The Corner

North Korea and Light in the Dark

Linda Chavez is writing a novel on North Korea, exposing the horror of living in under its hellish tyranny. She recently gave us a preview of what an ugly sight it is in a piece of short fiction. As the world focuses on North Korea a little with the death of Kim Jong Il and the nuclear and other uncertainly that it brings, I chatted with Linda about the life she has become all too acquainted with and why we cannot look away.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What’s with the sobbing on state TV? The BBC finding overwrought North Korean women in the streets?

LINDA CHAVEZ: When Kim Il Sung died in 1994, mourners filled the streets and there were even reports of people fainting — and dying — from grief. Though it is difficult to know how much of this is simple agitprop perpetrated by the regime, some of the sorrow for Kim Il Sung was probably genuine, and the same may be true now for Kim Jong Il. Every child is taught to love the Dear Leader (and his father, the Great Leader) as a paternal figure. Indeed, there is a song that children learn in infancy that says that the Leader loves them more than their own parents. Every home is adorned with photographs of the two Kims, smiling as beneficently as any father. And because North Koreans are so totally isolated from the world, many of them no doubt believe the orchestrated myths that they’ve been indoctrinated with since childhood.

LOPEZ: How will you remember Kim Jong Il?

CHAVEZ: Kim Jong Il will go down in history as a mass murderer, whose policies following the collapse of the Soviet Union (which propped up the regime for decades) led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands — as many as a million out of a population of roughly 22 million — from starvation. He was also a bit of a buffoon, who fancied himself an artist (especially as a filmmaker) and who lived a decadent lifestyle while his people were left to strip the bark of trees for nourishment. He was a tyrant with few contemporary equals in the 21st century who enslaved his people. The gulag he maintained still contains an estimated quarter million North Koreans — with each prisoner accompanied by his children and parents in order to fulfill the Great Leader’s dictum: “Factionalists or class enemies, whoever they are — their seed must be eliminated through three generations.”

LOPEZ: How well have you gotten to know Kim Jong Un?

CHAVEZ: We know almost nothing about him, other than that his father apparently favored his youngest son over two older sons who might have been seen as first in line. He was schooled in Switzerland, likes American basketball and fancy footwear. He is clearly a figurehead for the moment and the next few months bear close watching.

LOPEZ: What’s more important, the nukes or the human-rights violations?

CHAVEZ: Clearly the nukes present a huge challenge to everyone. The DPRK is an arms merchant to some of the nastiest groups in the world, and the ability to sell nuclear technology, not just to regimes like Iran but to put it in the hands of terrorist groups, presents a major threat to peace. But the human-rights violations should also be a concern. It is by means of the most totalitarian state extant that North Korea is able to pursue its military aims over the needs of its people. Because of the threat of slow death in the Korean Gulag, there is no hope of an Arab Spring or any popular uprising in the DPRK.

LOPEZ: How bad is North Korea to its people?

CHAVEZ: There is no regime in the world today that is worse to its people than the DPRK. It is almost beyond fathoming to the Western mind to understand the total control over every man, woman, and child that occurs in this totalitarian state. Every aspect of life — food, clothing, housing, marriage, sex, work, entertainment, child-rearing — is controlled. North Korea is George Orwell’s Oceania (1984) in real time.

LOPEZ: Do we need to care? And what does “caring” mean? What can we do?

CHAVEZ: Yes, North Korea is as pressing a threat to us as Iran (if not more so). The nuclear weapons they possess — and increasingly powerful delivery systems — pose a direct threat to our allies. What’s more, the irrational nature of the regime has seen them launch numerous attacks on South Korea and could even jeopardize our troops on the DMZ. But the ability to do much is difficult. Our greatest leverage is with China, which has replaced the defunct Soviet Union as the major source of aid to the DPRK. China is very concerned with being overrun with refugees should the regime collapse. But they have done nothing to try to ease North Korea into the future. Perhaps the change in leadership in the DPRK will give them the opportunity to do so. But they, too, like to use North Korea as a lever against the U.S. The nuclear threat posed by the DPRK is part of the arsenal of pressure points against the U.S. that China wants to maintain.

LOPEZ: How much of a threat is the “what comes next?” question to the average South Korean?

CHAVEZ: The threat is real. In the last few years alone, we’ve seen several episodes of attacks on South Korean soldiers and civilians by the DPRK. Seoul has to be very concerned right now about what comes next and whether it will mean an even more bellicose neighbor.

LOPEZ: What were the mistakes of 1994 and how does this administration avoid them?

CHAVEZ: I’m not sure this administration is in any position to avoid the mistakes of 1994. The Clinton administration offered carrots, namely help in constructing light-water nuclear reactors in exchange for inspections by U.N. bodies and a North Korean promise not to continue its nuclear arms program, but with no stick. And, they sent Jimmy Carter to negotiate (even though they claimed at the time the former president was on a private mission), a man who has history of urging caving in to America’s enemies. It is impossible to negotiate any agreement with a regime that has no stake in honoring its commitments. Again, China is our best lever, not direct talks with the North Koreans.

LOPEZ: What made you uproot your life a bit, go back to school, and get into novel writing? 

#more#CHAVEZ: My first love has always been literature. I want to write fiction that grapples with serious moral and political themes. I think the Left has been much better at focusing on the popular culture. I would like to see more conservatives engaged in trying to influence culture, both high and popular.

LOPEZ: Why did you need to go back to school for that?

CHAVEZ: I think I have a lot to learn about the craft of fiction. Learning how to create characters with real depth (not stick figures that mouth political platitudes), to write dialogue that is believable, to fashion a plot with the proper dramatic arc are all tasks that take time and benefit from the critique of fellow students and professors. George Mason University has a fine faculty — and I’ve found the course work enriching. I’ve had to reread many great authors (Hemingway, Dos Passos, Chekov, Malamud, Bellow, Woolf, Kafka, Solzhenitsyn) and to study Greek drama and reread Aristotle’s Poetics, none of which I was likely to do on my own.

LOPEZ: What will we see and who will we meet when your novel is published?

CHAVEZ: You’ll meet a North Korean family, the Koh family, whose saga begins during the Korean War. I follow the family across three generations and into present-day North Korea. The main antagonist Du-ho is a security agent, who betrays his family in order to protect himself. His wife, Hee-Young, will end up in the gulag. I’ve already published a short story “Afterbirth” in Commentary magazine (May 2011), which deals with some of the characters and incidents she will encounter there. I also have included a love story between Du-Ho’s daughter, Eun-Mi, and a young soldier, Sang-Won, who is engaged in the black-market trade that has developed since the mid-1990s. I hope that readers will learn a great deal about North Korea by reading the novel, but my greater challenge will be to tell a story that engages the reader because he or she cares about the characters and their fates and discovers truths about the human condition.

LOPEZ: Is this remotely similar to anything you¹ve done or seen before?

CHAVEZ: There are many great novels that have been my inspiration: Crime and Punishment (Dostoevsky), In the First Circle (Solzhenitsyn), The Fixer (Malamud); and a couple of minor ones, In the Pond (Ha Jin) and Red Azalea (Anchee Min). 

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