Book Review: Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty


by Martin, Bradley K

New York: St. Martin's Press, 2004. 868 p. . . ISBN:0-312-32221-6

Academics often dismiss a popular coverage of any subject as "journalistic", but I think there is a sense in which a journalistic treatment by someone who has a good grasp of and background in the events covered is, in truth, a valuable way of looking at a subject, because it brings in human elements, and emphasizes the uncertainty and difficulty of coming to final conclusions on a complex topic. And it is in that sense that I want to praise this book: in addition to providing a briskly-written and even-handed treatment of the North Korean dictatorship, the author includes lots of interview, and while he includes the background of the interviews, you can yourself give what credence you desire to what you read.

The mind-numbing suffocating horror of the Kim dynasty is unrolled in its full chicken richness, with a backdrop along the way of the evolution of South Korea from something only a little better than the North in terms of political freedom to an established [if still highly controlled, in relative terms] democracy. Among the interesting points the author raises is the fact that North Korea outperformed South Korea for a substantial time after the conclusion of the Korean War, only drawing into parity in the early 1970's, and then surging ahead as the failures of a socialist command economy were ruthlessly exposed. Equally worth note is the author's contention that conditions in North Korea have actually improved slightly since the nadir of the mid-1990s.

The degree to which the North Korean people are controlled and exploited by their rulers ought to make any outside supporter of this dictatorship [and alas, there are at least some] think several times over. The author makes the point that much of the success of Kim's despotism flows from traditional patterns of Korean culture, so that the sort of orange revolution experienced in Eastern Europe is close to impossible, particularly since what the people can see and hear is so heavily controlled. Even if you do not agree with all of his points, and accepting the fact that the book sometimes tends to wander into particular byways which don't advance the main point, this is definitely worth reading for anyone interested in this area of the world.

Physically, the book is well-produced, with good quality paper, photographs, a sturdy binding, and a very comprehensive index. The one physical production element, unforgivable in this age where manuscripts can be set up with footnotes on the page with so much compositional ease, is that there is a lot of ancillary material buried in the endnotes, requiring constant flipping back-and-forth.

While my solution to the North Korean problem is "nuke 'em 'till they glow", the author is not sanguine about the success of any military intervention against North Korea. In fact, as he makes quite clear, the leadership in *South* Korea are not all that enthusiastic about a peaceful reunification, either. From what the author [who is a USA expatriate currently teaching journalism at LSU, which I agree is not a stellar recommendation in and of itself] says, the most effective weapon that could be employed against NK would be saturation bombardment with uncontrolled, cheap, and reliable cell phones, followed by a withdrawal of USA troops [who really aren't needed there any more, and are more of an irritant than a solution].

The bottom line on the book: while not pretending to any major expertise in this area, I have followed Korean events with interest over many decades, and certainly learned a lot that I did not know perviously. Like reading an account of the Rwanda genocides, reading this book certainly saddens one about the continuing tragedy of human oppression, all inflicted in "the name of the heavenly leader". When centuries from now, they tell of our times, I think they cannot fail to remark scathin

Reviewer: John Howard Oxley   

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