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Monday, March 7, 2016

“Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty”, by Bradley K. Martin

896 pages, St. Martin’s Griffin, ISBN-13: 978-0312323226

It took Bradley K. Martin 13 years to write this book, and the result is an extensive, thorough and objective overview of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or, North Korea. Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty covers the history of North Korea and the Kim dynasty, from the early 20th Century when Kim Il-Sung was born (in 1912) until about 2006, when the book was published. Martin starts by showing the origins of the Kim family, doing yeoman’s work of trying to separate facts from myths (this is by itself a challenge, since the DPRK has consistently attempted to positively exaggerate the origins and life of Kim Il-Sung). He follows the historical timeline and shows how Kim Il-Sung grew militarily and politically, how he managed his relations with China and the USSR, and how he was able to set himself as the leader of the DPRK. Martin continues with a multi-faceted perspective of the Korean War and how Kim Il-Sung evolved his leadership style and developed his philosophy of juche, or self-reliance. He also shows the process that Kim followed to set the stage for his succession by Kim Jong-Il, his eldest son. As he proceeds with the story, the author takes good care of also presenting information about the political, social and economic situation in the DPRK, and how it evolves. He moves forward to detail the transition from Kim Father to Kim Son. He provides details about the personal behavior, managing style, beliefs and personal life of both Kims. He finishes the book with a sort of 21st Century update, in which he delves into the succession issue (who will follow after Kim Jong-Il?) and about how in the recent years the relationship between the DPRK and the rest of the world has deteriorated.

Martin is clearly no fan of the Kims, and his chapters detailing their early lives and personal attributes do not shy away from strange or negative data. However, he avoids falling into the easy trap of making them both cartoonish bad guys. Due to the paucity of reliable information, these chapters sometimes read more like gossip columns of the Kims personal lives rather than detailed biographies. This is in no way Martin’s fault, as the available information consists of North Korean hagiographies or biased and partisan attacks on North Korea’s ruling family. This is not primarily a political history; while major issues such as the Panmunjom axe-wielding incident and the famine of the 1990s are addressed, they are only superficially examined, though the issues pop up repeatedly in lengthy extracts of defector interviews; indeed, when Martin delves into foreign policy – such as his examination of foreign policy in Chapter 36 – he often makes broad and poorly evidenced assertions. For example, Bradley will leave the reader with the impression that in 2004

Kim Jong-Il wanted to join the international system and was willing to give up his country’s role in proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in exchange for sufficient help in reaching that goal. If he and his military colleagues could be persuaded that they would never be attacked by the United States or South Korea, they might even give up on the longer-range missiles and the atomic bombs in their stockpile.

The reality is that even after the 1994 nuclear agreement, it appears that North Korea tried to have it both ways, accepting foreign aid while continuing a covert nuclear program that resulted in success. There is no reason to believe that a 2004 offer of aid would have led to a different conclusion, though Martin tries hard to link tensions to the Bush administration instead of the Kim regime; some of the latter original chapters almost read like an advertisement for John Kerry, who was in an election campaign against Bush as this book was being finished.

Perhaps the most influential part of the book was the MANY interviews with defectors; the Q&A sessions were very revealing with the subjects covered being just every-day occurrences, but to hear these people talk about their “everyday” hardships made me feel guilty the last time I went out to eat (North Koreans often resort to hot water soup and boiled tree bark – I’m not kidding). Other Q&A’s focused on methods of defection, life in the North Korean government and the armed forces, police interrogations, the famine in 1990s, gender roles and marriage, and how North Koreans contrast the leadership of father Kim Il-Sung and son Kim Jong-Il. Martin also focused a lot of attention on the political relationships between the U.S., South Korea, China, Japan, and the former Soviet Union concerning their “problem neighbor”. Martin’s Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader is a must-read for any North Korean enthusiast.

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