The Hidden People of North Korea: Everyday Life in the Hermit Kingdomby Ralph Hassig, Kongdan Oh Published 24 Sep 2009
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|Publisher||Rowman & Littlefield Publishers|
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This unique book provides a comprehensive overview of all aspects of life in North Korea today. Drawing on decades of experience, noted experts Ralph Hassig and Kongdan Oh explore a world few outsiders can imagine. In vivid detail, the authors describe how the secretive and authoritarian government of Kim Jong-il shapes every aspect of its citizens' lives, how the command socialist economy has utterly failed, and how ordinary individuals struggle to survive through small-scale capitalism. Weighing the very limited individual rights allowed, the authors illustrate how the political class system and the legal system serve solely as tools of the regime. The key to understanding how the North Korean people live, the authors argue, is to realize that their only allowed role is to support Kim Jong-il, whose father founded the country in the late 1940s. An intelligent and experienced dictator, Kim controls his people by keeping them isolated and banning most foreigners. This control has loosened slightly since the late 1990s, but North Koreans remain hungry and oppressed. Yet the outside world is slowly filtering in, and the book concludes by urging the United States to flood North Korea with information so that its people can make decisions based on truth rather than their dictator's ubiquitous propaganda.
"The Hidden People of North Korea: Everyday Life in the Hermit Kingdom" Reviews
This book is a better introductory book to North Korea and the Kim Dynasty than other books I've read, but it's also a bit duller than the other books I've read. Unfortunately, it was published in 2009, which actually makes it pretty outdated. I would still recommend it for true beginners who want a general overview of the country.
The book was very interesting and I would have rated it one star higher if I thought the subject matter were something that everyone would be interested in or if I thought potential readers would more appreciate the writing style. Though the book purports to focus on the people of North Korea, it can't help but contain details about Kim Jong-il, around whom the whole of society revolves. Most of the book, however, does focus on the proletariat, and how they struggle to lead their lives on a day-to-day basis. The details are mostly believable, even if they're cobbled together from the corroborated testimony of defectors and religious/aid groups, each of which have an agenda. Save for a couple of minor instances, the authors (a married couple that includes a South Korean national and an American) steer clear of writing opinions and adhere mostly to facts (to the extent they can be verified). I would recommend the book to anyone interested in North Korea, or even someone with a casual interest about life in the world's last, most authentic Stalinist-style communist dictatorship.
The book is very informative (it's interesting to read about the media, literature or employment system in DPRK), but the title is quite misleading. In the biggest part the book described politics and only two chapters were about people. Even those described rather society from the statistical point of view and the result is very impersonal. The last chapter on what should USA do to solve the Korean crisis reminds a high school essay and results immature and megalomaniac.
Hassig and Oh carefully piece together everyday life from the accounts offered by defectors and visitors (who clearly are seeing mostly Potemkin displays), to offer insights on the effect of marketization, Chinese consumer goods, the lavish lifestyles of the elite on the ordinary people, and a fascinating analysis of North Korean films (including a rom-com about woodburning tractors).
In reading The Hidden People of North Korea I learned that samizdat is Russian for clandestinely printed and distributed government-suppressed literature. Also, that North Korea has found success exporting animated films; but unfortunately the authors Hassig and Oh provided no details (I found this clip using Wikipedia and YouTube, apparently it's a joint venture between North and South Korea? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X4TC9H...).
I'm hard-pressed to come up with other positive feedback. This book came across as incredibly dry, and at times pedantic; after describing the Kimilsungia Festival based on a flower cultivated in Indonesia as a gift to the Kim regime and that of the Kimjongilia Festival based similarly on a flower from Japan, the authors then overstate the obvious "the point of these cult displays honoring the two Kims is not to exhibit flowers but to show how much the people and the international community worship North Korea's leaders." It's as if they're unaware that the rest of the world is already in on the Kim joke (Team America World Police, hello?).
After fully establishing how boring North Korean propaganda filled newspapers are (so boring that the North Koreans don't even pay attention to them), the authors then quote from them verbatim for the next several pages. Meanwhile, information that I find interesting is not presented enough in depth. From pg 158, "like soldiers, students are prohibited from marrying, and also like soldiers they resort to secret love affairs". But they don't even have medicine, how can they have contraceptives or abortions? Drugs and STDs are mentioned only in passing, so I wonder what element of the population is affected, and who can afford to buy drugs, and who is selling it to them? The last chapter is very aptly titled, "The End Comes Slowly".