Horror in North Korea

Do the maths: three million dead in the war Kim Il Sung started; add three million dead from the famine under Kim Jong Il; add one million dead in the Gulag and other fatal consequences of political and economic oppression and that equals: seven million people.

—John Sweeney, North Korea Undercover, 2013

Published in 1999, The Black Book of Communism was a melancholy 858-page compendium of the global tally of, in the words of its subtitle, crimes, terror, and repression produced by the political movement that the historian François Furet famously called an “illusion.” The book is often criticized from the left for overestimating the victims of Communism (“The total approaches 100 million people killed,” insisted the editor Stéphane Courtois), but as it turns out, Pierre Rigoulot, the author of the chapter on North Korea, actually underestimated the death toll, reckoning there to be three million victims of North Korean Stalinism.

Little wonder he got it wrong. The cult-like regime has walled off the country and rationalized this isolation as an expression of the state ideology of juche, or self-control, independence, and self-sufficiency. North Korea is the “hermit kingdom,” and Rigoulot complained that “it is almost impossible to provide a general picture of the country or details about the realities of repression there.” His only sources were official statements, the individual accounts of escapees, and the information made available by the intelligence services of North Korea’s neighbors.

And there lies the value of John Sweeney’s new book, Undercover North Korea: Inside the World’s Most Secret State. Sweeney is a gifted journalist who covered wars and revolutions for the Observer before moving to the BBC in 2001. He posed as a university professor from the London School of Economics to travel from the North Korean capital of Pyongyang to the countryside beyond and to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on the border with South Korea. His book mixes history, analysis, reportage, and a mordant humor to one goal—“shining light in dark places.”

Last night I talked to Sweeney at the London launch of his book. He made a passionate case for a the BBC to launch a North Korean Service to break down the walls that the ruling Workers’ Party has erected, behind which the people are “condemned to a living death.” He believes that “Kim Jong Un’s talk of nuclear war is a confidence trick, and the Pyongyang bluff is blinding us to a human rights tragedy on an immense scale.” And the way the regime makes the confidence trick works, he thinks, is to “keep everyone—outsiders and its own people—in the dark.”

Stalin once said that one death is a tragedy but a million are a statistic. Last night, standing on a table, John Sweeney read out the poem “Pieta” by Ali Lameda, a North Korean gulag inmate from 1967 to 1974. He was reminding us that there have been seven million individual tragedies.

Life, in the abstract, in its great coach—how nice;
But amidst vomit and outrage the real thing triumphs,
It flows, sewage and decay …
I suffer moons, hungers, cruel Christs of pus …
I give in bone the explanation of this, my misfortune.


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