North Korea Confidential: Private Markets, Fashion Trends, Prison Camps, Dissenters and Defectors by Daniel Tudor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Just the facts here, ma’am. Despite its slim size, author Daniel Tudor manages to pack in a lot of details about contemporary life in North Korea as the regime under dictator Kim Jong Un begins to reveal itself from the shadows of his father. Which isn’t to say that this new dictator is better than the previous one (the Kim is dead, long live the Kim, as they say), but it’s an updated look at the world, similar to how Barbara Demick’s seminal work “Nothing to Envy” showed life under Kim Il Sung.
Tudor’s book is considerably more academic than Demick’s, with more of a look from a top-down overview perspective rather than an individually focused narrative.
One thing that troubled me through the first half of the book was a sense of neutrality towards the regime, as though Tudor didn’t want to take a stance on the issue of North Korean human rights violations. Fortunately, that feeling was more a creation by the structure of the book, since the early chapters are more focused on the lives of average citizens. Tudor has plenty to say about the regime when it comes to discussing the political camps and the high-level purge of officials when Kim Jong Un succeeded his father.
This book is good for the academically interested or as a follow-up if you want to further your knowledge after reading a gripping defection memoir. It’s not going to go after your heartstrings in the same way, but that’s not its goal. This look at the lives of North Koreans in the modern day is, above all else, a reminder that these are real people we’re reading about, real lives we’re discussing from the ivory towers on our distant shores, and not cartoon characters in any sense, no matter how much mass media likes to say otherwise whenever North Korea declares it has discovered unicorns or cured hangovers.