Questions About North Korea? What To Read To Understand

Suggested Reads:

North Korea's third test of nuclear devices turned the eyes of the world onto the isolated nation and heightened fears that the country could become a nuclear power. The North Korean government emphasized that the goal of these tests is to eventually target the United States, "the sworn enemy of the Korean people."

The history of the country and the circumstances that created this animosity toward the U.S. remain unknown to many Americans.

"[North Korea] is, of course, the most closed society in the world," American Enterprise Institute researcher Nicolas Eberstadt tells NPR's Jennifer Ludden. "It is the closest thing to a perfect totalitarian dictatorship we have on the planet at the moment."

Eberstadt, who has written several books about North Korea including The North Korean Economy: Between Crisis and Catastrophe, says we're learning more about the country than ever before. Eberstadt shares his suggestions for the books and sources that shed light on the history of the nation and its international relations.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, HOST:

Last week, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test under new leader Kim Jong Un. This was his first nuclear test, the third for North Korea. Last week, Neal spoke with Christopher Johnson, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, about the relationship between North Korea and its ally, China. After that conversation, we received a tweet from Scoffy, who asked: Any reading recommendations from your China and North Korea experts? Good idea, Scoffy. Today, we welcome North Korea researcher Nicholas Eberstadt to share a reading list he compiled for Foreign Policy magazine, and which he's now updating for us.

If you have a recommendation or a question you'd like to ask about North Korea, call us at 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click TALK OF THE NATION. Nicholas Eberstadt is the Henry Wendt chair in political economy at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of countless articles and several books about North Korea, including "Policy and Economic Performance in Divided Korea During the Cold War Era." He joins us now from his home here in Washington, D.C. Welcome to you.

NICHOLAS EBERSTADT: Thanks for inviting me.

LUDDEN: First, let's get straight to the why Americans should care about North Korea bit. Tell us what happened last week.

EBERSTADT: Well, we not only know from our own intelligence sources, from our own scientific sources, but we know from North Korean government that the DPRK detonated an atomic device underground, the third one, as you mentioned, that they have attempted. In case we Americans are stupid children and don't get the message, the North Korean government emphasized that they are trying to end up miniaturizing atomic weapons so that they can marry them with long-range ballistic missiles to hit their sworn enemy - their words, not mine - the United States of America.

LUDDEN: And they used the word target - target their sworn...

EBERSTADT: Yes. Exactly.

LUDDEN: Which was - I mean, if some people aren't surprised by that, can you put it in context? It was a step up in the aggression level of what's happened before.

EBERSTADT: Well, it's - let's say, it was a very special sort of Valentine's message for the United States.

(LAUGHTER)

EBERSTADT: Put it that way. In case we really were so dull that we couldn't get the message, it was spelled out, even for people like us.

(LAUGHTER)

LUDDEN: In fact, even North Korea's usual ally, China, has joined a U.N. resolution condemning the rocket launch - to give a sense of the shift here, yes?

EBERSTADT: Yeah. Yeah. Well, the China-DPRK relationship isn't, as the Chinese military sometimes likes to say, as lips to teeth. There's a lot - there was plenty of love lost between those two governments. We'd say it's kind of a mesalliance between the two. And, for reasons of its own, the Chinese government has backed and financed the DPRK since the end of the Soviet Union and has, at times, in a very sort of unseemly manner, acted almost like North Korea's international defense lawyer.

(LAUGHTER)

LUDDEN: OK. So for people who are newly paying attention or thinking, whoa, I need to get updated, here, let's look at Kim Jong Un. He succeeded his father, Kim Jong Il, in December 2011. What do we know about him, and where can we find out more?

EBERSTADT: Well, one - there are a number of different places where you can read. My friend and colleague Marcus Noland of the Peterson Institute of International Economics and his colleague out in California, at the University of San Diego, Stephan Haggard, run a wonderful blog called Witness to Transformation. And they update things regularly on the DPRK - not just economics, but politics, security and even to the extent that one can describe it this way, culture. Mark had a wonderful phrase the other day. He described the difference between the Kim Jong - well, between the Kim Jong Il era, the new leader's father, and Kim Jong Un, as being the difference, in Hollywood terms, between a "pay no attention to that man behind the green curtain," kind of "Wizard of Oz" sort of time from Kim Jong Il's era, to a sort of a "Camelot" style, "Camelot" with North Korean characteristics.

LUDDEN: That's a big switch.

EBERSTADT: It is certainly a big atmospheric switch. The dad, the deceased dad apparently had some body image problems and some other self-esteem problems, which didn't prevent him from being a ruthless dictator but did prevent him from appearing in public. To the best of our knowledge, he was only heard on North Korean radio publicly once, one single sentence in an almost 20-year rule, whereas his son seems to be very camera friendly, likes to be in front of the cameras, likes to give speeches in public, likes to show off his attractive young bride in public. And so there's a big atmospheric difference.

The real question is, do we see any difference in disposition or policy? And thus far we don't really see too much. It seems like rather a continuation of the awful old times.

LUDDEN: Huh. And do we have any idea what North Koreans are making of this atmospheric switch? I mean it must be odd for them to see so much of the dear leader.

EBERSTADT: Well, I haven't seen my latest Gallup public opinion poll from the DPRK...

(LAUGHTER)

EBERSTADT: So I think we may be a little bit in suspense on that. There was a surmise that there - to the extent one can talk about opinion or public opinion in North Korea, that there might be a yearning for something like de-Stalinization or thaw after the previous dictator's demise.

And the young general, as he's sometimes called, as his first really public speech last year on the anniversary of his grandfather's birth, 100th anniversary of his grandfather's birth, declared that - words to the effect that the era of belt-tightening for the North Korean people should be over. Now, of course in a system like that, you say something like that and people's expectations must be elevated. But yet since that time we haven't seen any sort of change towards more pragmatic policies that might be consistent improving the population's living standards. Quite the opposite, we've seen kind of a reinforcing of the militarization of North Korean policy.

LUDDEN: OK. Callers, tell us what you are reading about North Korea or what you'd like to read, 800-989-8255. Nicholas Eberstadt, such an inaccessible country. For people who might be interested just in the culture and the daily life, what can they pick up to read?

EBERSTADT: Well, we know a lot more about North Korea than we did 10 or 15 or 20 years ago. It is, of course, the most closed society in the world. It is the closest thing to a perfect totalitarian dictatorship that we have on the planet at the moment. But there is more contact with North Korea, more travel in North Korea, more international broadcasting from North Korea today than ever before. And you can even find North Korean propaganda, or media, if you wish to call it that, on the Internet, because North Korea has picked up its country code from ICANN.

And so if you want to go to Rodong Sinmun, their party newspaper, you can look at pretty pictures of nice police ladies, or sometimes kind of knockoffs of Disneyland things. One of the best observers who is independent of - regarding North Korean affairs - is a Soviet-born Russian, Andrei Lankov, L-A-N-K-O-V. And if you put Lankov into your amazon.com search engine, you'll see a number of different books that he's written with, I think, very accurate and often very amusing essays about daily life in North Korea, as best we can tell.

LUDDEN: All right. We have an email from Bonnie D., who recommends another thing on daily life, "Nothing to Envy." That book is by Barbara Demick, derived from interviews with defectors. She says it was fascinating and tragic. The poverty and ignorance of the populace and self-serving brutality of the regime is despicable and ominous.

EBERSTADT: Yeah. It's a wonderful book. Barbara, a correspondent for Los Angeles Times, and I think a very keen observer and also a great writer.

LUDDEN: All right. And let's have - Steve in Tampa, Florida, has a suggestion. Hi, there, Steve.

STEVE: Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I happened across a report on the Internet a couple of years ago called "Hidden Gulag: North Korea." And I found recently that they have actually updated that again with some new details on the brutal penal system that exists in North Korea.

LUDDEN: And did you read the whole thing?

STEVE: I did read it, yes.

EBERSTADT: Full disclosure, I am on the board of the organization that put out that report. You don't have to take my word for it. Take Steve's word for it. It is a breathtaking and grim report, but fascinating, written by a human rights watcher named David Hawk. And also, I should mention, there is a new report by our organization, the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, called "Marked for Life." "Marked for Life" is written by a superb North Korea watcher named Robert M. Collins. And he talks about the class system in North Korea. At age 16, everybody is given a class assignment, and I don't mean homework. I mean a class ranking that you can't shake off for the rest of your life. You are either in the "core" class, you are in the "wavering" class, or you are in the "hostile" class. And a very large proportion of North Korea's population is put in that latter hated, disfavored class. You can bet that almost everybody who perished in the horrible North Korean famine in the 1990s perished on a class basis. They were the disfavored hostile class members.

LUDDEN: Wow.

EBERSTADT: And the government was actually kind of happy to get rid of them.

LUDDEN: Oh, all right. Steve, thank you so much for that call.

STEVE: Thank you very much.

LUDDEN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Nicholas Eberstadt, you said you can find North Korean media online. I don't know if you have a website to give us. And what do you - how do you read that? Obviously there's a lot of propaganda. But what do you - what can you discern? And if people want to, you know, Google around for that, what should they look for to kind of read between the lines?

EBERSTADT: Well, there are two things that I would advise people to head towards. One is the official newspaper of the Communist Party of North Korea - of the Workers Party of Korea. For reasons that are too complicated to explain right here, M's and R's are transliterated in a funny way from Korean language. It's pronounced Rodong Sinmun, meaning the Workers Daily, workers paper. It is spelled R-O-D-O-N-G and it's rodong.go.kr. And it is completely online and in English. If you are interested in jumping into that stuff, you can do so.

There is a - there is also something which is not done exactly by the North Korean government but it's based on North Korean government pronouncements, which is called NK News. And someone from - someone with a bit of a sense of humor has put together a search function which he calls STALIN, which stands, he says, for Statistical Analysis of Language In North Korea. And you can go into the official North Korean Central News Agency's broadcasts or pronouncements over the last 15 years and pull out whatever you wish to with this sort of a search engine.

LUDDEN: Wow. So they are in the 21st century of a sort there.

Larry writes us from California: One resource, Voice of Korea, heard on the West Coast at 0800 on 9.335 megahertz. Very interesting, he writes, and you can read the tea leaves from the broadcasts.

EBERSTADT: That's very good.

LUDDEN: Samantha in San Francisco, welcome to the show.

SAMANTHA: Hi. I just wanted to say that I read Demick's book, "Nothing to Envy," and got really interested in North Korea, which I had known nothing about it. It's a fabulous book. And I wanted to recommend, actually, a novel set in contemporary North Korea called "The Orphan Master's Son." And I know it's a departure from politics and nonfiction but it really is a great novel and a really interesting companion to nonfiction reading that you might do about the country.

LUDDEN: That's great. We'll take all fiction suggestions. Samantha, thank you so much.

SAMANTHA: Thank you.

EBERSTADT: Can I mention - there's an interesting and I think quite amusing set of books. It was written by a former American intelligence officer who goes by the name James Church. And his novels - mystery murder novels - follow a fictitious Inspector O, who is relatively apolitical in this very awful system. And I think it starts with - the first book is called "A Corpse in the Koryo," Koryo being a great big Flash Gordon-style sci-fi-looking hotel that has been built in Pyongyang, that really does exist. But these are kind of interesting apertures on the North Korean life because they try to imagine what it would be like if you really tried - if you really wanted to be a real detective working in a system like that.

LUDDEN: All right. Let's squeeze in one last call here. Camille in Little Rock. Hi, Camille.

CAMILLE: Hi. Yeah.

LUDDEN: Go right ahead. What's your recommendation?

CAMILLE: My recommendation is a graphic novel travelogue by a French animator named Guy Delisle. It's called "Pyongyang: A Journey into North Korea." And it's his experiences in North Korea. He's an animator. Because a lot of animation companies ship their work to North Korea.

LUDDEN: OK. I think I've seen that in the bookstores. Fascinating. Thank you, Camille. Nick Eberstadt, we've got just a moment left. What's on your reading list?

EBERSTADT: Well, I would - I mean, we rightfully mentioned already "Marked for Life," which I think is a disturbing but terribly important report. Another disturbing but really excellent book is by Bryan R. Myers. He calls himself B.R. Myers. Melville House put out a book called "The Cleanest Race." This is about North Korea's logic of racialism. We hear - we see Kim Jong Un, we see this cult of personality, but do North Korean people hear from their government?

LUDDEN: All right.

EBERSTADT: One of the things...

LUDDEN: I think we're going to have to - we are going to have to leave it there. Lots and lots to read in North Korea. We'll put some of these on our website. Nick Eberstadt is the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute. He joined us from his home here in Washington. Thank you so much.

EBERSTADT: Thank you for inviting me.

LUDDEN: And go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION for his entire reading list. Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY, diminishing air quality in Fairbanks, Alaska. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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