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New Left Review 6, November-December 2000

Bruce Cumings on Nicholas Eberstadt, The End of North Korea, and Helen-Louise Hunter, Kim Il Song’s North Korea. The DPRK through Washington’s telescope, and in its real historical context in East Asian history.



North Korea is perhaps the only state in the world to become anathema across virtually the entire spectrum of political opinion in the 1990s, from left to right and from Washington to Beijing to Moscow. The consensus has been that the DPRK is a rogue terrorist-totalitarian nightmare, the quintessence of Oriental despotism, if not outright dementia. Our authors hate it too. Helen-Louise Hunter likens this ‘cult society’ to groups trundling behind Jim Jones or Charles Manson; Eberstadt approvingly cites the dictum that it is ‘as close to totalitarianism as a humanly operated society could come’. There is a deafening absence of any doubts or qualifications to such images—or to the seemingly universal wish that Kim Jong Il’s socialism-in-one-family would just go away, the sooner the better. In this context, what is really significant about these two books is that they represent the best analysis of North Korea that Washington has to offer. Hunter worked for two decades in the Central Intelligence Agency, where her text first appeared (if that is the right word) as a long internal memorandum. In his foreword to the book, former Congressional Cold Warrior Stephen Solarz explains that when he read this document he realized that her ‘brilliant and breathtaking analysis’ represented ‘what the Rosetta stone was to ancient Egypt’ (sic)—a feat of decipherment so rare that it took him a decade to get the CIA to declassify it. Eberstadt, who has been with the American Enterprise Institute for fifteen years, made his name by demonstrating the wretched state of health care and steep declines in life expectancy in the USSR, several years before the disintegration of the Soviet Union. For a decade he has been predicting the impending collapse of North Korea—tidings he first brought to the Wall Street Journal in June 1990. His book is an extended attempt to update and justify this perpetual forecast.

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Bruce Cumings, ‘The Last Hermit’, NLR 6: £3

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