April 21st 2018


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COVER STORY The deeper causes of Australia's social malaise

GENDER POLITICS Queensland proposes transgender birth certificates

CANBERRA OBSERVED Malcolm at 30 (polls): the cloud on Turnbull's horizon

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Cardinal Pell firmly denies sex abuse allegations

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Sydney Archdiocese aims to eliminate slavery in supply chain

RURAL DEVELOPMENT Irrigation along Fitzroy River proposed and opposed

LIFE ISSUES Abortion Rethink Summit: the case for care

VERBATIM WA food, drink producers face shortage of carbon dioxide

HOUSING AFFORDABILITY Land costs: economist Henry George's solution

ELECTRICITY Will Turnbull lose three out of three?

ECONOMICS Trade wars: tariffs unlikely to be fired in anger

SEX AND TEENS How about support for the abstaining majority?

VISUAL ARTS Layers of meaning in Botticelli's La Primavera and The Birth of Venus

MUSIC Is it good?: Or, do we just like the sound it makes?

CINEMA The Death of Stalin: Black comedy of a dark time

BOOK REVIEW Cool head on topic that generates heat

BOOK REVIEW Life's not so bad: from the outside

POETRY

LETTERS

OPINION What a republic would really mean for Australia

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BOOK REVIEW
Life's not so bad: from the outside




News Weekly, April 21, 2018

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ASK A NORTH KOREAN: Defectors Talk about Their Lives Inside the World’s Most Secretive Nation

by Daniel Tudor

Tuttle Publishing, Vermont
Hardcover: 288 pages
Price: AUD$29.99

Reviewed by Jeffry Babb

According to the blurb for Ask a North Korean, which is based on the testimony of North Korean defectors, “The point of this book is not to forgive the behaviour of the regime, but simply to point out that North Koreans are people like everyone else and have more in common with the rest of us than the portrayals of the country in the daily news would lead you to believe.”

I must say that I find this proposition a trifle disturbing. What do you say about a country where almost every male is conscripted into the Army for 10 years and on discharge, sent wherever the Government pleases? This may involve digging potatoes for the rest of one’s life in a remote area, with no prospect of marriage. A large proportion of the country is perpetually on the verge of starvation.

The economy collapsed in the mid-1990s, an event known as the Great Famine or the Arduous March. The fall of the Soviet Union coincided with a run of poor harvests. Socialism simply ceased to exist. The Government could supply nothing. Australia is now probably more socialist than North Korea.

Now, most people exist by small-scale trading, unless they are lucky enough to have bribed their way into a government job. North Korea does have its share of wealthy people who have cars, rich diets and who can travel abroad, but they are the tiniest of minorities.

Most readers will not have experienced authoritarian governments at first hand. I travelled extensively in Indonesia in the mid-1970s, when Suharto’s grip on power was cemented by allowing only Chinese to do business. It was wise not to talk too freely about politics, but once you had gained someone’s confidence, they would talk freely. This would be suicidal in the Kims’ North Korea.

Similarly, I travelled overland in China from Canton to Beijing in the year 2000 without any hindrance, though now that Xi Jinping has been made President for Life, the Chinese communist regime is growing more repressive. The attitude in such countries is “keep your head down and it won’t be kicked in.”

While in China religious belief is not encouraged, in North Korea any form of Christian activity is positively suicidal. The only form of religion tolerated is a form of shamanism. Strangely enough, both Kim Il-sung and his wife – the founders of the Kim dynasty – grew up in Christian households.

North Koreans can now have access to South Korean television programs and Western movies through the use of USB sticks. K-Pop (or Korean popular music), with its catchy tunes and lively dance routines, is ubiquitous whenever young people get together in North Korea. If the authorities detect them, the young people simply bribe their way out of trouble.

As far as the “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-un is concerned, he is the inheritor of the Kim dynasty, communism’s only hereditary monarchy. North Koreans regard him as an inexperienced buffoon.

This book, which is based on interviews and stories by North Korean defectors, carries the assumption that the Kim regime will collapse sooner rather than later. These young people are genuinely anticipating the reunion of the North and South Koreas. Life as defectors from North Korea is not easy and adjusting to a fast-moving society like South Korea is challenging. Many defectors are moving from South Korea to third countries, such as the United Kingdom.

Around 5 per cent of young North Koreans go to university. Study is highly regimented and students must wear uniforms allocated by the state.

The collapse of the socialist economy in the mid-1990s means that the state provides nothing to its citizenry. Intellectuals were especially hard hit during the famine, as they had no skills for which people would pay. These days, much economic activity goes on around the semi-legal street markets, where most of the traders are young women.

Mobile phones are common, especially among young people. They are also a boon to traders, as the public fixed-line system is so unreliable as to be almost useless. USBs are easy to conceal and can carry a lot of data, so it is difficult for the regime to prevent foreign information and entertainment entering the country.

The basic contention of this book – that things are not as bad as they are made out to be in North Korea – is to an extent proven, but that is not saying much. The best that can be said is that the North Koreans are resilient in the face of adversity.


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