If you want to understand the nuclear bluster of North Korea’s dictator, I’d suggest reading two fascinating books on the lives of some of the few defectors who have made it out alive.
It’s no wonder that Kim Jong-un has to engage in nuclear theatrics (although he failed to conduct an expected missile test today on the birthday of his grandfather, North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung). He can only maintain his huge military machine by conducting the most vicious repression of a starved population and by keeping them ignorant of the outside world.
Nothing to Envy, by Barbara Demick, a longtime, former Inquirer staffer, now the Beijing bureau chief of the L.A. Times, offers a rare, detailed portrait of life inside the Hermit Kingdom. By conducting extensive interviews in China and in Seoul with North Koreans defectors from one particular town, she was able to piece together the stories of six North Koreans – including a couple of teenaged lovers as well as a model factory worker who thought she loved Kim Il Sung more than life.
Read it and you understand how North Koreans are so brutalized they can’t imagine rebellion. Very few manage to escape to South Korea, and as I learned when interviewing defectors in Seoul, they are often so physically and psychologically damaged they have great difficulty building new lives.
Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden, goes one step further, writing a biography of Shin Dong Hyok, the only known North Korean defector who was born in and then escaped from one of North Korea’s massive gulags for political prisoners – known as “total-control zones.” In these camps, three generations of relatives of those deemed hostile by the regime – including parents, children, siblings and grandparents - are condemned to death from starvation and draconian hard labor or beatings.
When North Korea finally collapses the world will learn of human rights abuses that match the horrors of Nazi concentration camps or the auto-genocide of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Only by keeping his population weak, tired and cut off from the world – with no access to internet, TV or radio, except for state propaganda - can Kim maintain power.
His current bravado is meant as much to demonstrate his invincibility to his own people, as it is to convince the world.