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New Left Review I/198, March-April 1993

Gavan McCormack

Kim Country: Hard Times in North Korea

With the Cold War having run its course, the cement in which the Korean ‘problem’ was embedded for nearly half a century cracks and the Cold War supports upon which the system of confrontation rested begin to crumble. Witnesses long intimidated, isolated or silenced by the many walls of the Cold War system find their voice and relate new details illuminating the path traversed by the Korean states since their establishment. North Korea is paradoxical. In the late twentieth century it remains somewhat like central Africa on the eve of Western colonial conquest in the mid-nineteenth century—beyond the ‘pale’ of civilization, closed, threatening, idolatrous; yet, at the same time it is also, on the surface at least, an urban, educated society, a ‘modern industrial state’. By 1992 the regime in Pyongyang rested uneasily on ramparts of history and ideology which were increasingly eroded by the flow of evidence that washes around and beneath them, subverting and destabilizing as surely as any enemy siege. It is hard to think of any historical parallel for a regime which rests its claims to legitimacy on evidence so demonstrably false and distorted, a regime which declares, in effect: ‘The earth is flat’. [*] Earlier versions of this paper were delivered to the First Pacific Basin Conference on Korean Studies, held in Honolulu in August 1992, and to a seminar at the Australian National University in September 1992. I am grateful to many friends and colleagues for their helpful critical response on those occasions. In revision for publication, I am particularly grateful for critical comments and advice to Richard Tanter (of Kyoto Seika University) and to Jon Halliday.

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