If I was offered a choice of two weeks in a caravan in Mablethorpe or an all expenses paid fortnight in Pyongyang it would be a hard choice, but for a tiny group of British communists Mablethorpe would face instant rejection. Surprisingly, even now, the intellectual descendants of those who checked out the weather report on Radio Moscow, pored over tractor production statistics in Ukraine, took the side of China in the Sino-Soviet split, struggled with the pronunciation of Enver Hoxha when it was time to move on to Albania believe that North Korea, run by a hereditary dictatorship, is a socialist paradise. Even after Kim Jong-un offed his uncle that’s OK by them. The number of such people – followers of the “Juche” theorie of Jong-un’s granddad – is tiny, but a lesson to us all in showing why we should avoid hitching our wagon to some foreign state about which, really, we know nothing.
Anyone reading Paul French’s book on North Korea must surely despair that anything good can come out of this. He analyses the history of the regime, its changing fortunes (prior to mass starvation, it was actually doing quite nicely), its armaments, economics, the possibilities of reform and its relationship with the outside world. The three countries that matter to it are, of course, South Korea, China and America. The big issue is nuclear. Feeling constantly under threat, and in need of a bargaining chip, North Korea has armed itself to the teeth. Most countries do, but perhaps the lesson of Iraq is that such rogue states feel that they do need weapons of mass destruction to protect themselves. Or is the nuclear option simply a bargaining chip to ensure that the hateful West continues to bail out the country by giving aid?
Paul French tells us all that we need to know about North Korea, but one line stands out: according to the Seoul government North Korea (or more correctly the Democratic Republic of People’s Korea) need only reduce their arms spend by 5% to resolve the country’s food crisis.