Listen to this article
The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot: The True Story of the Tyrant Who Created North Korea and the Young Lieutenant Who Stole His Way to Freedom, by Blaine Harden, Mantle, RRP£16.99/Viking, RRP$27.95, 304 pages
A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Incredible True Story of North Korea and the Most Audacious Kidnapping in History, by Paul Fischer, Viking, RRP£14.99/Flatiron Books, RRP$27.99, 368 pages
North Korea Confidential: Private Markets, Fashion Trends, Prison Camps, Dissenters and Defectors, by Daniel Tudor and James Pearson, Tuttle, RRP£16.99/RRP$21.95, 224 pages
Visitors to Pyongyang are often bewildered by the glaring inconsistencies that pervade the city. Stunning monuments soar above swaggering propaganda proclaiming the genius of North Korea’s eternal leaders, striking an awkward contrast with the subdued poverty of the citizens circulating quietly below. Hefty prices at department stores testify to the capitalist mechanisms that are warping the ostensibly communist model. Smiling minders are always on hand to extol the virtues of their nation — while watching hawkishly to ensure that guests have no chance to explore it for themselves.
The bemused tourist, hoping to understand the origins of this unusual state, could start by reading Blaine Harden’s The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot, an original take on the early years of North Korea. The central tale is that of No Kum Sok, who in 1953 carried out one of the most spectacular defections of the cold war by landing his MiG jet at Seoul’s Gimpo airport before surrendering to stunned US personnel by raising his hands and shouting the only English words he could remember from school: “Motor car! Motor car!”
As with the story of the former political prisoner Shin Dong-hyuk, which Harden related in Escape from Camp 14 (2012), the American journalist’s new book can read like a thriller. But perhaps most interesting is its depiction of No’s delicate dance with North Korea’s ideological authorities, as he pretended to be a model socialist zealot in order to survive and eventually escape. His brainwashing started not with the communists but with the Japanese colonial government, which ruled Korea until 1945 and taught children such as No that emperor Hirohito was a living god. As the scholar Brian Myers has suggested, this doctrine may have helped pave the way for the virtual deification of North Korea’s leaders.
But the propaganda produced by the newly formed North Korean government proved too much for No to swallow — “he simply did not believe that America was poor” — and so he set about living a lie as energetically as possible. The reader is struck by how readily No’s pretence was accepted. In the air force, he volunteered to give readings of speeches by Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s first leader, and lambasted fellow pilots for lack of devotion, while worrying that his overblown act would be rumbled — fears that proved unfounded. Perhaps, we are left to wonder, his superiors were too busy maintaining their own charade.
In No’s case there is a happy ending: he outwitted North Korea’s secret police to escape to America, buy stock in Coca-Cola and tell his story to Harden. But it is hard to dismiss an unsettling argument pursued repeatedly in The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot — that the US helped sow the seeds for North Korea’s extreme nationalism with its massive bombing campaign in the Korean war, which the regime has used to persuade its people of the need for a strong government that can protect them from a hostile outside world.
“It was a propaganda gift to the Kim family that keeps on giving,” Harden writes, while acidly citing a series of official US accounts that grotesquely played down the huge loss of North Korean civilian lives from the bombing. This is part of a second strand of his book, interwoven with No’s story: an explanation of the emergence of Kim Il Sung, and his consolidation of power.
The two narratives sit somewhat awkwardly together but Harden’s treatment of Kim’s early years is stimulating — particularly in his use of recent work on documents from the Chinese and Soviet archives. Just as Kim’s people praised him to protect themselves, Harden shows, so did Kim court Stalin’s favour, hoping to shore up his own position.
But Stalin’s treatment of Kim during the Korean war was insulting in its nonchalance. In October 1950, he told Kim to pack up and head for Manchuria to escape the advancing Americans, warning that neither Soviet nor Chinese troops would come to his rescue. A day later, Kim was told to stay put: Chinese troops were joining the fray after all. Humiliated on the world stage by his allies, Kim asserted his authority still more aggressively at home.
Kim Il Sung’s abuses of power were taken to a new level by his son Jong Il, who in the late 1970s sought to kick-start the North Korean film industry by ordering the kidnapping of South Korean cinema’s golden couple, the director Shin Sang-ok and his actress wife Choi Eun-hee. That story is evocatively delivered in another new publication: A Kim Jong-il Production, the first book by London-based film producer Paul Fischer.
The drama of this extraordinary affair makes for a gripping read but perhaps its chief merit is the unusual insight it gives into the personality of Kim Jong Il. Shin and Choi, who claim to have enjoyed extensive access, offer a feast of anecdotes about an almost childish leader, his personality warped by having every whim indulged from birth. At Kim’s notorious drinking parties, writes Fischer, an aide stayed by his side at all times, ready to note down and disseminate anything “that sounded remotely like an order”, regardless of whether he had said it “stinking drunk at three in the morning”.
When Shin and Choi told these stories in their 1988 memoir, which has never been translated into English, they seemed too good to be true to some South Koreans, who accused them of having sought to cover up a deliberate political defection to the North. Fischer relied on that book as his main source, and ends his own by addressing the reliability of their account. He notes that their surreptitious recording of Kim Jong Il was deemed authentic by US intelligence, and says he independently verified their claims where possible.
But such corroboration can be extraordinarily difficult when writing about North Korea. Harden can testify to this, having had to revise Camp 14 after Shin amended some key details of his story — a development seized on by Pyongyang. In their new books, neither Harden nor Fischer offer footnotes or endnotes to reassure sceptical readers.
To Fischer’s credit, he avoids portraying the couple’s kidnapping as the conceit of a madman, instead delving into the reasons why Kim attached such importance to North Korea’s film industry, which was a central part of state propaganda efforts before falling into near disuse from the 1990s. “Film was cheap and easy to control, with the exact same print of the exact same film being shown everywhere,” Fischer writes; it was a collective experience that the people were likely to enjoy, although attendance was still made compulsory.
Fischer goes too far when he asserts that film chief Choe Ik Gyu was as instrumental as Kim Jong Il in creating “the modern North Korean state, which is a production, a display performance of its own”. But he is right to focus on the artifice and dissembling so vital in Kim Jong Il’s North Korea — as Shin and Choi were well aware. Like No, Shin worried that his professions of loyalty were too extravagant to be taken seriously but they won him Kim’s trust, and the opportunity to travel to Vienna, where he and Choi made their escape.
And yet even Kim, it seems, was at times troubled by the pantomime of loyalty. “Don’t believe any of it,” he told Shin after a customary profession of devotion from a crowd at one of his parties. “It’s all bogus. It’s just pretence.”
The daily charade of life in North Korea has taken on a new character since the 1990s, when the state, in effect, gave up on feeding most of its people, as sharp cuts to aid from Moscow compounded the effects of decades of economic mismanagement. A devastating famine ensued, forcing people to turn to emerging informal markets to survive.
The huge implications of this shift are explored by the British journalists Daniel Tudor and James Pearson in North Korea Confidential, which uses extensive interviews with recent defectors and people still in the country to build a rich picture of daily life there. With private trade still officially taboo in most cases, capitalism in North Korea, they write, is like sex in Victorian Britain: “While everybody does it, few publicly admit to its existence.”
And yet its manifestations are ever more visible — as the authors show in their treatment of the North Korean fashion industry, with local copycats churning out fakes of clothes worn by the South Korean TV stars whose performances are avidly consumed through smuggled DVDs and flash drives. Even the Seoul fashion for eyelid surgery has spread to North Korea, where it is often carried out by amateurs for as little as $2.
Also noteworthy is their study of the Pyongyang property market: while ownership is forbidden, buyers and sellers can semi-legitimately “swap” their designated dwellings, while making the payment — and bribes to officials — in secret. Prices in Pyongyang, we read, can top $100,000 — with higher prices normally attaching to lower-floor apartments, because of the frequent power cuts that put lifts out of service.
Tudor and Pearson are wise to avoid taking these changes as evidence of the imminent collapse of the Pyongyang regime, which has been predicted at least since the fall of the Soviet Union. The regime, they write, is seeking to harness the shifts in its economy for its own ends, with public-private capitalism allowing “the leadership to build patronage and loyalty in an era where ideology no longer matters”.
And while the economy evolves, all indications suggest the ugliest side to North Korea, its treatment of supposed dissidents, is as bad as ever. The authors give some useful insights into the methods of the secret police, including the chilling rationale behind their practice of summoning suspects to a meeting instead of arresting them. “If you commit suicide before the appointment, it saves them the effort and financial cost of having to deal with you.”
International pressure has been building on North Korea since a UN commission last year published a report detailing a shocking litany of human rights abuses. Yet its suggestion that Pyongyang’s leadership be tried at the International Criminal Court has little chance of coming to fruition in the near future, and Tudor and Pearson sound a sceptical note on the prospect of North Korea’s growing band of traders seeking to overthrow the Kim regime, now into its third generation under Kim Jong Un.
“The new, rising capitalist class generally seeks to join the existing elite, rather than undermine it,” they write. However unsustainable they might seem, North Korea’s extraordinary internal contradictions could persist for some time to come.
Simon Mundy is the FT’s Seoul correspondent
Photographs: Getty; Christian Aslund; US Air Force