sponsored radio for news of the outside world; they dress in ways that defy the Party’s severe guidelines; they travel without permits from town to town and sometimes across the Chinese border; and, increasingly, they are gaining access to the Internet despite the government’s efforts to make that impossible.

More than ten percent of the population now own cell phones. But whenever they’re caught flouting the rules in these or many other ways, they are almost always able to bribe their way out of the draconian punishment the law dictates.

In truth, there are hints of much of this in the news about North Korea. Yet I’d never before read of the multimillionaires among the Pyongyang elite, or of the estimated $20 billion fortune accumulated by the Kim family. I knew that the country maintains one of the world’s largest armies, but I was unaware that soldiers are more often put to work as free labor on construction and other projects rather than trained for combat.

No surprise: connections to the powerful provide protection

I’d also surmised that, as in any country, connections to people in power would provide a layer of protection from victimization by the police, but I learned that cash — outright, blatant bribery — is a daily fact of life. And I knew that historically “even family members would sometimes inform on each other, either out of fear or the belief that it was the ‘right’ thing to do,” but not that “[t]his is certainly no longer the case.” The regime may still have the power to maintain its hold on the country, but — after the famine — ordinary citizens no longer are inclined to show their respect to authority, even to the Kim family.

All in all, North Korea Confidential provides a useful counterbalance to the one-dimensional pictures we tend to hear from most defectors and occasional dissidents and from the news and analysis that looks at the country from the top down rather than the bottom up.

Daniel Tudor and James Pearson are both British journalists. Tudor formerly worked in Seoul, Korea, as the local correspondent for The Economist. Pearson, also an old Korea hand, currently writes a blog for Thomson Reuters.

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