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About the Authors:
Kongdan Oh, a Korean American, is a research staff member at the Institute for Defense Analyses, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and editor of the Asia Society's Korea Briefing, 1997-1999 (M. E. Sharpe and the Asia Society, 2000).
Ralph C. Hassig, a social psychologist, is a Washington-based consultant on Korean affairs and an adjunct associate professor of psychology at the University of Maryland University College.
Posted November 21, 2002
Interest in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea has increased since President Bush included the nation with Iran and Iraq as an "Axis of Evil" state. Further interest was generated in October of 2002, when the North Korean government confirmed that it possesses a nuclear weapons program. I, along with many Americans, are now seeking information about this mysterious hermit nation. I chose Kongdan Oh's "North Korea: Through the Looking Glass" because it seemed to be a non-technical overview of North Korean society, economics, and politics. The blurbs on the back cover described the book as providing "genuine insight" gleaned from "painstaking research." Unfortunately, the book did not live up to its promise. One finds oneself wishing that the authors would share with the reader all of the interesting data that they discovered in researching the book. Instead, all we get are general statements about the corruption and ineptitude of the North Korean government. This could have been a much better book if the authors had elected to paint a more vivid picture by including more detail. Here's an example: on page 66 the authors make the following statement: "North Korean government and party officials also engage in many illicit activities such as counterfeiting, production of illicit drugs, and smuggling (especially conducted by the DPRK's foreign diplomatic corps). " There is no elaboration on this provocative declaration. The citation for this statement is an article by David Kaplan et al. in US News & World Report, dated February 15, 1999. I looked up the article and found it to be fascinating. The US News piece states that North Korean counterfeit "$100 bills ... are cranked out on a $10 million intaglio press similar to those employed by the US Bureau of Engraving and Printing, officials say. North Korean defectors claim the notes come from a high-security plant in Pyongyang. Kim Jeong Min, a former top North Korean intelligence official, told US News that he had been ordered to find paper used to print US currency but couldn't. 'Instead. I obtained many $1 notes and bleached the ink out of them,' he says." You can see how the authors water down the source material to a bland presentation of generalities. It as if the authors went to the same writer's school as the North Korean propagandists, from whom they endlessly and boringly quote. I was also annoyed by the repeated jabs at the North Korean government. Readers should be allowed to come to their own conclusions about the foolishness of the North Korean dictator, rather than be pelted with parenthetical inserts about the ineptitude of the leadership. An example: "The most pressing economic problem is the food shortage. The apparent (but wrong) solution to the problem is to try to achieve economic self-sufficiency... " This style gets irritating very quickly. Sometimes, the writing becomes downright inane. An example from chapter 8: "North Korea is half a world away in the part of the globe less familiar to Americans -- Asia rather than Europe." I was interested in examining the 29 photographs that occupy the center of the book. Unfortunately, they all appear to be government-approved. For instance, there are several sterile photos of peoples' backs as they stand still looking at statues exalting communism. Of course, the lifelessness of theses photos probably does reflect the Zeitgeist of this unfortunate country. But I wish the photographs could have provided more insight into the difficulty of daily life in North Korea. Despite the flaws in the book, the subject is of such intrinsic interest that I kept reading. My persistence was rewarded at the end of the book, where the authors discuss policy options in dealing with North Korea. This section was well- reasoned and shows that the authors do indeed knWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.