What to Read if You Want to Know More About North Korea

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What to Read if You Want to Know More About North Korea


North Korea may be the most secretive and totalitarian country in the world, as well as the wackiest. As a result, it inspires some of the best fiction and nonfiction, so the upside of the risk of nuclear war is an excuse to dip into literature that offers glimpses of this other world — and some insights into how to deal with it.

북한은 세계에서 가장 기이하고 비밀스러운 전체주의 국가다. 북한을 다룬 책은 늘 관심의 대상이다. 북한발 ‘핵풍’을 계기로 북한이란 전혀 다른 세상을 보여주는 책들 속으로 들어가 보자.

Thousands of North Koreans have fled their homeland since the famine of the late 1990s, and many are writing memoirs recounting their daily lives and extraordinary escapes. A leading example is IN ORDER TO LIVE: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom (Penguin, paper, $17) by Yeonmi Park, with Maryanne Vollers. Park is a young woman whose father was a cigarette smuggler and black market trader. As a girl, she believed in the regime (as did her mother), for life was steeped in propaganda and anti-Americanism. Even in her math class, “a typical problem would go like this: ‘If you kill one American bastard and your comrade kills two, how many dead American bastards do you have?’”

1990년대 말 대기근이 북한을 덮치면서 수백만 주민이 아사했고 수천 명이 북한 땅을 탈출했다. 탈북소녀 박연미가 쓴 수기 『내가 본 것을 당신이 알게 됐으면』은 그 끔찍한 시절을 고발하는 대표작이다. 담배 밀수꾼 아버지를 둔 연미는 어린 시절 북한 정권을 열렬히 숭배했다. 태어났을 때부터 평양 당국의 김일성 찬양과 반미 선전에 세뇌됐기 때문이다. 학교에서 배우는 수학 문제조차 이런 식이었다. “내가 미제 승냥이놈 한 명을 죽이고 인민군 동료가 미제 놈 두 명을 죽였다면, 미제 놈은 모두 몇 명이 죽었는가?”

What opened Park’s eyes was in part a pirated copy of the film “Titanic.” The government tries hard to ban any foreign television, internet or even music, and North Korean radios, which don’t have dials, can receive only local stations. But the black market fills the gap, with handymen who will tweak your radio to get Chinese stations, and with illegal thumb drives full of South Korean soap operas.

그런데 은밀히 유포된 영화 ‘타이타닉’ 해적판이 그의 생각을 바꾸었다. 북한 라디오는 채널 설정 기능이 없는 먹통이다. 북한 국영 채널만 청취할 수 있다. 그러나 암시장이 있었다. 라디오를 업자에게 주면 주파수를 조작해 중국 방송을 들을 수 있게 해줬다. 한국 드라마로 꽉 찬 USB도 쉽게 구입할 수 있었다.

I’m among those who argue that we in the West should do more to support this kind of smuggling, because it’s a way to sow dissatisfaction. Indeed, what moved Park was the love story in “Titanic”: “I was amazed that Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were willing to die for love, not just for the regime, as we were. The idea that people could choose their own destinies fascinated me. This pirated Hollywood movie gave me my first small taste of freedom.”

나는 서방이 북한에 더 많은 문화 콘텐트를 유포시켜야 한다고 생각한다. 북한 주민들 마음에 정권에 대한 불만을 심을 수 있기 때문이다. 박연미가 그랬다. “레오나르도 디카프리오와 케이트 윈슬렛이 사랑을 위해 목숨까지 바치는 걸 봤다. 정권을 위해 목숨을 버리는 우리와 달랐다. 자신의 운명을 스스로 선택하는 모습에 매료됐다. 할리우드 영화 해적판을 통해 생전 처음 자유라는 걸 맛보았다.”

In the end, Park’s father was arrested for smuggling, and the family’s life collapsed. Park and her sister went hungry and had to drop out of school, and she survived eating insects and wild plants. So at age 13, Park and her mother crossed illegally into China — and immediately into the hands of human traffickers who were as scary as the North Korean secret police. They raped her mother and eventually Park as well, and both struggled in the netherworld in which North Koreans are stuck in China — because the Chinese authorities regularly detain them and send them home to face prison camp. Park and her mother were lucky, finally managing to sneak into Mongolia and then on to South Korea.

그 뒤 아버지가 밀수 혐의로 체포되며 박연미 집안은 풍비박산됐다. 연미는 벌레와 잡초를 먹으며 버텼다. 13세 때 어머니와 함께 중국으로 탈북했다. 그러나 곧바로 인신매매단 손에 넘어가 모녀가 모두 강간을 당했다. 매매단의 손아귀를 피해 도망간들 중국 공안이 체포해 북한 수용소로 강제 송환시키는 터라 절망에 빠졌다. 다행히 모녀는 운이 좋았다. 간신히 몽골로 탈주해 한국으로 넘어갔다.

Another powerful memoir is THE GIRL WITH SEVEN NAMES: A North Korean Defector’s Story (William Collins, paper, $15.99) by Hyeonseo Lee, with David John. She is from Hyesan, the same town as Park. It’s an area on the Chinese border where smuggling is rampant, where people know a bit about the outside world and where disaffection, consequently, is greater than average. Still, Lee’s home, like every home, had portraits of the country’s first two leaders, Kim Il-sung and his son, Kim Jong-il, on the wall. (The grandson now in power, Kim Jong-un, hasn’t yet made his portrait ubiquitous.) Lee begins her story recounting how her father dashed into the family home as it was burning to rescue not family valuables but rather the portraits of the first leaders. There’s an entire genre of heroic propaganda stories in North Korea of people risking their lives to save such portraits. Like other kids, Lee grew up in an environment of formal reverence for the Kim dynasty. At supper she would say a kind of grace — to “Respected Father Leader Kim Il-sung” — before picking up her chopsticks. “Everything we learned about Americans was negative,” she writes. “In cartoons, they were snarling jackals. In the propaganda posters they were as thin as sticks with hook noses and blond hair. We were told they smelled bad. They had turned South Korea into a ‘hell on earth’ and were maintaining a puppet government there. The teachers never missed an opportunity to remind us of their villainy. “‘If you meet a Yankee bastard on the street and he offers you candy, do not take it!’ one teacher warned us, wagging a finger in the air. ‘If you do, he’ll claim North Korean children are beggars. Be on your guard if he asks you anything, even the most innocent questions.’” Hmm. No wonder my attempts at interviewing North Korean kids have never been very fruitful. Lee escaped to China at age 17 and started a new life in Shanghai but remained in touch with her family. One day her mom called from North Korea. “I’ve got a few kilos of ice,” or crystal meth, she said, and she asked for Lee’s help in selling it in China. “In her world, the law was upside down,” Lee says, explaining how corruption and cynicism had shredded the social fabric of North Korea. “People had to break the law to live.” It’s fair to wonder how accurate these books are, for there’s some incentive when selling a memoir to embellish adventures. I don’t know, and in the case of “In Order to Live,” skeptics have noted inconsistencies in the stories and raised legitimate questions.

다른 인상적인 책으로는 탈북자 이현서가 쓴 『7개의 이름을 가진 소녀: 어느 탈북자의 이야기』가 있다. 혜산에 살던 이현서는 다른 북한 아이들과 마찬가지로 김씨 왕조를 신으로 모시도록 세뇌당했다. 밥을 먹을 때면 ‘위대한 수령님’에게 감사 기도를 올린 뒤에야 젓가락을 들 수 있었다. 이현서의 교사들은 틈만 나면 미국이 사악하다고 말했다. 미국 언론인 신분으로 북한을 방문해서 아이들과 이야기라도 나눠보려 했던 내 시도가 왜 먹히지 않았는지 이제야 알 것 같다. 이현서는 17세 때 중국으로 도망쳐 상하이에서 지냈다. 하루는 어머니가 북한에서 전화를 걸어와 “얼음(마약)이 좀 있는데 중국에서 팔 수 있게 도와 달라”고 말했다. 이현서는 “북한에선 법이 뒤집혀 있다. 부패와 불신이 만연해 주민들은 생존을 위해 법을 어겨야 한다”고 썼다.

So how did North Korea come to be the most bizarre country in the world? For the history, one can’t do better than Bradley K. Martin’s magisterial UNDER THE LOVING CARE OF THE FATHERLY LEADER: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty (St. Martin’s Griffin, paper, $29.99). Martin recounts how a minor anti-Japanese guerrilla leader named Kim Il-sung came to be installed by the Russians as leader of the half of the Korean peninsula they controlled after World War II. Martin discovers that Kim’s father was a Christian and a church organist, and Kim himself attended church for a time. That didn’t last, and Kim later banned pretty much all religion — though he became something of a god himself, quite a trick for an atheist. But do North Koreans really believe in this “religion”?

북한은 어쩌다 이렇게 세계에서 가장 괴상한 국가가 됐을까? 궁금하면 브래들리 마틴의 저서 『지도자의 애정 어린 보살핌 속에서』를 읽어보라. 책에서 마틴은 비주류 항일 투쟁가였던 김일성이 어떻게 소련을 등에 업고 북한의 유일 권력자가 됐는지 설명한다. 그는 김일성의 아버지가 기독교인이자 교회 오르간 연주자였다는 사실을 알려준다. 김일성 자신도 한 동안 교회에 다녔다. 그러나 결국에는 교회를 떠난 뒤 모든 종교를 금지하고 자신을 신의 반열에 올렸다. 무신론자가 스스로를 신격화하다니 얄궂지 않은가. 궁금한 건 북한 주민들이 ‘위대한 수령’이란 종교를 정말 진짜로 믿느냐는 거다.

Judging from defectors I’ve interviewed and much of the literature on North Korea, many do — especially older people, farmers and those farther from the North Korean border. That’s partly a tribute to the country’s shameless propaganda, which B.R. Myers explores in his interesting book, THE CLEANEST RACE: How North Koreans See Themselves — And Why It Matters (Melville House, paper, $16). He notes that North Korea produced a poster showing a Christian missionary murdering a Korean child and calling for “revenge against the Yankee vampires” — at the same time that the United States was the country’s single largest donor of humanitarian aid. Myers argues that North Koreans have focused on what he calls “race-based paranoid nationalism,” including bizarre ideas about how Koreans are “the cleanest race” — hence the title — bullied and persecuted by outsiders.

탈북자들의 수기를 읽다 보면, 많은 북한 주민이 실제로 수령을 신으로 믿고 철두철미한 반미 의식으로 무장한 듯하다. 평양 당국이 뻔뻔한 선전 공작을 멈추지 않기 때문이다. 실은 미국은 북한에 인도주의적 지원을 가장 많은 해온 나라다. 그래서 북한 주민들이 ‘피해망상에 빠진 국수적 인종주의’에 사로잡혀 있다는 분석도 타당성이 있어 보인다. “조선 민족은 끊임없이 외세의 침략에 시달리면서도 정체성을 지킨 가장 깨끗한 인종”이란 괴상한 생각이 그것이다.

For a more sympathetic view of North Korea’s emergence, check out various books by Bruce Cumings, a University of Chicago historian, like KOREA’S PLACE IN THE SUN: A Modern History (W.W. Norton, paper, $19.95). Cumings argues that North Korea is to some degree a genuine expression of Korean nationalism. I think Cumings is nuts when he says, “it is Americans who bear the lion’s share of the responsibility” for the division of the Korean peninsula. But his work is worth reading — unless you have high blood pressure, in which case consult a physician first.

북한에 대한 이런 동정적인 시각이 궁금하다면 브루스 커밍스 시카고대 교수의 책을 보면 된다. 그는 저서 『한국 현대사』에서 북한이 한국식 국수주의를 어느 정도는 진실하게 보여준다고 주장한다. 분단의 가장 큰 책임은 미국에 있다는 등 말도 안 되는 주장도 하지만, 읽어볼 가치는 있다. 다만 고혈압 증상이 있다면, 읽기 전 의사와 상담해 보길 권한다.

니콜라스 크리스토프 NYT 컬럼니스트

The New York Times Opinion
JAN. 1, 2018
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