Skip to content

Book Review: North Korea: State of Paranoia – Paul French

Ford, G. (2014). North Korea: State of Paranoia by Paul French, Asian Review of Books, 3 June.

Paul French’s North Korea is unusual in that it is both wide-ranging and yet has depth and detail. At the same time, French isn’t partisan and doesn’t take sides.

North Korea’s early economic successes made it richer than the South until the mid-1970s. The “Stalinist” model of industrial development focussing on coal and concrete, steel and rail was an initial success, but just as in the Soviet Union, the North Koreans lacked the flexibility to make the transition from heavy to light industry. North Korea had the people and skills but fear of disturbing the system’s stability stopped them being used: the country’s own version of the Needham paradox.

By the end of the 1980s and the collapse of the Soviet Empire—not that the North was a part—Pyongyang increasingly lacked the wherewithal to manage the transition even had it wanted. With an effective end to trade with Russia and China demanding payment in hard currency, the scene was set for an economic collapse. They didn’t have to wait long: disastrous floods precipitated a humanitarian disaster and hundreds of thousands if not millions slowly starved.

It has taken almost twenty years to see serious evidence of recovery. A very different economy is growing from the remnants of the collapse. The recovery is uneven both geographically, with the privileging of Pyongyang, and individually with the Gini coefficient spiralling upwards year on year towards that of China, yet still well short of U.S. figures.

Here French tracks the North’s path from Liberation from Japanese colonialism, Cold War division and civil war through economic boom to bust, all within an ideological framework forced to evolve under the tensions of Sino-Soviet rivalry. The result was that “free will”—juche—replaced economic determinism, red trumpeted expert and revolutionary will power was made a surrogate for lack of resources.

The North performed miracles, but not the impossible. As early as 1976, the South’s military spending was twice that of the North. The Seoul-Pyongyang gap has widened each year since, explaining—if not excusing—the North’s nuclear turn in the 1980s and as French quotes a journalist:

The real issue isn’t whether Kim is crazy enough to amass a nuclear arsenal but whether he is crazy enough to dispossess himself of his one bargaining chip.

The quote referred to Kim Jung Il rather than Kim Jung Un, but the fate of Gaddafi’s Libya can only have reinforced its inexorable logic. North Korea has since 1950 operated an economy of  War communism, which generates warrior leadership in form, if not substance.

State of Paranoia is encyclopaedic in its knowledge of the North, whether it’s the preferred makes of bicycle—Sea Gull and Songchanggang—and the fact that smoking while driving is not banned on grounds of health or safety but rather because the smell might distract from the driver failing to notice problems with engine and gearbox, or Enver Hoxha’s Albanians describing the North as an “unbelievably closed society” and Kim Il Sung’s simultaneously replaying the moves in Vietnam’s Civil War on the Peninsula. North Korean pilots in MiGs fought dog-fights with American pilots in the skies above North Vietnam while in South Korea the Revolutionary Party for Reunification (RPR) after 1967 tried to build the North’s clandestine support base. As recently as 1999, some of the RPR’s militants were released from South Korean prisons after being held, often incommunicado, for thirty years and more.

Like all good books, it leaves one wanting more. The reference to (the erstwhile leader of the abortive Sinuiju Special Economic Zone) Yang Bing’s links with Bo Xilai are intriguing in the light of subsequent events in China, while passages on North’s Lysenkoist Agricultural practices leads one to wonder whether in the North they continued to live on after Lysenkoism was purged from Moscow’s ideological cannon in 1962. (However, the associated claim that land reform led 5 million “major” landowners being allowed to flee to the South or overseas is both mathematically and politically implausible.)  

Unfortunately, North Korea: State of Paranoia is an only lightly updated version of the 2005 volume, entitled (with some geographical license) North Korea: The Paranoid PeninsulaWhole pages and paragraphs are unchanged while amongst the 350 references, only two are post-January 2004. The publisher has done the author, rightly well-acclaimed for his 2012 Midnight in Peking, a disservice. It would have been better to re-publish the original version of what is one of the few seminal books on North Korea with a new preface and long concluding chapter bringing the whole the country into today’s time.

The absence of mobile phones, credit cards and advertising all reported by French is no more. There is now even a North Korean “iPad”, the Samjiyon SA-70, preloaded as indispensable with Kim Il Sung’s Works in the same way as Apple makes the “Stocks” App unremovable from its iPhone, while on Mansudae Hill a new statute of Kim Il Sung has Kim Jung Il accompanying him alongside.

Both books—old and new—lead with the North’s persecution complex: however, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you!