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Thoughts on North Korea: An interview with Bradley K Martin

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Kim Il Sung - North Korea Mass Games

Much of what we know about North Korea is the result of the work of Bradley K Martin, whose book Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader  – all 700 odd pages – is a masterly (impassioned, too) analysis of the cult of the Kim dynasty. After our last post, posted shortly after the death of Jong il, we were fortunate enough to catch up with Martin. The following short interview was conducted by email on 22.2.12.

FreeState: Could you say something about Jung-un [Jong il’s successor]. How experienced is he? Who does he rely on? Are they really going to be able to build a third generation cult centred about his personality?

Martin: Kim Jong-un could not be very experienced since he’s only about 28 years old. However, he apparently has the backing of his late father’s ruling apparatus, including Uncle Jang Song-taek, who is married to Kim Jong-il’s sister, the young ruler’s aunt. The cult-builders are already at work idolizing him and even if mature North Koreans take all that with a grain of salt, you’ll have a new generation efficiently indoctrinated in how dazzlingly great he is.

Aningara Mass Games

FreeState: You’ve met North Koreans outside North Korea. We’re keen to get an idea of how much they knew about what goes on in the rest of the world? How shocking is, for example, South Korea to a North Korean?

Martin: Those who defect tend to be people who have listened secretly to external radio broadcasts, been in touch with returnees from abroad or otherwise gained more knowledge of the outside world than the regime wished them to have. The trend is for more and more North Koreans to have this knowledge as the regime’s information-blocking measures become steadily less effective. Nevertheless, few North Koreans are really prepared for life in a place as different as South Korea. Many defectors fail to make good adjustments there – a fact that points to the difficulty of any future efforts to reunify Korea.

Kkot-bo-sal-deul - Song Byeok

FreeState: In terms of information on countries like North Korea and Somalia, we – Europe, America – are very much steered by government fed media stories. How accurate is it to say that North Korea is a genuine nuclear threat? And to who?

Martin: Scientists have been to North Korea and seen some of the nuclear facilities there, so they can do pretty good calculations of how far along the North Koreans are toward their goal. I tend to credit reports that they have multiple nuclear devices and are hard at work on improving their delivery systems. It’s no exaggeration to say that South Korea and Japan, the nearby countries that the North Koreans are taught to hate, should worry. Of course the regime wants Americans to worry also, because it is developing longer-range missiles. I don’t think, though, that for the time being we’re as likely a target as, say, Japan, in case the North Koreans get to the point they feel they are backed into a corner and decide to lash out. It’s ironic that Japan got to that point in 1941 and bombed Pearl Harbour.

Crowd propaganda

FreeState: Is any genuine art being made in North Korea?

Martin: I have frequented the Pyongyang stores selling North Korean artwork when I visited, looking for something worth buying, and I’d say the answer is probably a big NO. There are artisans skilled in reproducing ancient scroll paintings but I didn’t see anything original. Even some of the traditional works are ruined by the intrusion of incongruous modern elements: a concrete park bench or a tour bus in a traditional brush painting of a scene from nature, for example. It may be that the people who develop the requisite skills need to leave the country before they are able to do what we would consider art. An example of this is Song Byeok, who has made art out of parodying propaganda paintings and who just exhibited successfully in Atlanta.

Take Off - Song Byeok


Written by FreeState

February 28, 2012 at 1:31 pm