North Korea: An insider’s view as hope for peace emerges

| July 2, 2018 | 0 Comments
As North Korean President Kim Jong-un, left, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in attempt to settle their differences, one can learn about Kim’s repressive regime in Paul French’s new book, North Korea, State of Paranoia. (Photo: Cheongwadae, Blue House)

As North Korean President Kim Jong-un, left, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in attempt to settle their differences, one can learn about Kim’s repressive regime in Paul French’s new book, North Korea, State of Paranoia. (Photo: Cheongwadae, Blue House)

North Korea dominated headlines in July 2017 after Kim Jong-un’s regime fired a long-range  ballistic missile that ultimately landed in Japanese waters. The country launched another missile over Japan on Sept. 15, and released images of a massive intercontinental ballistic missile it claimed could target the United States as early as November.

The nuclear threat prompted U.S. President Donald Trump to insult and nickname the North Korean president “Little Rocket Man.”

Fast-forward one year and Trump has met with Kim Jong-un. The decision certainly sparked a renewed interest in North Korea.

Most of us don’t know much about Kim and his repressive regime — and he wants to keep it that way. There are no reliable statistics about the country and there’s not much policy documentation. The untrustworthy state media don’t help clarify anything. 

Paul French, who has written extensively about North Korea, describes the “personality cult” that engulfs three generations of Kims in his book, North Korea: State of Paranoia ($25, Zed Books).

DIPLOMAT_2018-07-02_0084The book gives readers crucial context needed to understand the country, known as the “hermit kingdom.” While French primarily focuses on the economy, he also discusses at length the country’s failed agriculture sector and widespread famine, and its relationship with allies, especially those in the region.

French explores how North Korea’s economic system and policies are guided by the political philosophy known as Juche — which means “self reliance” and is the brainchild of Kim Il-sung, president of North Korea from 1972 to 1994 and Kim’s grandfather. He notes that the system has failed to the point where famine has ensued, and he looks at how the isolated country began to depend on international aid. French also examines North Korea’s experiment with economic reform in 2002, which attempted to let the outside world in. At the time, foreign journalists reported having access to fruit markets, but being forbidden from taking photos of them.

While French includes anecdotes about daily life in North Korea in one of the opening chapters, the book is more about policy and occasionally delves a little more deeply into political philosophy and policy than a general reader may want.

In the opening chapter, though, French does introduce the reader to the mysterious country — including the fact that some residents have to climb 40 flights of stairs to reach their apartment because power shortages are so frequent that it’s too risky to take the elevator. This makes life extremely painful for seniors who are living on high floors. He writes of how defectors say locals long for the “five chests” and “seven appliances.” The chests include a quilt chest, wardrobe, bookshelf, cupboard and shoe closet. The appliances include a TV, fridge, washing machine, fan, sewing machine, tape recorder and camera.

Churches remain to give the illusion of freedom of religion, but worship is discouraged, pets are rare and dogs are banned. It’s impossible to make calls outside the country and most daily work is done without computers or technology.

French delves deeply into North
Korea’s history of economic policies, which is closely associated with the country’s failed agriculture policies. In fact, French talks about how difficult it is to even shop for food because everything from produce to staples such as rice and potatoes sell out fast.

Interwoven throughout the book is a reminder of Kim’s dedication to Juche. French frequently points to examples of failed policies — such as North Korea’s inability to attract foreign investment — and the fact that Juche is ultimately the force behind them.

Buddhist violence in Myanmar

As nearly 700,000 Rohingya Muslims flee Myanmar for safety in Bangladesh, journalist Francis Wade’s Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim ‘Other’ (Zed books $25.00) could not be more timely.

Wade, who has covered Myanmar for more than a decade, examines the growing divide between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine State. He discusses the country’s leaders, some of whom are the most respected voices for democracy, and yet they have turned their backs on the bloodshed and the military’s violence against the Rohingyas.

Wade’s reportage of the events on the ground in Myanmar is meticulous. Through interviews with locals, leaders and experts, he explains how violence that began in 2012 — and the military crackdown brought against the Muslim minority — eventually spread throughout the country and ultimately led to the mass exodus of Rohingyas today.

Wade’s reporting goes back further than the latest horrific plight of the Rohingyas. He shows how they were slowly pushed to the margins of society — the ethnic minority that was once allowed to use hospitals and to trade in markets was eventually denied those rights.

The country’s leaders, fearful that the Muslim minority would take over, had defined Burmese identity as ethnically Bamar and Buddhist. Meanwhile, Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists remained ethnic minorities. The Rohingyas, though, were consistently denied citizenship and therefore remained stateless. This outcasting of Rohingya people by the country’s leaders, as Wade explains and exposes, is due to their fear that Islam will take over. There are, or were, a few million Muslims in the country of 53 million.

One of the most interesting individuals Wade interviews is a Rohingya man who lied about his identity to gain Bamar status in order to join the army and ultimately serve as an officer against his own people. That one stands out, but all of Wade’s interactions with Rakhine and Rohingyas say a lot about the ethnic and national divide that’s engulfing the country.

Wade writes that in Rakhine State, the stories of gang rape of Rohingyas by soldiers, the execution of children and the violence against the Rohingyas were seen as fabrications by the government, made up in an effort to damage the image of the army. Even as the United Nations said suspected crimes against humanity were being committed, an article in a state-run Myanmar newspaper warned the country was “facing the danger of the human fleas” that they “greatly loathe for their stench and for sucking our blood,”which, as Wade pointed out, is an analogy Nazis used to describe Jews.

Modern music in the Middle East

DIPLOMAT_2018-07-02_0085Heavy metal, doom and hardcore music are not the first things that come to mind when one thinks about the Middle East. Arabic ballads are typically the kind of music that reaches the West. But as journalist Orlando Crowfoot has discovered by visiting a number of countries in the region and conducting interviews with multiple musicians, an underground scene has existed for years.

What may not be as surprising though, is how hard it is for metal musicians to perform in public.

Rock in a Hard Place: Music and Mayhem in the Middle East (Zed books, $25) takes the reader through the music scene in each country. It discusses how musicians are perceived by society and the challenges they face.

Crowfoot begins by setting the stage in Abu Dhabi in 2011, where Metallica held its first show in the Middle East. He wrote that 30, 000 people from all over the region — Syria, Libya, Palestine, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel — attended. While he’s trying to make the point that people from all over the Middle East took in this historic concert, one wonders how he was able to confirm that so many people of different nationalities were there.

Crowfoot, who has spent six years reporting on the rock and metal scene in the Middle East, is successful, however, in showing the region in a different light. The book is organized by country and each chapter introduces the reader to interesting musicians who share their stories and the problems of pursuing music at home. We learn that in some countries musicians are societal outcasts. In others — such as Lebanon and Egypt — they’re called “satan worshippers.”

In the chapter on Iran, Crowfoot writes that the existence of its underground music scene reflects that there are two Irans, a description that could likely apply to almost every music scene of each country Crowfoot profiled.

A common theme in each city he visited is that heavy metal music wasn’t necessarily illegal, but that musicians have to apply for a permit from the state and most of the time the permit is rejected. In some countries, permits are allowed if lyrics are provided in advance, or if the band agrees to only play one or two heavy metal songs.

This is not the case in Saudi Arabia, however. Chris Leamy, an American teacher living in Riyadh, told Crowfoot that he was driving with a band from Dubai to Saudi Arabia when members of the band were almost arrested because of a logo on their T-shirts. Border guards thought the logo looked liked the Christian cross, and Christianity is banned in the country.

Religion is also an important theme in Rock in a Hard Place and Crowfoot makes it clear that only a few bands across the region are anti-religious and there are no “devil worshippers” who drink blood. Rather, they are talented people who are trying to pursue their passion and make a difference through music.

SIX BOOKS TO READ THIS SUMMER

A Hope More Powerful than the Sea 

By Melissa Fleming

Publisher: Flatiron Books 288 pages

Price: $18

Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, tells the story of a young Syrian woman at the heart of an international crisis and her dangerous journey aboard an overcrowded ship destined for Italy.

A Hope More Powerful than the Sea follows 19-year-old Doaa al-Zamel and her fiancé on their perilous trip onboard a fishing vessel with 500 other refugees. Suddenly, another boat carrying men speaking Egyptian Arabic approaches and they start hurling wooden planks at al-Zamel’s boat, causing it to start to sink. Al-Zamel finds herself on a small inflatable ring with two little girls who had been thrown at her by drowning relatives.

She floated for days that way — with the babies in her arms, praying to be rescued. This is the true story of one woman’s plight and it’s not unlike the experience of millions of refugees who have made the same journey from Syria to Europe. But al-Zamel’s story begins when she leaves Syria for Egypt, falls in love with a former Free Syrian Army fighter and the pair make the fateful decision to board the fishing vessel. As the ship sinks, and her fiancé dies at sea, al-Zamel never loses hope.

In Praise of Blood: The Crimes of the Rwandan Patriotic Front

By Judi Rever

Publisher: Random House Canada

Price: $32

Canadian journalist Judi Rever writes that the 1994 Rwandan genocide that saw 100 days of bloodshed was “bi-directional” and argues against the narrative that suggests one group was largely targeted.

Through interviews with Rwandan Patriotic Front defectors, former soldiers and atrocity survivors and leaked documents from a UN Court, Rever determined that as the Hutus were carrying out genocide against the Tutsis, Rwandan President Paul Kagame and his forces were killing quietly, but just as ruthlessly.

Rever reports that the international community hasn’t recognized the truth because Kagame and his commanders have covered their tracks and rallied world guilt in an effort to gain financial assistance to rebuild Rwanda and maintain Tutsi influence. Rever has followed the story since 1997 and includes evidence showing Kagame’s own troops shot down the presidential plane on April 6, 1994.

The Boy on the Beach: My Family’s Escape from Syria and our Hope for a New Home

By Tima Kurdi

Publisher: Simon and Schuster

Price: $32

In 2015, Alan Kurdi’s body washed up on the shore of a beach in Turkey and shocked the world. Finally, the West began to pay attention to the Syrian refugee crisis.

Tima Kurdi, Alan’s aunt, saw the photo of her nephew while in her new home in Vancouver. In The Boy on the Beach, Kurdi tells the story of her family’s childhood in Syria and her experience of emigrating to Canada, the difficulty that comes with starting a new life and the anguish she felt leaving her home behind.

Kurdi also explains how she worked endlessly to help the family members she left behind to escape Syria and find safety. But separated by distance and a raging civil war, Kurdi’s family members faced many setbacks and, eventually, the ultimate tragedy. Kurdi found herself thrust into a new role, an advocate for refugees.

ISIS: A History

By Fawaz A. Gerges

Publisher: Princeton University Press

Price: $17.95

Fawaz A. Gerges explains how, amidst political unrest and instability in the Middle East, the Islamic State rose to power.

Gerges, a professor at the London School of Economics and a leading authority on jihadism, offers an informative and eye-opening account of the factors that fuelled and contributed to ISIS’s success and growth in the region. The book begins in 2003 following the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the chaos at that time that led to the group’s emergence. Gerges also explains how the group exceeded even Al-Qaeda in size.

ISIS claimed it wanted to create a caliphate and get rid of religious minorities in “Islamic lands,” and focused on enemies in the region, but later claimed responsibility for horrific attacks outside of the Middle East and around the world. Gerges explains how this tactical shift shows that ISIS became interested in targeting enemies both near and far.

City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp

By Ben Rawlence

Publisher: Picador   

Price: $17

While the Kenyan government has described the world’s largest refugee camp, Dadaab, which the African country houses, as a “nursery for terrorists,” it remains home for half a million residents.

Author Ben Rawlence tells the stories of nine individuals who live in the city, kilometres from any other civilization in the desert of northern Kenya.

Rawlence made trips to the camp over the course of four years and interviewed people who, desperate and in limbo, have had no choice but to seek safety there. The stories he shares help paint a picture of what life is like for refugees at this camp.

Radical Origins: Why We Are Losing the Battle Against Islamic Extremism and How to Turn the Tide

By Azeem Ibrahim

Publisher: Pegasus Books

Price: $15.89

Professor Azeem Ibrahim writes of the rise of radical ideology that bolsters ISIS and terror groups around the world. Ibrahim argues that the West has struggled to figure out how to deal with extremism and that the answer is not increased military action abroad or increased police presence at home. In fact, he says those methods do not address the cause of terrorism. Ibrahim writes that the cause is the extreme ideology of Wahhabhism, which is a reactionary, puritanical and xenophobic sect of Sunni Islam. The latter has been the foundation of Saudi Arabia since its rise in the 18th Century.

Ibrahim offers an informative and historical account of why this ideology is the origin of radical extremism and why the solution rests on changing geopolitics around Saudi Arabia.

This book is a primer on radicalism and jihadist history. It debunks misconceptions and tries to explain how to contain and stop radicalization.

Janice Dickson is a parliamentary
reporter with The Canadian Press.

and immigration for iPolitics.

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Janice Dickson is an Ottawa-based political reporter who covers foreign affairs and immigration for iPolitics.

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