The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is a mystery to most Westerners. The “Hermit Kingdom” has been closed off since the 1950’s and is protected by the most heavily fortified border on the planet. The DPRK, formerly backed by the USSR, is the last hold-out of the Cold War era. How did it all begin? What’s this about nuclear testing? Who is this Kim Jeong-eun character who looks like a Korean version of Eric Cartman? For those seeking an answer to those questions and more, Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty by Bradley K. Martin offers unparalleled detail and in-depth analysis of one of the most secretive states in history.
I graduated from Augsburg College in 2008, a double major in history and English. After putzing about, a gig in the Peace Corps and a stint as a barista at a Barnes & Noble Starbucks in suburban Phoenix, I currently find myself in Andong, South Korea.
I moved here in August of 2010 and have taught high school and middle school ESL. Aside from my nine-to-five as a teacher and the trappings that go along with living day-to-day, I spend a lot of time reading books and articles about the Korean War and our neighbor to the north in general, the DPRK in particular. I have visited the DMZ twice, made numerous trips to Busan (Pusan) where my grandpa was stationed as a young serviceman and have spoken to South Korean veterans. As a budding history major during my sophomore year, I focused predominantly on the Cold War; one of the most exciting things about living here is that it is pretty much the last place on earth wherein the Cold War rages on, raging like a glacier, a slow, slow glacier.
In order to gain better understanding, to enhance my “historical imagination” and to figure how all this comes together, I picked up the daunting tome, Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty by Bradley K. Martin, published in 2004 (and as an ebook in 2011). Firstly, I’d like to address the experience of actually reading this book.
Stylistically speaking, Martin is, first and foremost, a journalist and his prose is rich and entertaining. He delicately balances objective journalism, such as relating interviews with N. Korean defectors, strict history, such as the downfall of Japan’s imperial claim over the Korean Peninsula, the rise of Kim Il-sung as a guerrilla fighter backed by the U.S.S.R. and the succession of his son, Kim Jeong-il, and Martin’s personal testimony, having visited the Hermit Kingdom on numerous occasions as a journalist.
I’m glad I read this book as an ebook (the paperback comes in at 896 pages) and I would make a strong case to anyone who engages this book do so with the help of a Kindle, Nook, Kobo or iPad. Time to come clean: I started this book in October of 2011, almost a year and a half ago, though I read the last half in four days. That said, there are portions that are dry and hard to get through. This book includes a lot of history, detail and testimony, and a lot of it can seem redundant, arriving at a singular point from a variety of angles and points of view. Wading through those portions, especially in the beginning, during the recounting of Kim Il-sung’s rise to power, and the relative affluence of the North as compared to the rural and under-industrialized South up until the 1960’s, was slow goings. It took me damn near a year and a half to get through that, though that period was never my primary interest. Where I started gunning my engines was right about the time of the 1976 axe murder inside the DMZ. As far as my interest was concerned, this was when North Korea became the North Korea near which I now coexist.
Kim Jeong-il has been the leader of North Korea since 1994, when his father died. I was 9 years old. December 17, 2011, I was sitting at my desk in rural South Korea when news came in that Kim had died and that the heir-apparent, Kim Jeong-eun, would take the reigns of the failing state. I read this book looking for clues, like a 900 page Ouija board to put some kind of context to where I live and how safe I should really feel.
Going into a detailed list of all the things I learned seems inappropriate for the purpose of this review. More importantly, I finished the book with a peace of mind and an insight into the options that Kim Jeong-il left his son. Nuclear tests and rocket launches are gambits of a scared princeling, instructions, no doubt, left by his father, a man-child lost in the darkest recesses of Neverland wishing his father had left him some road map other than the tired rhetoric of total victory and absolute destruction. For the last two and a half years, I have wondered when, not if, the bomb would drop. I have lived here for the 2011 shelling of a small island off the western coast (Yeonpyeong), the death of Dear Leader, the assent of Kim Jeong-eun and two rocket launch attempts (one successful). On February 12, 2013, the DPRK tested its third nuclear bomb since the creation of the state. I was sitting in a cafe in downtown Andong, looking out the window. People were walking around outside, shopping; people were busy eating ice cream and pizza at Baskin & Robbins and Pizza Hut; people were going about their lives; they knew there was no danger. All along, the people of South Korea have known many things I could never have understood, a place in time, a context and a condition. But this book brought me a little closer to that truth.
Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader is not for the reader with a casual interest in North Korea (in that case check out Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick). I’m not sure I would even recommend this book to a new arrival in South Korea. But for those who plan on living here a while and for those with an interest in the Cold War, and how the Korean Peninsula has yet to thaw, this book is for you.
Pages: 896 FOA Pages: 14,026