- Inside North Korea
Outside small circles of specialists, very little is generally known about the DPRK. To many Americans, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is a mythic anti-Shangri-La assembled from stereotypes, a police state modeled on images from works like 1984 and any number of Hollywood films (which have regularly used North Korea as an easy source of villainy after the collapse of the Soviet Union). Meanwhile, Kim Jong-il has become an icon more easily recognized than many American political figures. High school students recognize the Dear Leader's trademark hairstyle, they joke about his taste in films, and they turn him into a caricature of evil-all without knowing anything significant about North Korea or its history. North Korea periodically makes the TV news for its nuclear threat, its lack of cooperation in peaceful efforts at reunifying the Korean peninsula, and for its ongoing droughts and famines. But despite the apparent coverage, the DPRK has been the real "Hermit Kingdom" in modern times.
Recently, with the New York Philharmonic's visit, there has been a dramatic turn in American media coverage of the DPRK. The visit to Pyongyang not only made major headlines, but was also the subject of a special documentary by Christiane Amanpour, CNN's chief international correspondent, who was even permitted a visit to the Youngbyun nuclear plant according to her strikingly [End Page 73] friendly special report. In early July of this year, George Bush announced his intention to take North Korea off the notorious "Axis of Evil" list and, eventually, to permit trade without the stigma of "doing business with the enemy." Such public gestures suggest a significant change in the U.S. attitude toward the DPRK.
When I began gathering materials for this special section of Azalea, I started by looking for materials on North Korea that were available to the general public outside academic and political circles. There was much more than I imagined, including numerous texts and films available on the Internet. My main challenge was in formulating a logic for selecting from wide-ranging sources in order to present a sort of North Korea collage. I wanted the materials to speak for themselves to specialists and nonspecialists alike, without any overt rhetoric on my part. I also wanted to present a spectrum of texts that would permit a reader to get a sense of the texture of what the DPRK must be like. I drew from both internal and external sources, that is to say, from texts by North Koreans as well as those from outside.
The following pages begin with an excerpt from Guy Delisle's comic book memoir, Pyongyang, which in its minimalist style presents a remarkably accurate sense of the bleak atmosphere of the city-far more successfully than any film or photographs I have seen. Pyongyang has unfortunately been relegated to comic book and graphic novel readers, but it deserves a wider audience for its unexpected and surprising glimpses into North Korean culture. The photographs in this section, which provide a real-life counterpoint to the comic book images, were taken by Peter Sobolev, a Russian computer engineer, during his visit to North Korea in May of 2004. A complete set of his photos, along with illuminating commentary from a non-American perspective, can be viewed at http://www.enlight.ru/camera/dprk/index_e.html.
The excerpt from Hyejin Kim's Jia describes, with understated vividness, the sense of North Korea as a nation perpetually at war. Although she has presented it as a novel, Kim's book draws [End Page 74] incisively on many of the testimonies provided by North Korean refugees, and the narrative has the authenticity of a memoir or a foreign correspondent's report.
The children's comic book Great General Mighty Wing, written by Cho Pyŏng-kwŏn and illustrated by Rim Wal-yong, was excerpted from among several dozen examples of North Korean children's comics. (The entire contents of Mighty Wing, along with several other comic books and a wide variety of other texts, was once available to the general public for perusal on an educational website for North...