If you want to know the truth about North Korea there can be no better starting point than this excellent book by award-winning BBC journalist John Sweeney.
North Korea is one of the most repressive and totalitarian states in the world, but it is a state as bizarre as it is repressive — like a Kafkaesque nightmare combined with Orwell's 1984 and Alice in Wonderland.
As Sweeney describes it... the vast motorways with no cars, the university with no students, the library with no books, the children’s camp with no children, the farm with no animals, and the hospital with patients, but only in the morning. The whole country is a living lie.
Sweeney also describes some of the suffering and grinding poverty of the people, exemplified by the woman washing her clothes in a freezing river because she has neither electricity nor running water in her home.
After the Kim dynasty the real power in the country is the Bowibu, the “security department”. Even more than the Soviet Union’s NKVD or Augusto Pinochet’s DINA, they watch everyone. No one other than select state officials and state appointed tour guides is allowed to come into contact with a foreigner. Even being seen with a foreigner can mean the gulag.
The regime runs a system of gulags in the freezing cold of the north comparable with or possibly even worse than Stalin’s Russia. The total number of political prisoners could be as high as 200,000. The mortality rate of all prisoners is very high; people die of starvation, illness and torture.
Sweeney explains the importance to the regime of “racial purity” and provides compelling evidence of how in furtherance of that purity the regime practises infanticide on a massive scale, including the killing of babies with birth defects. Sweeney asks the question: throughout the world you see people with disabilities, especially in the Third World. In North Korea you see none. Where are they?
Sweeney documents the enduring importance of the 1990s famine, the famine the regime deny, the famine in which three million people starved to death.
This is a chilling book, but a timely one, written with both humour and compassion. Buy it, read it, and discuss it.