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A walk through the Koreas

Exploring the past and present of the North and South

Last week, many stories and pictures emerged of North and South Korean bonhomie. One picture showed South Korean President Moon Jae-in filling a plastic bottle with water from the Heaven Lake of Mount Paektu in North Korea, which he had climbed with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the end of a three-day summit. As the somewhat showy images of North-South reconciliation played out, Andrei Lankov, who teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul and is an old North Korea watcher, tweeted: “N. Korea still won’t surrender its nuclear weapons completely. But the return of U.S. hardliners is a real threat, so if a bit of inter-Korean showmanship can reduce the chance of a crisis emerging, let it be.”

Lankov’s The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia (2013) cuts through the “cliches” about the country being “mad” and “a nation of nuclear blackmailers” by pointing out that “North Korea’s leadership is quite rational, and nothing shows this better than its continuing survival against the odds.”

However, for Hyeonseo Lee (The Girl with Seven Names, 2015), who still loves and misses North Korea, there’s no returning back as it “remains as closed and cruel as ever.” In her book, Hyeonseo describes her happy-sad life — the beautiful winters and loving parents, witnessing a public execution when she was seven, and the night she fled across a frozen river.

Earlier in 2010, Barbara Demick, a Los Angeles Times journalist, published in Nothing to Envy seven years of conversations with North Koreans, especially those who had escaped from Chongjin which had been badly hit by the famine of the mid-1990s.

In contrast, South Korea, despite tense ties with the North, and war and conflict, has steered itself as a liberal democracy and a flourishing economy. Yet, several books have captured its painful past. For instance, Hwang Sok-Yong’s 2002 novel, The Guest, is based on actual events — a massacre during the Korean War in Hwanghae Province.

As South Korean pop bands take the world by storm, Euny Hong (The Birth of Korean Cool, 2014), who grew up in Seoul’s Gangnam district, explains just how far the country has come after rapper Psy made the neighbourhood “style” famous. With leaders of both Koreas now talking of peace and salvaging nuclear talks, the next “walk through the land of miracles”, as Simon Winchester wrote, should be interesting.

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Printable version | Jul 13, 2020 2:50:52 PM |

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