North Korea Confidential : Private Markets, Fashion Trends, Prison Camps, Dissenters and Defectors (2015) by Daniel Tudor and James Pearson provides a fascinating look into the strange and changing world of North Korea. The authors have based their work around talking to defectors and trying to make sure that every store has 3 or more sources.
The book puts forward the idea that since the famine of the 1990s North Korea has changed substantially so that the black market has become critical, modern electronics have greatly altered the way North Koreans see the world and that there are alternative power structures in North Korea, in particular the Organization and Guidance Department rather than just the authority of the dictator and their family. The importance of this department seems to be contested, the authors believe it to be very powerful and quite independent, others disagree.
Tudor and Pearson provide a fascinating picture of a land that isn’t just full of starving brainwashed people and that is instead full of deeply disillusioned people who have to trade to get by and understand that their state is terrible. Even people in the regime are aware that the Juche theory has failed even if they wish to keep their own privileged position.
While things are changing the prisons of North Korea are still maintained and have truly horrible practices. The political prisons, while smaller than in the past are still fearsome places of torture. However, with the lighter level prisons bribery has become such a big factor in daily life in North Korea that people can often avoid the worst of these prisons.
Technology, in particular USB sticks with South Korean TV shows and music and mobile phones are greatly changing Korea. The regime cannot control what people see and people are becoming more and more aware of the outside world.
The authors also ponder the future of North Korea and wonder if the state will collapse, will start a war or will continue on as is or may perhaps include recognition of internal markets and a gradual legalisation of them. The authors think the latter two are the most likely outcomes.
The book provides a fascinating look at one of the world’s last remaining Marxist inspired states and how it actually is. It’s not as sensational as accounts of escaping political prison camps but is probably more reliable and is definitely fascinating.