Sunday, October 20, 2013

북한 50년사 by 임영익 (1999)

::The Skinny::

Title:  북한 50년사 [The 50-Year History of North Korea]

Written by:  임영익 [Im Yeong-ik]

Language:  Korean

Publication year:  1999.

Pages:  Volume 1 - 428 pages; Volume 2 - 438 pages

Price:  $13.20 per volume at

In less than 30 words:  North Korean history that is rich in detail, albeit at times uncomfortably biased.

Reading List category:  History, North Korea

Keyword(s):  Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il

Writing style:  Academic, dry, dense

Rating:  3 stars

::The Review::

The lowest form of book review is to complain about how the author did not write the book that the critic wanted him to write, or did not set the tone of the book in the way in which the critic would have preferred. But can there be an exception made for a book dealing with unquestionably the worst authoritarian regime currently existing?

북한 50년사 [The 50-Year History of North Korea] is an overview of North Korean history, starting from the events that led to the division of the Korean Peninsula in the mid-1940s to the late 1990s, as North Korea was undergoing a massive famine that revealed to the world of its abysmal failure. For an overview of North Korean history, one can do much, much worse. The book is chock full of factlets, data and first-person accounts about North Korea--so much so that it makes for a slogging read at times. In two volumes, the book attempts to be as comprehensive as possible. In few other books about North Korea have I seen an attempt to cover not only its political and economic system, but also its art, literature, and the day-to-day life of ordinary North Koreans.

Such nuanced treatment of North Korea cannot happen without some level of sympathy for the North Korean regime itself. Im Yeong-ik manages to restrain himself in the earlier volume, as his tone is measured and fair as he describes North Korea. But in the later volume, the restraint is loosened: even as Im describes North Korea's horrific famine that its regime inflicted upon its people, he admires (to paraphrase) "North Korea's strong and independent stance of refusing to join the global capitalistic order imposed by the United States." Even as the reader appreciates the amount of work and information that the writer devoted to his books, this is difficult to bear.

The Bottom Line:  Read this book if you want to learn a great deal of facts about North Korea as a matter of overview, but prepare to grit your teeth at a little bit at the author's tone.

Reading Korea (

Monday, October 7, 2013

Pyongyang: a Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle (2005)

::The Skinny::

Title: Pyongyang: a Journey in North Korea

Written by:  Guy Delisle

Language:  English

Publication year:  2005.

Pages:  176 pages.

Price:  $9.96 at

In less than 30 words:  Though limited, a lovely travelogue of Pyongyang.

Reading List category:  North Korea

Keyword(s): Pyongyang, Graphic novel

Writing style:  Graphic novel with attractive style, witty and keen

Rating:  4 stars

::The Review::

In 2001, French-Canadian cartoonist Guy Delisle traveled to North Korea for two months on a work visa to supervise the animation of a children's cartoon show, which was commissioned by a French animation studio. As he supervised a team of North Korean animators, Delisle experienced the terrible hotel, constant "companionship" of his handlers and a barrage of over-the-top propaganda typical of North Korea. Later, Delisle turned his experience into a graphic travelogue.

The content of the book is not particularly special. Although North Korea is very isolated, a small cohort of international tourists have visited Pyongyang and wrote about their experience. Delisle's account does not deviate much from their stories: they all experienced constant surveillance from their handlers, subpar accommodations and a steady stream of propaganda. More importantly, like most of the international visitors, Delisle did not get to travel freely into the more despair-inducing parts of North Korea.

Where Delisle's book shines, however, is the presentation. Because filming freely in North Korea is virtually impossible, Delisle's graphic travelogue provides an important means through which the reader can visualize Pyongyang. Delisle's drawings are attractive in their combination of minimalism and sharp eyes for details. In Delisle's skillful presentation, the reader can picture herself in Pyongyang in a way that she likely cannot do with written words.

In fact, even if filming was freely allowed in North Korea, Delisle's travel accounts would have added something new. His clever and witty manner of story telling, embedded in the keen but delicate representation of what he saw in Pyongyang, conveys real emotions at every turn: unease and creepiness, yet surprising humanity and empathy. No amount of film making, for example, would have properly conveyed the depressingly fake smiles of the little girls playing accordions en masse. Even when we hear the same joke, we laugh harder when the delivery is good.

The Bottom Line:  Read this book if you are not familiar with the standard North Korean travelogue, as Pyongyang may represent the best of them.

Reading Korea (