Books: “A Capitalist in North Korea” reviewed by Leonid Petrov

[CanKor Brain Trust member Dr. Leonid Petrov is a Russian academic teaching Korean History and Language at the University of Sydney. He is also a Research Associate at the Australian National Uuniversity School of International, Political & Strategic Studies. This review is taken from “Leonid Petrov’s KOREA VISION”, a personal website representing his views and opinions about both North and South Korea. –CanKor]


A CAPITALIST IN NORTH KOREA: My seven years in the Hermit Kingdom, by Felix Abt. Amazon Digital Services, Inc., 2012. ISBN (ePub Edition): 978-1-937572-92-1. Reviewed by CanKor Brain Trust member Leonid Petrov.


Capitalist in North KoreaThis new book on North Korea is extraordinary. Since the late 1990s the influx of analytical and documentary literature on North Korea can be broadly divided into two categories: those that exhibit the terrors of life in North Korea, and the rest that speculate on what is wrong with North Korea. Felix Abt, a Swiss entrepreneur who lived and worked in the last communist Hermit Kingdom for seven years, attempts to depict life in North Korea as “normal” despite overwhelming ideological pressure from within and the harsh treatment from foreign powers. To date, only a handful of famed historians, such as Bruce Cumings and Gavan McCormack, have succeeded in showing North Korea from such an unusual angle.

As a business entrepreneur, Felix Abt prefers to remain apolitical and impartial when sharing his thoughts and memories of the seven-year sojourn. His writing exhibits his love for Korea and genuine concern for its people. In his assessments of North Korea’s past and present, the author approaches all issues from a human (and humanistic) perspective, attempting to present life in the country sans political or ideological colouring. But documenting everyday life in the DPRK “as it is” is often inherently counterproductive to the goal of presenting North Korea as “normal” or even on the road to normality. Snapshots of life in North Korea, more often than not, exhibit the miserable lives of the common people alongside the growing wealth of the privileged and trusted groups in the capital, Pyongyang. Read the rest of this entry »

Books: “The Orphan Master’s Son”, reviewed by James Church

[James Church is the pseudonym of a former Western intelligence officer with intimate knowledge of the DPRK, who has authored four “Inspector O” mystery novels set in North Korea. There seems to be much excitement about a new novel by Adam Johnson that purports to be a “window into North Korea”. Adam Johnson is a creative writing teacher at Stanford University known mostly for short stories published by a wide range of magazines from Paris Review to Esquire. He has no North Korean experience whatsoever, except for one visit to Pyongyang as a tourist, but has reportedly spent the past six years working on what would become “The Orphan Master’s Son”. His second novel, this book follows a fictional young man’s journey through fictional tunnels and torture chambers of a fictional North Korea. The main character is the son of a kidnapped singer and an influential master of a work camp for orphans. Recognized for his loyalty and keen instincts, Jun Do (John Doe?) comes to the attention of superiors in the state and rises in the ranks. He becomes a professional kidnapper and … well, there’s violence, romance, and eventually heroism, as well as reconfirmation of all the cliches about the horrors of life in the DPRK. –CanKor]


THE ORPHAN MASTER’S SON, by Adam Johnson. Random House Publishing Group, 2012. 464 pp. US$30.00 hardcover. ISBN 978-0-8129-9279-3 (0-8129-9279-2). This review by James Church was first published by our partner-site 38North under the title “The Orphan Master’s Son”: No Window.


The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson (Random House)

The range of topics for authors is endless, the techniques of story telling as diverse as the stars in the sky, limited only by what eyes can see—with or without reading glasses—and the public’s brain can comprehend.

All of this applies in spades to Adam Johnson’s new book, The Orphan Master’s Son. Many readers are blown away by its pyrotechnic, shape-shifting, picaresque (choose one or all) approach. It may, indeed, be the best book of the year. The reviews are stellar. All the same, there is a little-noted fly in this ointment, and it is this: For some reason someone decided somewhere along the line to sell the book as a window into North Korea.

That, decidedly, it is not.

If readers like the writing, like the plot twists, like the characters, then good on them. But the book is packaged, touted, and sold as “insight” into North Korea. Someone ought to stand up and gently point out that it isn’t. It might as well be me. I’ve written a few stories set in North Korea, and I’m happy for some company. Let me be clear. What I’m mainly concerned about here is the sales pitch, not the book itself.

We might begin with a simple fact. The author of the book admits he knows next to nothing about North Korea. That would be the end of the problem, except he doesn’t follow through and simply clam up on the subject in his public remarks. How could he set a book in North Korea and say nothing about the country in all the interviews and book tour appearances? That’s a dilemma, but solving it by letting North Korea be the sizzle for the book isn’t the answer. That may be the publicists’ idea. It may simply have been a decision that came out of thin air. No doubt, it wasn’t such a difficult decision to make. If no one knows anything about North Korea, if everyone is equally ignorant, then there is no danger, and certainly no harm, in taking everyone for a nice ride, is there? Read the rest of this entry »

Books: “Getting to Yes in Korea” by Walter C. Clemens, Jr.


GETTING TO YES IN KOREA, by Walter C. Clemens, Jr. (with a Foreword by Governor Bill Richardson). Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2010. x, 262 pp. paperback. ISBN 978-1-59451-407-4. This book review was written by CanKor Editor-in-Chief Erich Weingartner.


Many papers and books have been published over the years about North Korean negotiating behaviour and how to defend against it: Over the Line: North Korea’s Negotiating Strategy by Chuck Downs (AEI Press, 1999), Negotiating on the Edge: North Korean Negotiating Behavior by Scott Snyder (USIP Press, 1999) and To the Brink and Back: Negotiating with North Korea by Richard Saccone (Hollym, 2003), to name just three.

Walter C. Clemens, Jr., takes a different approach. He examines Washington’s negotiating behaviour for clues about what elements have failed and what might succeed in getting to “yes” with the DPRK. This is done by first taking the reader on a tour of history that illustrates major missed opportunities in negotiations of the past, as well as dramatic and surprising breakthroughs involving the USA and its Cold War adversaries, the USSR and China. The fourth chapter on the fateful decisions that produced the permanent division of Korea should be required reading for anyone intending to become involved with the DPRK, whether students, humanitarians or diplomats. Read the rest of this entry »

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