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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2006, Vol, 6 No. 1 .

North Korea: The Paranoid Peninsula ? A Modern History
Paul French

London: Zed Books, 2005, PB $19.95 ISBN 1842774735

One of the world?s last bastions of Communism and one of the most politically isolated countries in the world, the Democratic People?s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is also one of the least understood states in the world -- former CIA Seoul station chief Donald Gregg called it 'the longest running intelligence failure in the world.' North Korea: The Paranoid Peninsula. A Modern History familiarizes readers with the politics, economics and history of the DPRK.

Written by Paul French, a director at a market research and business intelligence company, Access Asia, the book is split into four parts: everyday life in the DPRK, especially its theoretical underpinnings; the economics of the DPRK, including attempts to reform the economy; the history of North Korean foreign relations, with particular attention to the nuclear crisis; and the DPRK?s future prospects.

French explains Juche, the DPRK?s guiding political, economic and moral philosophy of nationalism and self-reliance. Developed by Great Leader Kim Il-sung as sort of Korean adaptation of Marxism-Leninism, Juche ?permeates every aspect of North Korean life? (30). DPRK leader Kim Jong-il is now the sole interpreter of Juche; questioning any aspect of Juche theory is to question the Dear Leader himself, thus squelching any semblance of political discourse and further solidifying the personality cult surrounding Kim.

The DPRK economy, as French describes it, is divided into two tracks. The first, the command economy, is hopelessly mired in waste and acts as a drain on critical energy resources. The collectivization of agriculture has created inefficiencies in food production, and North Korea?s ?military-first? policy means the army receives the bulk of what little food is harvested. Chronic food shortages precipitated a famine in the mid-1990s, when reports surfaced of people surviving on foods such as grass, acorns and tree bark. This humanitarian crisis necessitated the second track 'aid economy,' which keeps the DPRK on a ?drip feed? (107). French details the problems international aid organizations have had in reaching the most desperate populations and in trying to prevent food aid from being diverted to the army.

In the section of the book about the DPRK's nuclear ambitions, French skillfully describes how Kim Jong-il has used nuclear brinksmanship to gain aid and diplomatic talks, especially from the United States. French takes the United States to task for allowing Kim to frequently manipulate its policy with the 'nuclear bargaining chip,' pointing out that the United States 'has largely reacted to events rather than anticipating them' (207). The section also includes an in-depth chapter on the military-first policy, focusing on the DPRK?s military capabilities and the effects of military conscription on the population.

The final section of The Paranoid Peninsula looks at the potential for reunification of the two Koreas and hypothesizes how an eventual collapse might occur. French comes to the somewhat foregone conclusion that reunification will not occur as long as Kim and the Korean Workers Party are in power. However, his look at how a collapse might eventually occur is more nuanced, exploring the possibilities of mass exodus, of internal dissent leading to regime change, of military coup, and of change coming as a result of concessions demanded in exchange for aid, as well as the chances for a peaceful succession of Kim Jong-il should he step down or be overthrown. French seems to believe the DPRK?s collapse will eventually come as a result of the country?s long-standing economic woes.

Throughout the book, French is careful to consider the role of historical events and outside state actors in shaping North Korea. Particularly interesting parts of the book include the first chapter, which discusses how ordinary citizens as well as the political elite deal with day-to-day issues like housing, shopping and employment in the DPRK. The case study of Sinuiju, an attempt to mimic China?s Special Economic Zones, provides an interesting segue from the section of the book covering the DPRK economy to the section covering foreign relations.

On the other hand, the chapter dealing with the history of US-DPRK relations takes a somewhat simplistic view of the US side of the relationship, with French mentioning at one point, for example, that President Bush the elder ?spent his presidency embroiled in the first Iraq war ? and consequently had little time for North Korea? (195).

Students interested in ethnic studies and conflict resolution may well find the entire book a useful introduction to the issues surrounding the DPRK, but they might find the sections on North Korea's culture of Juche self-sufficiency and on the military context of foreign relations most interesting. The section on the reunification of the two Koreas also includes an interesting comparison to the reunification of East and West Germany in 1990.

Overall, North Korea: The Paranoid Peninsula ? A Modern History serves as an excellent introduction for anyone hoping to develop an understanding of why the world deals with this isolated regime the way it does, and how the regime continues to survive despite failures that seem obvious from the outside.

Michael J. Harrison, Editorial Associate, Office of Public Affairs, Chicago-Kent College of Law, Chicago, Illinois

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