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.