[KS] KSR 2007-07: _North Korea in the 21st Century: An Interpretative Guide_, by James E. Hoare and Susan Pares and _North Korea: A Guide to Economic and Political Developments_, by Ian Jeffries

Stephen Epstein Stephen.Epstein at vuw.ac.nz
Thu Mar 29 09:25:55 EDT 2007

_North Korea in the 21st Century: An Interpretative Guide_, by James E. Hoare and Susan Pares. Folkestone: Global Oriental, 2005. 253 pp. ISBN 1-901903-91-5. US $ 80. 

_North Korea: A Guide to Economic and Political Developments_, by Ian Jeffries. London and New York: Routledge, 2006. 525 pp. ISBN 0-415-34324-0. US $150. 

Reviewed by Bernhard Seliger
Hanns Seidel Foundation

seliger at hss.or.kr <mailto:seliger at hss.or.kr>   

               Books on North Korea are still rare, and it is a welcome sign of change that in recent years the number of publications on North Korea has slowly picked up. The two books discussed here are very different from each other in coverage, size and aims, though the titles of both suggest that they are “guides” to the ongoing development of North Korea. On this score both are to some extent disappointing, which might be related to the general difficulty of writing guides on topics where a scarcity of information prevents the author from selecting information in an authoritative way. Nonetheless, both make fascinating reading.

James Hoare and Susan Pares are a couple who have worked for decades in the British diplomatic service with a focus on East Asia. They have held postings in Beijing as well as in Seoul. In 2001-2002 James Hoare was the charge d’affaires of the United Kingdom in Pyongyang, and his wife worked there at UNICEF. Although now retired, they still follow developments in East Asia; both are active in British Association for Korean Studies and have published several books on South Korea and East Asia. Their goal in this volume on North Korea is rather modest, as they outline in their introduction: they want to escape the distortions and exaggerations often found in media descriptions of the country (for example, as a Stalinist, brutal, isolated, hermit kingdom) and to understand North Korea from its inner logic. While this is a commendable goal, there is always a fine line between understanding a regime's inner logic and becoming an apologist for it by taking its propaganda at its face value. As a whole, Hoare and Pares walk this line very well, being aware that understanding should not be confused with condoning. 

Hoare and Pares divide their book in three parts: The first part reviews North Korean history, political development, economy, culture and external relations. This part has an introductory character which is helpful for understanding North Korea even for those without prior knowledge of the country . Some of their interpretations are open to debate as, e.g., the claim that in 1871 at Kanghwa-Do an American force was “defeated” by the Koreans - given that 240 Koreans were killed and 20 more captured as opposed to three dead and ten wounded Americans, and three fortifications were seized on Kangwha Island, this battle can also be interpreted as a successful, though limited campaign on the part of the Americans. But as a whole their description is well-balanced and, in their refutation of outrageous North Korean claims with cool English understatement, as in the description of the birth of Kim Jong-Il (p. 36), engagingly readable too. 

The second part of the book offers practical information on visiting and living in North Korea: visa issues, hotels, eating out and shopping, as well as a short guide to important sights in Pyongyang and the country. The third part, finally, is a personal account of the opening of the British Embassy in Pyongyang from its prehistory and continuing through all the nuts and bolts of establishing an embassy in a country where the usual methods of obtaining supplies are unknown and where mistrust reigns. Though there are now several accounts from former Western diplomats about their work in North Korea, this section gives another highly interesting insight into the workings of the country. As a whole, the structure makes the book neither a guide book for tourists (for this it is too academic and lacks features like an address section) nor an academic book (for this it is too practical), but, as stated above, it nevertheless makes for fascinating reading. 

               Ian Jeffries, affiliated with the Centre of Russian and East European Studies at the University of Wales, is a well-known authority on centrally planned economies and their transformation, on which he has published numerous books with Routledge. At 525 pages, the book is double the size of that of Hoare and Pares. Unfortunately, however, in many chapters it is a rather uninspiring account of information compiled from newspaper articles, magazine contributions and academic writings, and leaves the reader confused about how to interpret the mass of material presented. As a result of the lack of data on North Korea’s economy (North Korea has not published any coherent official economic data since the mid-1960s), the chapters dealing with the economy are relatively short. Most of the discussion is about political developments in North Korea. 

               The largely chronological approach makes individual chapters a useful reference source for those interested in a particular problem, and this is the great strength of the book. However, an apparent lack of coherence in Jeffries' sources often makes understanding difficult. Consider for example the section on foreign debt (p. 422). There is practically no literature on North Korea's foreign debt problem, and it is mostly treated with passing remarks. Nevertheless this is a key issue in the mid- and long-term perspective of North Korea’s integration into the world economy. Therefore, while it is highly interesting to read all the newspaper accounts on the debt problem, the figures clearly cannot be reconciled with each other. Jeffries cites one source calculating the foreign debt of North Korea at the end of 1986 at US$2.23 bn. to Western governments and banks and US$1.83 bn. to communist countries, mainly the Soviet Union. In 1991, according to another source, the total debt to both groups was suddenly $9.3 bn. However, the difference of US$5 bn. cannot be explained by interest accumulation alone, and there has been no major new addition to North Korea’s external debt in the meantime. One of the sources must either be wrong or calculated differently from the other, but Jeffries does not give any hints on how to interpret the difference. Because Jeffries does not fully elaborate on such inconsistencies, this makes his book less a guide to economic and political developments, than an industrious, but uninspired collection of information. 

For those interested in a particular field, this collection can be helpful, however, and points to further potential sources of information. The appendix also gives a useful overview of the mechanisms of centrally planned economies and issues in transformation taken from the author's own previous works. But, perhaps in part due to the impossibility of the task the book sets for itself, the book falls short of being a true guide to development in North Korea; rather, it is a renarration of events. As such, it may have a lasting value for research from a more historic point of view, but it will soon lose its usefulness as a timely source of information. 

Seliger, Bernhard 2007
Review of _North Korea in the 21st Century: An Interpretative Guide_, by James E. Hoare and Susan Pares (2005) and _North Korea: A Guide to Economic and Political Developments_, by Ian Jeffries  (2006).
Korean Studies Review 2007, no. 7
Electronic file: http://koreaweb.ws/ks/ksr/ksr07-07.htm <http://koreaweb.ws/ks/ksr/ksr07-07.htm> 

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