We look at it and see ourselves

Bruce Cumings

  • Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty by Bradley Martin
    Dunne, 868 pp, US $29.95, October 2004, ISBN 0 312 32221 6
  • Rogue Regime: Kim Jong Il and the Looming Threat of North Korea by Jasper Becker
    Oxford, 300 pp, £16.99, November 2004, ISBN 0 19 517044 X

The exiled Trotsky began his biography of Stalin with the observation that the old revolutionist Leonid Krassin ‘was the first, if I am not mistaken, to call Stalin an “Asiatic”’. He proceeded to write about ‘Asiatic’ leaders as cunning and brutal, presiding over static societies with a huge peasant base. Another Bolshevik who ran foul of Stalin, Nikolai Bukharin, called him ‘a Genghis Khan’, while Isaac Deutscher described Stalin as ‘primitive, Oriental, but unfailingly shrewd’.

‘Cunning’ and ‘shrewd’ are standard adjectives in stereotypes of Asians; ‘brutal’ is another, at least since Genghis Khan, with Pol Pot and Mao reinforcing the image in our time. The broad distinction between the static or indolent East and the dynamic, progressive West goes all the way back to Herodotus and Aristotle. Trotsky, however, made specific reference to Marx’s theory of the Asiatic Mode of Production, which appraised Asia by reference to what it lacked when set against the European model of development: feudalism, the rise of the bourgeoisie, capitalism. A brutal satrap presided over a semi-arid environment, running armies of bureaucrats and soldiers, regulating the paths of great rivers, and employing vast amounts of slave labour in gigantic public works projects (the Great Wall). The despot above and the cringing mass below prevented the emergence of anything resembling a modern middle class.

Karl Wittfogel, the leading ideologue of the German Communist Party in the early 1930s, was the leading proponent of this theory. He went to the United States, and taught at Columbia and the University of Washington. Oriental Despotism was published in 1957. Marx never really investigated East Asia, but learned enough to know that even if China might fit his theory, Japan with its feudalism (and ‘petite culture’) clearly did not. Wittfogel, however, applied his notions of Oriental despotism to every dynasty with a river running through it – China, tsarist Russia, Persia, Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Incas, even the Hopi Indians of Arizona. He soon performed a complete tenko (Japanese for a political flip-flop), and re-emerged as an organic reactionary. He wrote for many right-wing publications and played a critical role in the purges of China scholars and Foreign Service officers during the McCarthy period.

This episode tore apart the field of East Asian studies in America; people wouldn’t speak to each other for years. But China was now ‘Red China’, and the government needed experts. In the late 1950s the Ford Foundation provided funds for a committee to promote scholarship on the country. A few years later, the CIA provided a subvention for the publication of the China Quarterly, still the pre-eminent journal in the field. Its inaugural issue featured a debate about Wittfogel’s Oriental Despotism. Wittfogel was back in the fold; out in the cold were the many scholars who had had their careers ruined and/or their characters assassinated.

In 1975, Perry Anderson published Lineages of the Absolutist State, at the end of which is an 87-page ‘Note’ on the theory of the Asiatic mode. Anderson shows that Marx’s views on Asia differed little from those of Hegel, Montesquieu, Adam Smith and a host of others; they were all peering through the wrong end of a telescope, or in a mirror, weighing a smattering of knowledge of Asia against their understanding of how the West developed. And Marx never took the ‘Asiatic mode’ very seriously; he was only ever really interested in one thing – capitalism. Anderson recommended giving this theory an unceremonious burial, concluding that ‘in the night of our ignorance . . . all alien shapes take on the same hue.’ I eagerly recommended his book to my colleagues. A friend said: ‘He doesn’t know any Chinese.’ Another responded: ‘Isn’t he a Marxist?’ (Anderson had called Wittfogel a ‘vulgar charivari’.)

The theory never was buried: it just reappears in less conspicuous forms. It isn’t politically correct to say ‘Oriental’ or ‘Asiatic’ anymore, but journalists use the term ‘Stalinist’ time and again to describe North Korea, without any hint of qualifying or questioning their position. The idea that the DPRK is a pure form of ‘Stalinism in the East’ goes back to the 1940s, and was constantly reinforced by Robert Scalapino, a Cold War scholar who came to prominence in the late 1950s. North Korea was indeed Stalinist in its state-run industrialisation drive, and modelled its administration and much of its system on Stalin’s Russia – but so did every other Communist regime in the 1950s. Chinese Communism had greater influence, but the DPRK isn’t often called Maoist. In the 1960s, Kim Il Sung instituted big changes, redirecting the state ideology towards nationalism and self-reliance and provoking sharp clashes with Moscow – enough to make Alexei Kosygin and Yuri Andropov come running to Pyongyang, where Kim essentially told them to go to hell. Whatever North Korea has been since then, it hasn’t been Stalinist. Stalin’s speeches went on about the newest gains in pig-iron and machine tools; in their focus on ideas, the two Kims’ ideology is closer to their Neo-Confucian forebears. The defector Hwang Jang-yop told Bradley Martin that the two Kims ‘turned Stalinism and Marxism-Leninism on their heads by reverting to Confucian notions’.

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, a picture emerged of Kim Il Sung in a Soviet uniform with a medal on his lapel. Like Ho Chi Minh, he had a ‘dark period’. Between 1941 and 1945 his whereabouts were unknown; finally, some evidence turned up of a clear connection to Moscow. This information is never balanced with facts we learned long before: that Stalin ordered every Korean agent in the Comintern shot in the late 1930s and began his many mass relocations of subject populations by moving 200,000 Koreans from the Soviet Far East to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan (tens of thousands died on this forced exodus), in both cases on the racist grounds that they might be Japanese spies, subject to Japanese ideas, or generally unreliable. In recent years scholars have excavated Kim’s history as an anti-Japanese guerrilla from 1931 to 1945 and his relationship with the Soviets, which turns out to have been quite modest and uneasy. None of this scholarship is mentioned by Martin or by Jasper Becker.

The Soviets of course controlled Korea north of the 38th parallel, and Kim could not have come to power over their objections. But even if Stalin had handpicked Kim and installed him in Pyongyang as his faithful servant, it wouldn’t have been too surprising, since he did that throughout Eastern Europe. And it would still show bias not to point out that the United States engaged the services as the first president of South Korea of Syngman Rhee, an exiled politician who had spent the previous 35 years in America, and that the Office of Strategic Services deposited Rhee in Seoul after flying him there in General MacArthur’s personal plane, in an intelligence operation designed not only to get him there before anyone else, but to side-step State Department objections. Rhee had angered everyone at Foggy Bottom by pretending to represent a ‘Korean Provisional Government’ that had never governed any Koreans, and had in any case gone belly up in 1925. The writers who love to feature Kim in his Soviet uniform never mention such things.

Balance and proportion are vexed questions because of the North Korean regime’s own habit of lying, and its grotesque exaggeration of its achievements and the merits of its leaders. Anyone wanting to find out about the country begins with a farrago of outlandish claims and heroic myths, goes on to what the ‘Dear Leader’ says, what DPRK scribes are told to write, what the outside experts claim, what the reporters report, what some other government offers up. Then there are the occasional visitors: what did they see and experience? For decades Pyongyang funded foreigners to set up groups for the study of Kim’s ‘Great Juche Idea’, otherwise known as self-reliance; I remember once seeing in a Pyongyang magazine a Bedouin sitting on a camel, one sneaker on and one off, perusing the pages of Kim Il Sung’s latest work. With all that, just over the horizon is South Korea, for nearly four decades run by military officers and bureaucrats who had served the same Japanese masters that Kim and his friends spent a decade fighting in the 1930s. In 1949-50, as civil war loomed between North and South, most of the high command of the Southern army were officers who had served imperial Japan. General Park Chung Hee, who came to power in a coup in 1961, had served in the Japanese military in Manchuria, chasing after Korean guerrillas. He was shot in the head in 1979 by his chief of intelligence, Kim Chae-gyu, who had also been an officer in Manchuria; both Park and Kim had graduated from the American military school in 1946.

The American role since 1945 raises another enormous problem of balance and bias, beginning with the simple fact that Rhee, Park and the KCIA’s Kim would not have come to power without American backing, and continuing with the common assumption that the US has been an innocent bystander for the past sixty years, having nothing to do with the nature of either Korean regime. Rhee was 70 in 1945, a patriot of the old school who would have been a leading politician in a right-wing regime, perhaps, but had no real political base in the country. In August 1945, the State Department recommended to the American occupation command that Park and Kim be purged for their servile collaboration with Japan (Park got a gold watch from the puppet emperor P’u Yi). Five years later, the US joined the Korean War and carpet-bombed the North until every man, woman and child was living in a tunnel or a cave. Five years after that war ended, the US installed nuclear weapons in the South and kept them there until 1991. Any rudimentary attempt at balance must account for these well-known facts. Particularly for Americans, some recognition of the US role in barging into an alien political, social and cultural thicket in 1945 and not finding a way to extricate itself even today, with all the essential problems save one (South Korea is now a democracy) still unsolved, must inform any examination of the Korean problem. (Cold Warriors will say it was all worth it because South Korea is a democracy. But that democracy grew in the teeth of repression under one dictator after another, all of them supported by US administrations: it took fifty years to emerge.)

Political violence adds an essentially insoluble problem: for example, we know a great deal about North Korean prison camps; indeed, George W. Bush welcomed a survivor, Kang Chol-hwan, who published a book about his experience (The Aquariums of Pyongyang, 2003), to the Oval Office last summer, and it is clear that even minor infractions of the rules of the North Korean dictatorship can get you incarcerated, usually with your family, in god-forsaken labour camps in the mountainous wilderness. But experts have known about these camps for at least thirty years, after a man called Ali Lameda got stuck in one for a few years and later told Amnesty International about it. Who doubted their existence in the first place? After Stalin, who would expect anything different from a Communist regime? Some courageous human rights activists managed to penetrate the appalling political prisons run by the South Korean dictators, too, and to write about them for Amnesty: people thrown into solitary confinement for decades because, after torture and Japanese-style ‘thought reform’, they still refused to do a tenko and recant their support for the North. Under the US Military Government (1945-48) the jails held tens of thousands of political prisoners.

Many years ago, as I was getting to know the furious and unremittingly vicious conflicts that have wracked Korea, I sat in the Hoover Institution library looking through a magazine put out by the Northwest Youth Corps in the late 1940s. On its cover were cartoons of Communists disembowelling pregnant women, running bayonets into small children, burning down houses and smashing open the brains of opponents. The Northwest Youth Corps, routinely and pretty much correctly described as a fascist youth group, engaged in terrorism throughout North and South Korea. Most of its members came from refugee families from the North, and some of the ‘youths’ were middle-aged thugs. The US officially sponsored another group, which modelled itself on Chiang Kai-shek’s Blue Shirts. In putting down one strike or uprising after another in the late 1940s (and there were many), these groups worked hand in glove with the hated National Police, unchanged from the colonial period, the vast majority of whose Korean members had served the Japanese. On Cheju Island, run by people’s committees from 1945 to 1948, the Northwest Youth were primarily responsible for a subjugation during which about 10 per cent of the island’s population died and many more fled to Japan; after it was over, Northwest Youth members joined the island police. This was well before the Korean War, during which terrorist youth groups killed tens of thousands of civilians in North and South Korea.

What was learned from declassified American archives thirty years ago is now the subject of continuous historical research in South Korea. A younger generation of scholars has begun to come to grips with much of this information and has poured out book after book on political violence and on North Korea, studies that are generally far better, and less biased, than the Western literature. Yet most British and American commentators, including Becker and Martin, have no idea how dramatic the impact of this literature has been on South Korean attitudes towards North Korea and, more important perhaps, the United States. Korea’s turbulent history over the past eight decades makes it hard to set North Korea off as a singular case, the evil author of all its own problems, and more or less incomprehensible. Instead, we look at it and see ourselves.

None of this troubles Jasper Becker, a reporter with much experience in Asia who peers over the Chinese border at North Korea and finds it essentially no different from the way the Northwest Youth painted it six decades ago. Like them, he seems to think that if we huff and we puff, we can blow Kim’s house down. Like Wittfogel, he sees a wilful and despicable despot presiding over a ‘slave state’. The suffering that ‘short, pudgy, cognac-swilling Kim Jong Il’ has imposed on his people, Becker writes, is ‘an unparalleled and monstrous crime’. This comes on the same page as the following body counts: five million people lost in the launching of the Bolshevik Revolution, eight million to Stalin’s terror, thirty million in the famine Mao imposed on China after 1958, and millions more at the hands of Pol Pot.

Becker’s book begins with a quotation from a speech George W. Bush made to cadets at the Citadel about ‘rogue states’ in December 2001, and then launches into a long ‘fictional scenario’ about a pre-emptive strike against every nuclear, military, industrial and governmental facility in North Korea. Dozens of F-117 Stealth fighter-bombers open the campaign, followed by phalanxes of F-16 fighters launched from several nearby American aircraft carriers (which Kim somehow failed to notice as they steamed across the Pacific), along with B-1 and B-52 bombers, and Tomahawk cruise missiles; thousands of JDAM blast munitions and ‘high-intensity, heat-generating BLU-118Bs’ are unleashed, ‘designed to penetrate reinforced bunkers’. Finally, 60,000 marines rush in from Okinawa to march on Pyongyang. When the North Koreans strike back, Americans and South Koreans will be protected because, ‘following the Second Gulf War in 2003’, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz presciently upgraded American and Korean high-tech weaponry. ‘Victory would be swift and total,’ Becker assures us, but he still cannot guarantee that this wholesale slaughter would result in the death or capture of the mad, evil, corpulent, cognac-drenched Kim Jong Il. Many months passed before Saddam was flushed out of his gopher hole.

I might sleep easier if this were merely Becker’s invention. But all of it, he writes, is prefigured in the Pentagon’s OPLAN 5027, a scheme for ‘defeating the enemy in detail’ (whatever that means). Last March the Atlantic convened a ‘war game’ with former American diplomats and generals to see how a new conflict with the North might play out. Lieutenant General Thomas McInerney, an air force strategic planner with decades of experience, played the role of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. ‘Would we win?’ he asked. Well, ‘there’d be a lot of carnage,’ but yes, we would win – ‘quicker than we did in Operation Iraqi Freedom’ most likely, or in the worst case it might take an extra month. Civilian casualties in Seoul could be kept down to no more than 100,000 (not one South Korean was invited to participate in this ‘game’). North Korea’s nuclear weapons upset the balance of power in the region, he thought, so the US should give nukes to Japan and South Korea for pre-positioning. Once the war begins, for every nuke the North use ‘we will use a hundred.’ That also applies should the North transfer nuclear weapons to terrorists: ‘If any nuclear weapons go off in the United States, you are a target,’ General McInerney would tell Pyongyang, even if it weren’t clear where the weapons came from. The opaque and uncontrolled Other excites exterminationist impulses: it would be nice to say that this is merely McInerney’s view, but the pattern runs deep in American history.

In contrast to Becker, Martin, also a journalist, has strained to provide a balanced account. His interest in the Hermit Kingdom dates at least from his first visit there 26 years ago, and as an American he also has in his mind the question: why do they hate us so much? Unlike Becker, he has the journalist’s instinct to distrust all government claims and statements, and to think that avoiding unpalatable facts is a dereliction of duty. ‘A quarter of North Korea’s population of ten million died in the Korean War,’ he writes. Later on, he mentions the American air war, without quite saying that it was responsible for most of the casualties. But North Korea has never provided a reliable accounting of its war deaths, and no one can be certain of the full toll and what caused it. All we know is that the population experienced a war of such severity that only the World War Two experiences of the USSR and Poland compare. Kim Il Sung was not a Soviet stooge, Martin says, but ‘a Korean patriot of unusual determination’ who fought hard against the Japanese, giving him ‘impeccable nationalist credentials in a country where it had been all too common for capable and ambitious people to serve the Japanese masters’. After a decade of fighting the Japanese, Kim is described by Martin as ‘fleeing’ to the Soviet Union, but as Wada Haruki has demonstrated, Kim went with his Korean and Chinese partisans to a Sino-Russian border area south of Khabarovsk, where the Soviets and the Chinese Communists ran training camps of some sort, and it wasn’t entirely clear where Kim was half the time. But throughout the book, Martin paints Kim as his own man.

Martin has read enough to get beyond the usual assumptions about the draconian nature of the two Kims’ rule. For example, purges were often not fatal or permanent. General Choe Gwang was up and down time and again: he was nearly executed during the Korean War for perceived failures in battle, had another conflict with Kim Il Sung in 1968, and somehow still managed to be the top military man in the North in the mid-1990s. Indeed, during the 1994 nuclear crisis, when the US was hoping to get China at least to abstain if not to support Security Council sanctions on the DPRK, Chinese generals brought Choe to Beijing to give him a well-publicised bear hug. Martin discusses the 75,000 Koreans from Japan, including many with Japanese spouses, who voluntarily went to the North in 1959-62, noting that many were originally from the South and wanted to escape the apartheid-like conditions for Koreans in Japan. He does well in analysing the North’s growth in the 1960s and 1970s – its per capita output was at first higher than and then about the same as the South’s until the 1980s – and the favourable impression that the country made on visitors back then. For those riding the train from Pyongyang to Beijing, vistas of ‘neat, substantial farmhouses, tractors and rice transplanting machines’ and ‘well-scrubbed’ towns contrasted with China’s ‘squalid rural huts, urban slums, people and draft animals engaged in backbreaking labour’. North Korea seemed more prosperous, Martin thought, but China had more vitality.

He went in 1979, but I had the same impressions on my first visit two years later: that North Korea had done well, that Pyongyang was surprisingly handsome and well run, that leaving the North for China was to return to a much poorer place. All that was reversed within a decade; by 1990 you saw kinds of people who had not existed before in China: a young woman in a well-tailored dress with impeccable make-up, a confident young man with easy body language around a foreigner – these and a hundred others like them indicated the beginnings of a middle-class revolution, at least in the big cities. This was South Korea’s experience, too, in the 1970s, and it would have been the North’s, had reform begun 25 years ago. Martin writes about the ‘amazing changes’ that happened after Deng Xiaoping’s reform programme got going, and speculates, plausibly in my view, that the North’s leaders may have been ‘lulled by the evidence of their successes’. In any case, within a very few years North Korea fell irrevocably behind.

It happens that Martin and I were each given our first, closely chaperoned tour by the same person – Kim Jong-su. He presented himself as an official of the Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, which he told me was the agency used to deal with ‘capitalist visitors’. He was one of several officials I met in the country who were thoroughly worldly, self-confident, conversant with American policy in a sophisticated way, not to mention enjoyable companions. When I asked him about his family background, he said his father had died when he was a baby and he and his mother were beggars in the streets of Pyongyang in 1945. He told Martin, however, that he was an orphan brought up by Kim Il Sung and that his name was Bai Song-chul; when Martin saw him again in 1989 and asked why his name was now Kim, he said only that ‘old friends’ knew him as Bai. I had more than one experience in which a person I had met showed up later with a different name. The violence of colonial rule and the war made for thousands of orphans, and Martin is right that Kim Il Sung paid particular attention to them, becoming in effect their surrogate father and putting them through the best schools, thus creating a group which later helped to ease the succession to Kim Jong Il. But Martin goes on to suggest that Kim Jong-su was really an intelligence officer, and might be one of Kim Il Sung’s own sons by a mistress; he found an informant who told him that Kim was ‘the most powerful’ of these unacknowledged sons. I had thought the same things; the first, because of the kinds of question he was interested in, and because he became the number two man in the North Korean embassy to the UN, a top foreign posting; the second, because I once saw Kim’s face near the door when Kim Il Sung was welcoming a foreign head of state, and, like Martin, noticed a modest facial resemblance – but also, more important, that he had extremely high-level access.

In the late spring of 1995 I sought out Kim Jong-su in New York, hoping for a visa to visit his country again. When we met he asked me if any Chicago firms might be interested in investing in North Korea. I asked him what they needed. Kim replied with a single word: ‘Everything.’ And for a moment there was distress, mortification and sadness in his eyes. His conviction had fled somewhere; it was a telling moment. Ambassador Kim said he would arrange my visa, but then the torrential rains and floods came; he returned to Pyongyang, and I never saw him again. Around this time, Martin took another train ride in the North; a car-load of Koreans passed going in the opposite direction: ‘They were a ghastly sight. Their clothing was ragged and filthy, their faces darkened with what I presumed to be either mud or skin discolorations resulting from pellagra.’ Soon industrial cities such as Ch’ongjin were creaking to a halt, their equipment scavenged for black market barter, and the regime’s endlessly touted Kim Chaek Steel Works was permanently shut down. For the past decade the regime has not been able to feed its people.

The ragged and filthy travellers whom Martin saw from his train stand in for all North Koreans in Becker’s account. He has moving passages about the ‘famine and flight’ that afflicted large sectors of the population, garnered mainly from talking to refugees who crossed into China. Becker freed Korean women from Chinese men, who kept them as sex toys by buying them outright, in one case for the equivalent of $24: a 28-year-old, she looked 50. A friend of mine who worked for the Mercy Foundation used to patrol the border with $100 bills, hoping to buy back young Korean women from the hundreds – more likely thousands – of Chinese men who had done the same. Entire families swallowed poison, or stood by railway tracks proffering their babies, hoping someone might take them away and feed them. Gangs of children wandered around the countryside, or ran across the border. Most people, however, just bribed the guards and crossed over in search of escape or food, going back and forth to feed their families. Becker believes that Kim Jong Il has the blood of four million people on his hands, but experts who have studied the famine closely believe that the figure is closer to 600,000. Becker’s is the highest estimate I have encountered; perhaps history will prove him to be right. But in other regards his book is sloppy. He says Kim Il Sung stole the name of a famous anti-Japanese patriot and that his real name was ‘Kim Song Juh’. This is the oldest myth in the South Korean anti-Communist repertoire, demolished by Suh Dae-sook’s scholarship four decades ago; indeed, within days of Kim’s return to the North in the autumn of 1945, the Pyongyang Times discussed his real name (Kim Song-ju), his birthplace just outside Pyongyang and his exploits against the Japanese.

When Becker begins his book with the possibility of a war fought by the US on the Korean Peninsula, he somehow fails to mention that we tried that already, and it didn’t work. When he does get around to that war, he says that MacArthur raced from Inch’on to the Yalu River in 1951: no one who has ever inquired seriously into the history of the Korean War could make such a gaffe. MacArthur wanted to nuke China but Truman overruled him, Becker says. Wrong again. In April 1951, Truman dismissed MacArthur, in order to put a reliable commander in the field should he decide to nuke China, and at the same time transferred to the Pacific the operational capability to do so, in the form of Mark IV nuclear cores, never before released from the custody of the Atomic Energy Commission. Fighting ceased along the 38th parallel in 1953, Becker writes, when in fact the DMZ runs well north of the parallel in the east and well south in the west. Becker muddles what experts know about the North’s plutonium facilities at Yongbyon. State farms did not begin in the 1940s but in the late 1950s (and North Korean collectives were never much like huge Soviet state farms). The fictional South Korean leader in Becker’s war scenario, ‘President Choi’, is an obvious stand-in for Roh Moo-hyun: a principled and courageous lawyer who fought South Korea’s militarists during the worst decade of violence in the 1980s, he was elected in 2002 despite being opposed by the Bush administration. All Becker says about him is that ‘in his youth’ he ‘had called the military “fascists and imperialist stooges”’. I’m unaware of this remark, and there is no footnote.

Becker still believes in such things as ‘the “shock and awe” campaign that quickly defeated Iraq’, and the steady, experienced leadership of Bush, Rumsfeld and Cheney. If this book had come out in 2003 we might politely call it ‘dated’. At the end, there are further scenarios for violent ‘regime change’: Richard Perle thinks Americans should be able to inspect anything they want to in North Korea, and to remove its nuclear physicists to a neutral spot for interrogation. Failing that, the US ‘should take decisive military action’. A defector tells Becker that ‘many North Koreans believe that the United States is their saviour and the only nation that can liberate North Korea.’ That was also the position of the Northwest Youth Corps in 1948, and that was what Truman authorised MacArthur to do in September 1950. Truman’s attempt at regime change got America into a war with China, and that war sharply limited what Lyndon Johnson could do in Vietnam a decade later, such as invading the North to overthrow Ho Chi Minh. Today an attempt to do such a thing in Korea would assuredly involve nuclear destruction.

Martin, like Becker, relies heavily on defectors for his evidence: I can’t think of a book that has made more use of their testimony than this one. But he scrupulously checks facts and cross-references stories. Former officers in the CIA say that most North Korean defectors are useless; other officials say they are useful when they first come out, but not if the South Korean agencies get hold of them first. But these spies are trying to find out about the big issues: how and why the North might go to war, how they would react to a pre-emptive strike on their nuclear reactors, or whether they have atomic weapons. Defectors with that kind of knowledge have been few and far between in the past six decades. But Martin also wants to find out what it’s like to live in North Korea, to raise a family, work in a factory, be a policeman, go to a prison camp.

Natives and foreigners, defectors and visitors speak of the generosity and warmth of the people, and what until the recent catastrophe appears to have been a vibrant collective life. It runs against everything outsiders expect, and Martin asks of a state widely thought to be ‘evil beyond redemption’ how it can inculcate such values in its people. His interviews with defectors are enlightening on this subject, and he focuses on Western reporters’ common assumption that handicapped people live miserable lives, hidden from view in nightmarish institutions. Instead, Martin finds that the regime has many programmes for supporting the handicapped (war amputees get the best care). When I visited in 1987 with a TV documentary crew, we interviewed a man who had been drenched with napalm during the Korean War. The only part of his face that looked human was his right eyeball, which I was able to focus on as I interviewed him. He worked in an electric factory, had five children, and spoke eloquently on the horrors of war. Chung Seong-san, a defector, detailed for Martin the many programmes for the handicapped, special schools for the disabled and the respect that citizens have for the walking-wounded casualties of war. ‘The South Koreans don’t have [this] kind of compassion,’ Chung told him, but he also said that this altruism declined sharply when the food shortages began in the mid-1990s.

Martin’s defectors also talk of the perceived difference between soldiers from the North and the South. In 1983, terrorists blew up much of the South Korean cabinet in Rangoon. Amid much speculation about who did it, a former American official said to me: ‘Look, two of the guys blew themselves up with grenades before they were captured – you can’t get that kind of commitment out of South Koreans.’ Ahn Young-kil, a defector, told Martin essentially the same thing: discipline is loose in the South, and its soldiers wouldn’t be willing to make ‘the sacrifice needed when war erupts’. For decades the South has towered over the North in terms of military equipment; its current defence budget is about the same as the North’s annual GNP. It’s also true, however, that North Korea is the world’s most complete garrison state, and defence spending doesn’t begin to gauge how deeply entrenched the military is in North Korean society.

Martin has written an admirably ambitious book. The copious endnotes carry on lengthy dialogues with the leading experts. The risk here is that people’s opinions get mixed up with unimpeachable documentation, facts about which there is no dispute among historians. Facts rarely exist apart from interpretation, of course, but certain issues do get settled and scholars move on to other things. Martin has Kim Il Sung unimpressed by Chinese warnings that the Americans would invade at Inch’on in September 1950, when captured North Korean materials show that his own operatives had been sending him detailed information about the American invasion for nearly a month before it happened. MacArthur made the decision to invade the North and Washington acquiesced, Martin writes, but Rosemary Foote and others have demonstrated that Truman and Dean Acheson made the decision in August 1950 for their own reasons, without reference to MacArthur. Martin thinks the Chinese had to tell Kim on 9 October about setting a trap in the North by withdrawing quickly before advancing US and South Korean forces, when North Korean documents show that this plan was implemented two weeks earlier. Martin claims that the Soviet bloc gave as much aid to the North between 1946 and 1960 as the US gave to the South, about $125 per person over fifteen years, which is preposterous: various sources estimate that the South got a per capita average of $600 a year in all forms of aid during this period; and for much of the 1950s, US aid made up about half of the entire state budget.

Martin asks why Acheson didn’t mention Korea in his famous ‘defence perimeter’ speech of January 1950, or include it in the perimeter. The best answer, he thinks, is that Acheson ‘wanted to keep secret’ the extent of America’s ‘commitment to Korea’s defence’. He is right about that, but wrong about Acheson leaving Korea out of the speech; he implied that should an attack come there, the US would take the problem to the Security Council – which is what Dean Rusk had recommended in July 1949, and exactly what Acheson did when the war erupted. Martin mentions this, but misses its significance. It has been known for fifteen years that in the many drafts leading up to this speech, South Korea was consistently referred to as a direct American responsibility, along with Japan. But internal documents also show that Acheson did not want to say this publicly, in case Syngman Rhee should be emboldened to start a war. It has also long been known that when the North Koreans commented on this speech, they talked of South Korea as having been included in the defence perimeter. Why? Because for weeks there was no official transcript of the speech, and the North Koreans probably read the New York Times, which had also included Korea in the perimeter. In the end it all worked beautifully for Acheson, who was seeking ambiguity and trying to keep both the Communists and volatile allies like Syngman Rhee and Chiang Kai-shek guessing about what the US would do if South Korea or Taiwan were attacked. As for Stalin, thanks to Kim Philby and other spies he was reading Acheson’s secrets with his breakfast, and had no reason to pay attention to what he said for public consumption.

Martin’s account of the American role is the first major flaw in the book, and it comes, I believe, from his not subjecting his own country’s record in Korea to the same scrutiny that he gives to the North and South, or to the Russians and the Chinese. He doesn’t begin to grasp what went on at the start, in the three-year military occupation that shaped postwar Korea far more than MacArthur’s did Japan. It’s not possible to understand North Korea without laying out how it has been in continuous confrontation with the US for sixty years, while the US has simultaneously given every possible manner of support to the South. The US long ago put North Korea under siege (embargoing its economy since 1950, running huge war games near its borders, surveilling it by any and all means), and though that does not excuse North Korean behaviour, it is still a central part of the story.

If Becker begins his book with shock-and-awe fiction, Martin ends his with a ‘daydream’ about how Kim Jong Il might meet with a high-level American envoy and be convinced to improve his human rights record, open up the prison camps, reform the economy, give up his nukes and solve everybody’s problems. ‘I felt that in my years of studying Kim I had succeeded to some extent in my goal of getting into the mind of that traditional Oriental despot, who happened to be my own age.’ But Kim probably won’t do it, Martin thinks, because what he cares about more than anything is ‘maintaining face’ and avoiding ‘humiliation’. One day my North Korean guides took me to the coast to see the West Sea Barrage, a five-mile-wide dam across the Taedong River, designed to irrigate old and newly-reclaimed farmlands. During the usual propaganda spiel about what a world-beater this dam was, with everything thought up and monitored by Kim Il Sung, my mind wandered to Karl Wittfogel and his hydraulic theories. Martin should have restrained himself, however; this wasn’t a daydream, but a fantasy rooted in the soil of prejudice. Still, his is easily the most comprehensive accessible account of North Korea.

General readers have been ill-served time and again by Western media and pundits passing for experts. But then this is the Orient, cunning and mysterious, and we can say just about anything we want about it. True, North Korea presents such an opaque front that it is hard to remember the 23 million people who live there. But the place to begin is not with them but with us, and our ignorance.