This new book on North Korea is extraordinary. Since the late 1990s the influx of analytical and documentary literature on North Korea can be broadly divided into two categories: those that exhibit the terrors of life in North Korea, and the rest that speculate on what is wrong with North Korea. Felix Abt, a Swiss entrepreneur who lived and worked in the last communist Hermit Kingdom for seven years, attempts to depict life in North Korea as “normal” despite overwhelming ideological pressure from within and the harsh treatment from foreign powers. To date, only a handful of famed historians, such as Bruce Cumings and Gavan McCormack, have succeeded in showing North Korea from such an unusual angle.
As a business entrepreneur, Felix Abt prefers to remain apolitical and impartial when sharing his thoughts and memories of the seven-year sojourn. His writing exhibits his love for Korea and genuine concern for its people. In his assessments of North Korea’s past and present, the author approaches all issues from a human (and humanistic) perspective, attempting to present life in the country sans political or ideological colouring. But documenting everyday life in the DPRK “as it is” is often inherently counterproductive to the goal of presenting North Korea as “normal” or even on the road to normality. Snapshots of life in North Korea, more often than not, exhibit the miserable lives of the common people alongside the growing wealth of the privileged and trusted groups in the capital, Pyongyang.
The book strives to assure Western venture capitalists that North Korea is a land of untapped opportunities for diligent and sympathetic investors, but instead it seems to be more of a collection of horror stories about business failures and bankruptcies. Another important theme in the book is “how seclusion has shaped the attitudes of a people”, and “how war-mongering international politics are discerning for businesses”. Yet ultimately, it does not really matter whether the reason for the excessively high risk business environment is due to domestic contempt for capitalism or because of international sanctions. The reader is left with the impression that North Korea remains a black hole for foreign direct investment, just like it was under Kim Jong-Il or Kim Il-Sung.
Felix Abt addresses the main and most intriguing question in the book, “can North Korea ever change?” by declaring that the process has already begun and is unstoppable. He calls it a “reform” and believes that the young North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Un, will bring about “new winds of change”. Kim has apparently “set out to reform one of the world’s last five communist countries” and “curbed the power of the military, surrounding himself with top-level civilian cadres who support the idea of glasnost for the country”. Unfortunately however, this statement is hardly substantiated by any solid evidence.
Nothing in the book in fact proves that a substantial reform is underway. Packed restaurants, busy saunas and abundant food on the tables do not attest to an improved lifestyle for the population. People with money live and eat well everywhere, even in communist dictatorships. New stylish clothes, DHL vans or mobile phones do not fundamentally change a country in which information is censored, mobility restricted, and dissidents executed. New blocks of apartments, supermarkets and imported cars are merely signs of growth, and do not necessarily indicate real improvements in citizen livelihood.
We cannot expect a reform to be initiated by the communist dynasty, which singlehandedly rules half of a divided country, the other side of which is now free, prosperous and democratic. If the Pyongyang regime were serious about economic and social reform, and finishing the Korean War, recognition of the Republic of Korea (South Korea) would be the first step in making reform plausible. Yet this is impossible so as long as the Kim family is in power in the DPRK. A reformed North will sooner or later merge with the more advanced South, where there will be no place for the revolutionary dynasty of the Kims and their idiosyncratic ideologies. Everything else is a mere imitation of reform; a cosmetic change designed to maintain the painful status quo.
Nevertheless, Felix Abt’s new book, “A Capitalist in North Korea”, is a precious account of a long-term resident of the Hermit Kingdom. Some readers may disagree with author’s conclusions but everyone will find the content of this book fascinating. The book is destined to serve several generations of readers. These days, occasional travellers and business entrepreneurs will benefit from it but, as time passes by, economists, sociologists and historians will study this book as a rare perspective on the tragic episode of the Cold War in East Asia.