Up until I read this book I hadn’t really put any overly critical thoughts into how North Korea functioned. I had pretty much painted the entire country as a giant prison camp and local life was basically just A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which may not be wrong for an absurdly large percentage of the approximately 25 million people who, after doing something desperately evil in a previous life, call this place home, but it hardly handles the strange and utterly genius underground economy Baek’s book covers.
As all oxygen for the body must be pushed from the heart, all goods must come from Pyongyang. The problem is Pyongyang’s heart is arrhythmic and murmured to the point you’re lucky if anything outside your chest does anything but turn necrotic, especially during the famine of the mid to late nineties. So, say what you will of capitalism, the market, uh, found a way. Suddenly food, cloth, and eventually tech came flooding into the country for anyone who had cash in hand. Of course, most didn’t and hundreds of thousands to million still died, but the building of the Underground Silk Road that seems to have functionally defined the country’s internal economy. Doctors send patients to these merchants to buy painkillers and antibiotics during illnesses, children use it to personally request the latest episodes of their favorite dramas, thieves fence stolen coal and anything else they happen to find that could make them a won.
The stories Baek gets from the defectors from North Korea are varied and harrowing and give the book a nice personalibility towards it. Realizing that the book is about how the invasion of foreign media is causing the book’s titular ‘Hidden Revolution’ I would have gladly spent more time with the defectors who get together at buffets for meetings. These people, some of whom share nothing but the same country of birth, getting together venting, adapting, and processing the previous week/month/year in context to their previous experiences, I wanted more of that. This isn’t even a critique anymore I just want a book like that. Maybe I can get Adam Johnson to do it? He did something similar in one of his short stories in Fortune Smiles, so maybe.
The book is well enough in its writing and excellent in its research and each part builds a larger and larger mosaic of how defectors and critics interact as a sort of open secret. The problem is Baek doesn’t seem to want to assume you’ve read any part of the book besides what you are reading. She tells you and tells you and tells you some more. Which is great, but, I, I guess, what do you call it? Retain? I retain things when I read, maybe not forever put certainly over the small jump of the partition separating the book’s parts. I understood the first time you told me that people used USB drives filled with foreign dramas they bought on the black market. I understood it again when you told me that one of the defectors decided to defect to South Korea after viewing a USB drive full of dramas he’s gotten on the black market. And again when you told me that the USB drives filled with an audiobook of the Bible read in the North Korean dialect were sent via balloons into North Korea were likely picked up by black market merchants and reformatted to house foreign dramas because they could be sold for more. Why not just say more lucrative media instead of including a variation of the same fact we’ve already learned. Things like this happen frequently and allow the book to function as a series of excerpts which might be helpful if one were putting together a thesis or something, but having read it in a handful of sessions it was downright grating at the time. A little creative flair in the writing and all this backchannel repetition could have been disguised or at least shunted.
As a first book about North Korea I think it did really well bringing you into the contemporary world of North Korea. If you can get past, or perhaps not even notice the things that bothered me, then this book is a phenomenal look at the strange authoritarian (or as Baek calls it: Socialist) failure North Korea seems so hell-bent on preserving. Frankly, I just would have given up once cellphones and the internet came along. Sure, you guys can have a vote, but I’m going to sponsor all of the candidates and reserve the right to have you murdered or imprisoned if you piss me off (Hurray, Oligarchy!). Hell, just let Jesus in and say that he told you were the new him and the North Korean Quaternity is born! I’m rambling at this point, but seriously, authoritarianism just sounds so hard and after reading this book, just so much like clenching sand in your fist, but then I suppose some people will do anything to avoid to having to listen the plebs grouse about such tawdry things as food.
“[Ji Seong-Ho] ran up to a moving train and pulled himself aboard as it left the prison camp and headed toward the power plant. But on that fateful morning he felt dizzy since he hadn’t eaten for several days. Although he had planned to jump off the train as it entered the next station, he lost consciousness. He woke up after an unknown period of time and saw that the train had passed over his left leg which was hanging from his body a couple of inches below his hip hanging by a thin tendon. Reflexively grabbing at his split leg, only then did he notice that the train had also sliced off three fingers on his left hand. With every exhalation pushed a puff of cold air through his lips and squirts of blood from his leg and hand exiting his flesh. Frantically scared but also weak he cried out for his parents and for his younger sister. ” – Jieun Baek, North Korea’s Hidden Revolution: How the Information Underground Is Transforming a Closed Society