Two days after the death of Kim Jong il [17 December 2011], John Williams’ ‘Toward a North Korea Reading List’ appeared in the 19 December edition of the ‘New York Times’.
‘Looking for insight into North Korea’, he offered the same old same old list of books which hardly break new ground; the list conforms to the official line of how horrible the DPRK is.
Well, that’s hardly new: it is a refrain that the US has sung for the last 60 years.
North Korea is not an earthly paradise, yet the list offers no historical understanding of its history or the intense nationalism North Korea espouses.
Most titles Williams selected tell of the hidden daily life of North Koreans, much documented by refugees who have suffered economic hardship and some years spent in gulags. The accounts are moving, yet they are devoid of historical context.
Bruce Cumings, a Korean scholar, is an exception. But since his award winning writings are critical of North Korea and, say, Kim Jong il, he fleshes out Korean history–north and south–which depart from the pieties of the US North Korean clerisy. Although Williams doffs his hat at Cumings’ ‘Korea’s place in the sun’ , he significantly omits his ‘North Korea: another country’ , as well as Random House’s Modern Library’s edition ‘Korean War’ .
In fact, missing from Williams’ bird’s eye view on ‘insights into North Korea’ is any mention of the Korean War which has never ended but is frozen in time by a 1953 armistice awaiting a peace treaty. In other words, the US and North Korea remain at war. This omission may help explain why North Korea remains a country armed to the teeth, and will remain so until the US enters into negotiations without preconditions for a peace treaty and an end to stated US policy, coordinated with Seoul’ of ‘rolling back’ the North to the point of collapse.
On the contrary, the scholarly and popular critical works of Cumings is an occasion by the usual suspects like BR Myers who read every imaginable North Korea publication for eight year and came up with the naive conclusion Kim Il Sung was a second rate copy of the militarist Japanese emperor Hirohito whom the US transformed into a mild manner constitutional monarch. And the more gentle Nicolas Kristof who reviewed Cumings’ 1997 book who nonetheless, whilst disagreeing with the Korean scholar’s conclusions found his arguments ‘engaging’.
Cumings is the whipping post of the US North Korean clerisy simply because he begs to walk a different path in studying North Korea, and has drawn his own conclusions through visits and yes interviews with ‘defectors’, the source of most of the books on Williams’ list. Since Cumings adheres to an ‘independent’ standpoint, he is game in an never ending open season. Rarely do you see him on the mainstream media! Best ignored seems common wisdom.
Missing, too, is Mike Chinoy’s ‘Meltdown’, a remarkable study of how the Bush administration dropped the ball in ‘negotiating’ with North Korea.
For the detective reading public there are the four books in the Inspector O series, written by James Church [an nom de plume of an intelligence agent who regularly visits North Korea]. Some rare gems of insight, for sure, but one must never lose sight of the glaring fact that the US and the ROK intelligence services have miserably failed in cracking the ‘mystery’ of North Korea.
Finally, an ironic mention of two books by Kim Jong il on the art of cinema and the art of opera, the cheapest copy on Amazon is us$128.45 plus handling charges! Williams’ dig simply conforms to the laughter that the West shows on the notion that Kim Jong il has any brains.
Well, the old darling, left out the chapter in Madeleine Albright’s meeting with the ‘Dear Leader’, and why not, since her appreciation might set off alarm bells in minds which threaten simple minded stereotypes.