Pyongyang – the view from Europe

North Korea on the BrinkGlyn Ford (with Kwon Soyoung): North Korea on the Brink
(Pluto Press, 2008)
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Books on North Korea tend to blur in to one another. There are seemingly countless volumes either describing life under the Kims or analysing the history of diplomatic and undiplomatic engagement between the DPRK and the rest of the world, particularly the USA and ROK. Each book shares much ground with many of the others, but maybe contributes additional material derived from a personal encounter here or a hitherto overlooked or unpublished document there. Most of the books are worth a read in their own right, but once you’ve read Book A you only need to be told which few pages in Book B contains the new stuff to save you the trouble of reading the rest of it. But everyone starts with a different Book A. Sometimes you wish the whole North Korea issue would go away so that someone could write the definitive book and make the rest surplus to requirements. Precious bookshop shelfspace could then be devoted to other Korea-related matters — or maybe a Korean novel or two.

The current book covers both life under the Kims and the origins of and developments in the nuclear issue, and if this is your first book on the subject then it’s a useful summary. And, being the most recently published, it’s the most up-to-date, referencing recent events such as last year’s show of DPRK art in London. For those who have been following North Korea for a while, and whose shelves are already full of books on the subject, the difference with this book is that it is written by a left-of-centre member of the European Parliament. Not only does it therefore reflect the current anti-US-neocon orthodoxy, but gives a uniquely European view of the issues. In particular, with the EU becoming increasingly important in providing funding for projects agreed under various iterations of the North Korean talks, there is a growing willingness — and indeed justification — for the EU to be part of the talks, reflecting its more neutral ground between the two key antagonists, the DPRK and the US. No play, no pay.

Yet if this book presents the view of a committed European, British Eurosceptics and Francophobes will nevertheless find things to chuckle at. Ford highlights that France is the only EU member state not to have diplomatic relations with Pyongyang. The official French position presents human rights as the barrier. Ford points out that the French are not so fussy when it comes to relations with Burma, and suggests that the real reason is Gallic pique that the French civilian nuclear industry isn’t getting any KEDO action. And for people looking for any evidence whatsoever (albeit out-of-date) to support a view that Brussels, Strasbourg and the whole EU apparatus are irrelevant, here’s a gem from 1984:

At my initiative in 1984, the European Parliament’s then External Economic Affairs Committee drew up a report on ‘Trade Relations with North Korea’. Frankly the conclusion was that there wasn’t any. Total trade was around $7 million … Eighteen months later bemused North Korean diplomats in Paris clearly had no idea what I was talking about when I asked about their reaction to the report. I asked the Parliament’s administration why no copy had been forwarded. The official response was ‘we didn’t have an address’.

The book goes out of its way to try to give an understanding of the North Korean viewpoint, which is helpful if you happen to read too many conservative sources. An eyebrow may occasionally be raised that North may be given too much slack. “Pyongyang is willing to negotiate away its nuclear weapons and more” is one claim (p201) that some people might find hard to swallow. But this book is no whitewash. It acknowledges that the regime “is a brutal dictatorship with a deplorable human rights record.” The book’s point is that there is a different perspective to be had. That in terms of nuclear proliferation, Pakistan is a far greater threat than North Korea; that we are often only told part of the story — for example Kwon Hyok, the key witness behind the BBC documentary on prisoners in concentration camps being used as chemical weapons guinea pigs was later discovered to be a faker; and that, in general, if North Korea now has the bomb, it is in no small part due to the flip-flopping of US policy.

The book is being launched on February 26, but has been in the shops since December. It is well worth your attention as a counterblast to (though not necessarily a complete replacement for) much of the conservative discourse which can predominate in this arena.

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