March 2, 2010

Books about North Korea — even comic books — tell an increasingly consistent, and worrisome, tale


A North Korean comic book, showing

Samples from the North Korean comic book "Blizzard in the Jungle," about a group of North Koreans and Americans stranded in Africa after a plane crash, showing the Americans being devoured by alligators after complaining about human rights violations.

Are we finally starting to figure out North Korea? A raft of new books seems to say so. Just a couple of weeks ago we noted — in this reportChristopher Hitchens‘ discussion of reportage about North Korea, in particular the Melville House book The Cleanest Race by B.R. Myers, which Hitchens called “brilliantly written” and “shattering.” Now, a Washington Post review, and an full page review in The Economist, concur: The Post notes the book’s “spirited, even angry” prose, and says it “brilliantly” shows how “dictatorships also wield powerful myths.” The Economist says, in thinking negotiations with North Korea can accomplish anything, the book “shows just how wishful such thinking is.”

Now, a new report on by Geoffrey Cain only emphasizes that. Cain talks with Heinz Insu Fenkl, a literature professor at the State University of New York (SUNY) at New Paltz, about literature coming directly out of North Korea itself, in the form of comic books:

The plots are often wacky, usually pinning blame on loud-mouthed Americans and opportunist Japanese for cursing their promised land with vice. Most books are leaked to China through the border town of Dandong — a hub of smuggling in North Korean goods. Others end up in a single shop in Tokyo that specializes in hermit-state memorabilia. Still, others mysteriously make their way to university libraries in the U.S.

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.