Thursday, November 6, 2014

Book Review: "A Capitalist in North Korea"

When I saw the book for the first time about three weeks ago, the book called out to me. The title of the book was “A Capitalist in North Korea – My Seven Years in the Hermit Kingdom.”

As though the title wasn't enough to pique my curiosity, the cover of the book showed a picture of what looks like a typical North Korean propaganda poster – communist revolutionaries looking proudly toward their bright future. However, instead of being represented by a picture of Kim Il-sung or his son or his grandson, the bright future is represented by the Sign of the Dollar.

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I had never heard of either the book or the author, Felix Abt, a Swiss national who was appointed by ABB as its director for North Korea, before. As soon as I saw the book, I knew that I had to read it.

I expected to read about bureaucratic red tape, the effects of sanctions, the “culture shock” of introducing capitalism to a citizenry that has known nothing but the Kim Dynasty's juche, and the slow but sure growth of capitalism in North Korea. I expected to get enlightenment. What I got was disappointment.

The book is only 317 pages long. It should not take more than a couple of days to finish reading such a book. It took me three weeks; and what a painful three weeks it was as I had to figuratively flog myself to finally finish it.

In the first opening pages of the book, he mentions the 2010 sinking of the ROKS Cheonan. Despite the mountains of evidence that points to North Korea's involvement in the sinking of the corvette (here, here, here, here, and here), Abt openly doubts North Korea's involvement because “a prominent Korean seismologist and and an Israeli geologist suggested, based on an analysis of seismic and acoustic waves, that the ship probably hit a South Korean mine.”

A bitter taste in my mouth began to form before I even began the first chapter. However, he then immediately says that “all of it plays into a bigger picture of geopolitical bullying.”

The last time I checked, it was the North Koreans who were firing artillery, rockets, missiles, kidnapping foreign citizens, and threatening war against its neighbors.

The book is not without its merits. There were the bits of information that I had hoped for and expected. However, out of the book's 317 pages, relevant information could not have been printed on more than twenty to thirty pages.  The rest of it was utter rubbish.

Abt seems to find it funny as he acknowledges that others have called him North Korea's useful idiot.” But what he does not seem to know is that he also seems to have gone fully native after he had lived in North Korea for so long. By that, I mean that Abt seems to have fully adopted the North Korean method of being as erratically contradictory as often as possible.

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For example, Abt insists that North Koreans are not at all brainwashed. In fact, he compares North Korean propaganda to advertisements that people see in other countries. Specifically, he says “the world businesses engage in another form of propaganda: advertising. The only difference is that it advances a cause of consumerism rather than politics.” To hammer home the point, he also rhetorically asks if Americans “get brainwashed by cravings for McDonald's and Starbucks seeing their logos smothered all over the country.”

Never mind that McDonald's and Starbucks are merely corporations that do not have the ability to arrest or gun down those who do not like their products. But as far as Abt is concerned, they are both morally equivalent.

But I was willing to let it go. Perhaps we did have it all wrong about the North Koreans being brainwashed. After all, he lived in North Korea for seven years. Wouldn't he know better? However, even before I could acclimate myself to believing what he said, he contradicts himself by saying that the patriotic songs that North Koreans sing are not about their love for their country, but rather their love for their leaders. In fact, North Korea's supposedly most popular melody is a catchy tune about how North Koreans cannot exist without “General” Kim Jong-il who has “extraordinary talents and virtues.”

But it's just a song with a catchy tune. Who cares about that? It's true. One song does not brainwash an entire country. But then Abt later says that North Koreans “would jump into torrential floods at the risk of their lives to save portraits of Kim Il-sung.”

He then mentions that “around 40 percent of elementary school classes are on the childhood of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il” and that North Koreans are “taught from an early age to be proud of being Koreans rather than coming from a “less fortunate” race such as the Japanese.” And during art festivals for schoolchildren, kindergartners make drawings titled “Let's cut the throat of US imperialism!”

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According to Abt, North Koreans are so the-opposite-of-brainwashed that a senior party cadre asked rhetorically why North Koreans should have statistics about suicide. After all, “Our people are among the happiest on earth,” the senior party cadre supposedly claimed.

It is a sentiment that Abt seems to share as he adds, “Astoundingly, I never came across people (North Koreans) who would have criticized or even challenged the system, nor did I meet expatriates who had heard about such cases.”

Because your average North Korean, who has learned his whole life to be careful of what he says in front of even those that he loves and trusts, would then outwardly speak ill of the regime to a foreigner?

I suppose Abt thinks that people ought to have their minds so broken that they would become unwitting assassins a la “The Manchurian Candidate” for Abt to consider someone to have become brainwashed.

Another glaring contradiction in his book was about the way Christians are treated in the country. He says:

“A true Christian believer in today's North Korea would be branded as a traitor of the worst kind. During the century before the DPRK was founded, white American Protestants from the Bible belt promoted Christianity as the religion of a superior foreign race, making it today antithetical to the revolution.”

However, a few pages later, he says:

“Despite stereotypes that North Korea overwhelmingly represses the Christian religion, the government usually doesn't see the Lord as a serious threat to its earthly system. I once asked a senior security official if they did not feel threatened by Moon's Unification Church, active in North Korea in the hospitality and car manufacturing industries. He answered quite candidly: “Well, you know, it's a cat-and-mouse game.” It's a never-ending contest that the North Koreans will make sure the other side can never win.”

So which is it? Are North Korean Christians branded as traitors or does the North Korean regime not see Christianity as a threat? As I said, just like the regime itself, Abt appears to have embraced its dual-personality disorder.

At least Jim Carrey tried to be funny
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The part where Abt appears to have accepted North Korean propaganda as his own is when he complains on numerous occasions about the havoc that international sanctions have had on North Korea's economy. He mentions that if it just weren't for the sanctions, the North Koreans would have access to state-of-the-art technology that they so richly deserve.

However, he never once mentions why North Korea is the most heavily sanctioned nation in the world. He mentions North Korea's nuclear tests in passing, but never once stops to ponder that the North Korean leadership has no one to blame for the sanctions that have been placed on it but itself.

Throughout the whole book, Abt does not utter a single word about North Korea being the country that instigated the Korean War or the fact that North Korea secretly bought nuclear technology from Pakistan or that it has launched missiles over its neighbors or kidnapped foreign citizens or conducted terrorist attacks against South Korea in the past (here and here).

The only thing that he said that seemed to make any sense was how ineffective the sanctions were. He claimed that, too often, sanctions do not hurt criminals or government officials, but rather ordinary citizens.

So what does he say when sanctions are finally fine-tuned so that it will only specifically hurt the North Korean leadership? He says:

In July 2012, the UN Security Council released a report on sanctions, according to the AP news agency, which wrote: “No violations involving nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons or ballistic missiles were mentioned in the 74-page report to the Security Council committee monitoring sanctions, published Friday.” On the other hand, the document highlighted North Korea's responsibility for illegally imported luxury goods including tobacco, bottles of sake, secondhand pianos, and several secondhand Mercedes Benz cars. It is stunning that these would be considered serious crimes which the Security Council had to urgently address.”

So now that the Security Council has gotten it right, he thinks it's a waste of time.  How very convenient.

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However, the most outrageous thing that he claims in the book is about the human rights violations in that country, which the world is finally paying some attention to.

Abt admits that anywhere between 120,000 to 200,000 people are being held in prison camps, but then brushes it all aside by saying that that figure “represents less than 1 per cent of the total population.”

He further acts as a North Korea-apologist by comparing that figure to American incarceration rates, because America is “home to the highest documented percentage of prison inmates in the world.” Like as though the conditions of imprisoned Americans could be compared to the North Korean practice of imprisoning three generations of an entire family in gulags for the “political crimes” of one person!

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But then probably to defend himself, he claims:

“While I clearly disavow any human rights abuses in North Korea and anywhere else in the world, I'm a businessman who has never visited any gulag or prison. I am not a human rights expert.”

Seeing how he admits that he is not a human rights expert, one would think that he would remain silent about this topic from here on out. However, he does not.

To be specific, Abt has some choice words about North Korean defectors who speak ill of North Korean human rights violations. He claims that “as 70 percent of them (North Korean defectors) remain jobless in South Korea, they can make a living by selling dubious information.”

There are approximately 27,000 North Korean defectors currently living in South Korea. And there are thousands more who live elsewhere around the world. You would think that if there was, indeed, a conspiracy among North Korean defectors to sell a grand lie, it would be a matter of time before that lie was punctured. But such logic seems to escape Abt.

Abt also adds that “the intelligence services, academics, book authors, journalists, and human rights and political activists who interview these defectors almost ceaselessly after their arrival in South Korea have an impact on their narrative, too. Those who know the North Korean refugee resettlement process in South Korea are aware of how easily individual accounts evolve over time from mild accounts of hunger or seeking economic opportunities to romantic tales of escape against all odds.”

To add the cherry to his insult against North Korean defectors and their testimony, he adds that “while it is a serious issue, North Korea's foes are equally guilty of using rights rhetoric as a political tool to further isolate and corner the regime.”

Like as though the regime did not isolate and corner itself for decades with its juche and songun policies.

In a different but related issue, Abt also says that throughout his seven years in North Korea, he had never seen a single starving person. To be specific, he claims, “In the mid-2000s, I did not come across starving people, though I did see scores of thin Koreans who looked malnourished.”

I suppose that it's possible that Abt had never seen this young woman or others like her (see here, here, and here). But do they not exist because he had never seen them? In his mind, it seems to be so.

And what does Abt have to say about those videos of North Koreans who are foraging for food? They're not starving! He claims that foraging for food is a traditional pastime. To be specific, he says:

“What many outside North Korea generally ignore is that the much-quoted “foraging for food” is an age-old North and South Korean tradition, a result of the absence of arable land in the North to grow crops. For centuries, Koreans from all over the peninsula have consumed wild mushrooms and edibles – long before the foundation of the DPRK – and they still love to eat them.”

Of course. That must be why so many South Koreans also go out to forage for food everyday. Oh right. They don't.

But just so that Abt makes it clear that there is hunger in North Korea and that the North Korean government is doing its best to “take care of its people,” Abt says “Amazingly, Kim Jong-il was, unlike other Asian leaders, highly enthusiastic about potatoes and soybeans and gave them a role in agricultural development.”

Abt never mentions that it is likely that other Asian leaders were not enthusiastic about potatoes or soybeans for their own countries' agricultural development because they did not have to be.

There are far too many other contradictions that he writes, as well as far too many statements that cannot be taken as anything other than the defense of the North Korean dictatorship. In fact, I dog-eared all the pages that I felt contained such statements. If I mentioned every single instance of this, however, I would have to scan and upload the entire book!

Despite Abt's insistence that he is apolitical, this book is essentially a political book more than anything else; and it is excruciatingly awful. In Abt's narrative, North Korea is not evil in the slightest bit. In fact, there are plenty of other evil regimes in the world, which, therefore, naturally, exonerates North Korea of all its sins. And if it has sinned, Abt never saw any of it! He's just a businessman, for heaven's sake! Nobody is either good or bad. Never mind reality!

Truly “A Capitalist in North Korea” can be called enlightening only by devaluing the term.

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Throughout this entire book, it is amazing how Abt manages to sustain an oozy, cynical tone, which is the book's most striking feature. Its sheer stupidity is disgusting and without reprieve. Its sense of morality is non-existent. From almost any page of the book, I could hear a hollow, ghostly voice droning on repeatedly “There is no good or evil – it just is.”

Well, I saw evil in the pages of this book. And I saw that evil was impotent, irrational, stupid, vain, and blind.

If anyone chooses to fork over their hard-earned money for this book, I will certainly not try to dissuade them. After all, who knows how to best spend their own money than the individuals themselves? However, if there is anyone who still wishes to purchase this book, might I suggest a cheaper and more practical brand of toilet paper? Charmin, perhaps?

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