Book Review: Sandra Fahy’s Marching Through Suffering: Loss & Survival in North Korea

Writing in the The New York Times, former North Korean counter-intelligence officer and poet Jang Jin-sung observed that his decision to flee the DPRK was precipitated by a realization “that there are two North Koreas: one real and the other a fiction created by the regime.” It was only upon arrival in South Korea that Jang “recognized the existence of a third North Korea: a theoretical one. This is the North Korea constructed by the outside world, a piecemeal analysis of the regime and its propaganda that misses the political and economic realities of the country.”

One of the peculiarities of North Korean studies is that only recently have North Korean voices themselves appeared anywhere near the centre of discourse in the discipline. The fate of Koreans writing and speaking about their homeland has largely mirrored that of early migrants from the Soviet Union, their testimony deemed marginal or unreliable, fit only to be interpreted through external voices of authority, mostly those who had never set foot on Soviet territory, except on state-sanctioned study-tours. The recent death of Robert Conquest, and mainstream rediscovery of his writings about Stalin, offered a salutary reminder of such folly. One of the first Western historians to take seriously oral accounts of lived experience in the USSR, Conquest was dismissed as overly credulous of defector voices by his scholarly peers, yet lived long enough to be vindicated in his assessment of the vast scope of terror and state induced famine under Stalin.

North Korean studies may not have learned the lessons of history…

Read the rest over at Sino-NK, along with contributions from my colleagues.


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