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  • Dying for Rights: Putting North Korea's Human Rights Abuses on the Record by Sandra Fahy
  • Sung-Yoon Lee (bio)
Dying for Rights: Putting North Korea's Human Rights Abuses on the Record, by Sandra Fahy. New York: Columbia University Press, 2019. 392 pages. ISBN: 9780231176347. $35.00.

"This book is a grave marker," Sandra Fahy writes in the Conclusion of Dying for Rights. Indeed, a "grave" marker, the book is, to the North Korean people who died at the hands of the state and, as the author notes, a "record for the rest"—those who survived (p. 261). But it's much more. In its "gravity" and lyrical beauty, this book on an epic tragedy is sui generis.

The book meticulously documents the North Korean state's manifold human rights violations from the very beginnings of the Democratic [End Page 221] People's Republic of Korea in the 1940s to the present day. It lays bare the incentives, instruments, and psyche behind the state's systematic violation of the socioeconomic, political, and physical integrity rights of its people. Fahy eloquently expounds on Pyongyang's state food crimes (deliberate mass starvation), religious persecution, information control and blockade, control of movement, political prisoner camps, use of torture and public executions, forced abortion, and transnational crimes. All in just the first half of the book.

The second half brims with original and fastidious analyses of North Korea's denials and distortions of facts through elaborate propaganda. Pyongyang exploits willing foreigners who trumpet the virtues of the Democratic People's Republic. They range from American soldier defectors to North Korea and the Black Panther Party leader Eldridge Cleaver to a Venezuelan poet and a French writer. Pyongyang extracts bogus, forced confessions out of American and returned North Korean defector hostages. While these are not new revelations, Fahy's analyses of how the state has exploited foreigners, its own nationals, and, in recent years, its own domestic video broadcasts and even the international stage of the United Nations are revelatory. In each case, the state projects the consistent message that "North Korea is the best, forever-challenged underdog who will struggle against its greatest abuser, the United States" (p. 200).

Moreover, Fahy's forensic analysis of 17,603 articles in Rodong Sinmun, the party newspaper, breaks new grounds. Her examination of Pyongyang's tu quoque rhetoric, exploitation of foreign media and contemporary foreign sympathizers, and choreographed interviews of "ordinary" Pyongyang citizens unveils the state's elaborate scheme to deny rights abuses and deflect blame on to the United States and South Korea.

These rare insights notwithstanding, what makes this book unique is that in exhaustively chronicling North Korea's dire realities, the author reveals, often with high lyrical realism, the very ethos of the state that commits these atrocities and, by extension, the very essence—or, in Joycean language—the "whatness," of the crimes. The book is no less than a series of epiphanies; mostly disturbing, but quite a few, in fact, paradoxically, inspiring.

On public executions, Fahy writes: "Those gathered to watch the killing will hear the gun blast, smell the sulfur, see the head explode, see heat rise from the blood, but they also witness a gathering of people who do not intervene against this moment of death. The audience is the other part of the apparatus of this style of killing … The audience sees the killing and sees a collective that does not intervene" (p. 149). [End Page 222]

On public executions by anti-aircraft guns, she notes, "The criminal must be killed in an exceptional way. But the limitless cruelty of the stateencounters a stubborn impasse with death itself. … So the method of killing, the performance of it, must manifest the desired excess" (pp. 152–153).

With startling eloquence, Fahy articulates the essential idea behind the state's extreme cruelty—the dogged determination to terrorize the people with these depraved, demonstrative acts again and again. The state, in effect, repeatedly resurrects the dead. The visual, auditory, and olfactory memory of the gruesome spectacle casts a frightening shadow over the hapless people, even children, for the rest of their lives. "Trauma," as Fahy observes, "whether felt, imagined, vocalized, or...


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