The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future

impossible-stateThe Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future by Victor Cha
Published by Vintage in 2013

The Impossible State is an examination of North Korea and whether it will ever change. In the wake of the Arab Spring and the popular uprisings against authoritarian regimes across the Middle East and North Africa, Victor Cha wonders if this might happen to the Kim dynasty of North Korea.

To do this, Cha looks at the establishment and construction of the North Korean state. It is a country with thousands of years of history and much experience of invasion and occupation. After the second World War the Koreas were split and two separate countries were created. The book gives the history of the Kim family and how Kim Il Sung came to be installed as the leader of North Korea, looking at his personal qualities, his experience and his relationships with the Chinese and Russian governments.

North Korea in relation to South Korea is interesting. For several decades, North Korea was richer and more advanced than South Korea. This was partly to do with financial support from China and Russia but also partly to do with chaos and mismanagement in the South. What’s worth noting is that the current situation wasn’t inevitable. Cha was foreign policy advisor to several US presidents and is well placed to understand North Korea and its place in the international system. It wasn’t always as isolated as it is now, with even China’s support hesitant and reluctant.

Much of the book is focused on North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and the motivations behind it. Cha credibly argues that there is no way that North Korea will willingly stop developing nuclear weapons. It is the only leverage they have and the last twenty years have seen it work pretty well. They saw Qaddafi give up his nuclear enrichment programme only to be invaded by the US and the North Korean regime has a strong incentive to maintain its own development.

And finally, will there ever be a popular uprising? Cha thinks it’s unlikely. The control the Kim family has over the population and the way the cultural narrative has been manipulated has resulted in a people that have very little access to the outside world. Popular uprisings depend on the belief that life could be better, because it is seen to be better elsewhere. The North Koreans don’t have that belief. They have been told that life is much worse outside their own country and denied access to any information that might suggest otherwise.

This is a fascinating book. I haven’t read anything about North Korea before and much of this was new to me. I can’t tell you if there are better books out there, but if you want to know how North Korea became the impossible place it is now, then this is a good place to start. It’s a dense book with a lot of erudition but Cha’s writing style is light and pacy, so it never feels as heavy as it actually is. A surprisingly easy read and I enjoyed it.


Shake Hands with the Devil

shake-hands-with-the-devilShake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda by Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire
Published by Random House in 2003

I went to Rwanda last year on a work trip and it inspired me to learn more about the genocide in 1994. I visited the excellent Genocide Memorial and bought several books.

Shake Hands with the Devil is the memoir of the force commander of the UN mission to Rwanda. It starts slowly, with some time spent on Lt. Gen. Dallaire’s career and experience, but by the end of the book it is clear why this needs to be covered in such detail.

This is a book about the actions of the international community in response to the crisis, or, more precisely, the lack of action. As Dallaire describes his experiences in Rwanda and with the UN it becomes clear that there was a lot going on that he was not aware of until far too late. The politics surrounding the genocide – the relationships the Rwandan government forces and the Rwandan Patriotic Front had with France, the US, and other western countries independent of the UN, the domestic situations in those countries and the public tolerance for another foreign intervention, the under-resourcing of the UN – contributed to something truly terrible. Shake Hands with the Devil doesn’t exonerate the Rwandans who made this happen and the choices both sides made, but he does make clear how the structural, systemic issues in international relations supported and exacerbated those choices.

There is a tragic honesty in this memoir: Dallaire comes across as a man well and truly out of his depth. He lauds and celebrates the officers and soldiers assigned to the mission but doesn’t hide his own failings. Indeed, the early pages spent exploring his own experience serve to show how his lack of real conflict experience hampered him as well as demonstrating the abilities that qualified him for the role.

Shake Hands with the Devil is an eye-opening read. The exposure of the way the UN has to operate, and what that means for people it is supposed to help, is damning.


sapiensSapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
Published 2011

Sapiens: A brief history of humankind is a very interesting book that challenges a lot of received wisdom about humans – what we are, why we do what we do, how we got to this point in history. Harari is a historian but this isn’t the history of a specific set of humans in a particular time and place. It takes the bigger picture view of anthropology and merges it with the storytelling of history. It’s a big, 500 page book covering some complex topics, yet it remains an easy read. I found it thought-provoking, amusing in places, and some of Harari’s theories are extremely plausible.

There was something horrifying and depressing about it though. As a species, homo sapiens sucks. We destroy everything we come into contact with and spend our time working out ways to do that even more efficiently. It didn’t leave me with much hope that homo sapiens can change.

Despite that, this is a fascinating book and I’d recommend it to everyone.

Ancient Traces: Mysteries in Ancient and Early History

ancient tracesThis is another one of those books that wasn’t what I thought it was. I’ve had it on my shelf for a while. I thought it was an archaeology book about early humans. It sort of is, but mostly Ancient Traces by Michael Baigent is a conspiracy theory book.

The central premise is that evidence exists that suggests that humans evolved much earlier than is generally believed and didn’t evolve from apes. The academic establishment has systematically suppressed any evidence that doesn’t support the current dominant paradigm.

Baigent presents a number of related ideas: humans evolved much earlier than thought; we co-existed with dinosaurs; dinosaurs still exist in remote areas of the world; humans evolved from a sea creature rather than from apes.

I’m not sure how much I believe but I hadn’t heard many of these stories/theories before and it is all very entertaining. Baigent style does verge on the hysterical when talking about how evidence has been suppressed but otherwise it’s pretty readable. The ideas in the book are thought-provoking if not well-supported. It was fun.

Medieval Lives

medieval lives I read a lot of fantasy fiction (amongst other things) and write some too. Fantasy worlds are overwhelmingly based on medieval European societies and the genre does come in for criticism for its lack of diversity. I love to read fantasy with other sources of inspiration. And I love really good medieval Europe style fantasy, not least because I love that period of history.

Medieval Lives by Terry Jones and Alan Ereira is the book of the BBC television series. Each chapter gives a snapshot of what a person’s life might have been like based on the role they had: peasant, minstrel, outlaw, monk, philosopher, knight, damsel and king. The format enables the authors to draw distinctions about how position and wealth affected peoples lives. There’s a conscious effort to do some myth-busting and include some surprising facts.

I especially enjoyed the chapters on damsels and knights. The one on damsels makes the point that women’s status in society is not a straight line of progress and that medieval women probably had more equality than Victorian women. There’s a fun bit about women arranging their own abductions in a effort to game the system. The chapter on knights discusses the concept of chivalry as a attempt to control the extreme violence of what were basically warlords.

It’s all very entertaining. As it’s the book of the TV series it’s understandably lightweight. That makes it accessible and it’s ideal as an introduction to the subject matter. I was left wanting to read more in-depth books that I could really get my teeth into and I think that’s a good thing.

The Borgias and their Enemies 1431-1519

borgias I’ve been watching the series The Borgias and enjoying it enough to want to find out more about the actual Borgias. Because, you know, TV tends not to be terribly historically accurate and I was curious to know what it was all based on.

There’s not a lot out there, unless you want to pay thirty quid for something very academic. Christopher Hibbert’s book had good reviews so I chose that. It covers a large period of history and is a relatively short book, so it is necessarily superficial.

It covers the election of Rodrigo Borgia to Pope and gives some interesting background on the state of the papacy in the fifteenth century. We tend to forget just how corrupt the system was, just how tied into the political power-broking of the time. There’s a section about Cesare and his military exploits. And finally something about Lucrezia. It focuses quite heavily on her ability to rule and the fact that Rodrigo often entrusted the running of the Vatican to her rather than any of the Cardinals.

It was interesting and a very easy read. Certainly, a decent place to start. It wasn’t quite what I was looking for though. I think I wanted something that took apart all the juicy, salacious rumours about the Borgias and separated fact from fiction. I think I was also looking for something more in depth about the personalities involved. I guess I might have to shell out for one of those more academic books after all.

A Great and Terrible King

I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction lately. Sometimes I don’t notice until I write my reviews. A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain by Marc Morris is an historical biography of Edward I, king of England 1272 – 1307.

Historical biographies are as much about the social and political landscape of the times as they are about the person at the centre of the story. Which is why I will read historical biographies but have very little patience with contemporary ones. But give me a bit of medieval history and I’m happy.

Given that Edward didn’t become King until he was thirty-three and the book starts with his birth, it also covers the second half of his father’s reign. Henry III, by contrast, came to the throne at the age of nine. The two men were of very different character, which provides a nice ‘compare and contrast’ element to the story.

What comes across was that Edward I was an effective king. Many of the things he did were questionable by modern standards, such as his treatment of the Jews or of the conquered Welsh, but he wouldn’t have been judged as harshly by his contemporaries. There is some interesting discussion on the changes in the moral climate and I liked that Morris didn’t excuse or gloss over anything while at the same time put his actions in context. It’s a fine line to walk.

The book also highlights how hard it is to judge an entire life. Edward I did more than any other medieval English king to create the modern kingdoms that form Britain. And we still live with the legacy of that today. He was an action-hero figure of a king, constantly on the move and almost permanently at war.  His expertise at diplomacy was a bit patchier; sometimes he seemed to have a golden touch and at others everything went to pieces.

There is much more to Edward I than being the villain of Braveheart. This was a fascinating read, I learnt a lot, and I really enjoyed it.

Shadows of the Workhouse

The book for Book Club in March is Shadows of the Workhouse by Jennifer Worth, who also wrote Call The Midwife, now a BBC series. I know something about workhouses and the conditions that inmates experienced, the values that inspired them and some of the reasons why they didn’t work. I was interested in reading this but I didn’t pay too much attention beyond the title and I think this is another example where my expectations didn’t align with what the book is.

The first three chapters tell the stories of three people who grew up in workhouses, their experiences there and how it affected the rest of their lives. Then there is the story of the kleptomaniac nun . And lastly the long story of a lonely old man whom the author was friends with and who ended his days in a home in a building that used to be a workhouse.

While Jennifer Worth does give some background into the establishment of workhouses, which was very interesting, this is not a book that will tell you anything about the structure of a society that brought these places into being. Neither does it examine the legacy that the workhouse has left us, except in the most personal sense. Worth touches on the values and attitudes that create beliefs that the poor must be punished, that being destitute must be so awful that it inspires people to better themselves, that ending up in a workhouse is a failure of character. This is fascinating for me and I can see echoes of those beliefs in contemporary attitudes towards people on benefits, but this is not explored. It’s not an intellectual book.

What it is, is memoir. I’m not a fan of memoir or biography; I find that focussing on an individual’s story loses sight of the bigger picture and to me that’s more interesting. But besides being memoir, this is a version of misery-lit. The pain is not the author’s own but it is presented in the same gratuitous way. I have a wide contrarian streak and I resent being told what to feel in such a heavy-handed way. The stories that Worth tells are tragic. She tells them in a way that I find sentimental. We are supposed to be shocked and appalled and to see the perpetrators as evil. For me, sentiment is the enemy of compassion; it romanticizes tragedy and removes the call to action. Instead, the reader is invited to feel self-satisfied and righteous.

One other thing that I found unsettling was the lack of any mention of where these stories had come from. Worth lived with the people she writes about and it is her memory of what happened and who they were. But in some instances she recounts events that happen to the person at an age where memory would not have been formed, so I suspect the stories came from somewhere else. Where? Without an understanding of the context in which these stories were relayed to the author, and given the fact that she is writing fifty years on from the period the book covers, I find it hard to know what is fact and what is interpretation. Maybe it doesn’t matter, as this is memoir and is one person’s perception, but for me it lacks seriousness. Perhaps that’s my intellectual snobbery showing. On the plus side, I am rather motivated to learn more about the legacy of the workhouse. Unless your bookshelves are filled with misery-porn I’d give this a miss.