on January 19, 2005
I really loved this book. Bradley Martin is a reporter who has extensively travelled in North Korea and has met many of the Kim regimes ruling caste members. He paints an intriguing portrait of North Korea.
There are many chapters, but they basically break into three categories. These deal with the rise of the Kim regime, life in North Korea, and the future of North Korea. There is certainly overlap, but these are the primary categories.
The most difficult chapters are certainly those dealing with the rise to power of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. I say this because, as Martin freely admits, there are very complicated mythologies surrounding these characters. Mr. Martin goes on the assumption that there is a nugget of truth in all myths and tries very hard to find them. As an example, there is a myth that Kim Il Sung was the most important anti-Japanese guerilla leader who nearly single handedly ejected Japanese forces from Korea. After detailed and exhaustive research, the author shows that Kim was a moderately important guerilla leader who threw his lot in with the Soviet Red Army after being defeated by Japanese forces. In this way, Mr. Martin develops what could be the most accurate picture we have of the Kims' early days. If he is found to ever be wrong, it wont be for not trying hard.
The next set of chapters revolve around everyday life in the DPRK. He gets his information partially through his trips there, but more importantly through defector testimony. Needless to say, life in the Workers'Paradise sucks. There is little food (unless you are a high level party member) and there is a constant risk you will offend someone and wind up in a prison camp. Not much we dont already know, but Martin reveals much that is new. For example, the citizenry is completely loyal despite mismanagement and abuse. Even defectors cant bring themselves to criticize the Kims! And there is much much more.
Finally, Martin looks to the future. He shows us North Korea's first faltering steps to become connected with the world economy. He also delves into who may replace Kim Jong Il in the future. I wasnt too convinced with his argument that the West should negotiate on WMD issues, but he makes the argument pretty well.
One final note. The best part of this book is Martin's credibility. He seems to have no axes to grind. He has no problem revealing the bad aspects of the DPRK or the good. Mr. Martin comes across as a straight shooter. This could be what is most important in making this such a wonderful book.
on August 18, 2005
An extraordinary glimpse into one of the world's last Stalinist military states. Nearly impossible to penetrate and with little credible information getting out (except for high level intelligence), Bradley Martin tells an amazing story of a very important and dangerous place. To make things worse for a serious investigative writer, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il have created a high octane, no holds barred cult of personality for both father and son which make it extremely difficult to separate out the real story. He deserves a creat deal of credit for this undertaking and it is far and away the best and most informative work on the DPRK to be found in English.
What I also admired about this book was Martin's restraint and his willingness to portray the actual facts, including positive ones. Granted, there is not a great deal of good news coming out of Pyongyang in the last few decades. And it would be tempting to paint both Kims as evil incarnate. Indeed, our own government has presented a two-dimensional cartoon like vision of a planetary bad guy. More of such counter-mythology is not helpful in understanding this complex and dangerous society. I was amazed at the amount of information Martin was able to pull together and the complex portrait he was able to present.
Unfortunately, the people who could most benefit from reading this book will probably never go near it. One aspect of the book I appreciated was the comparison between today's ultra-marxist state and the early Choson dynasty which governed Korea for nearly 600 year until the Japanese invasion in the 1890s. North Korea has almost completely replicated the Ancient "Hermit Kingdom" that remained closed to outsiders for centuries. The Kims have replicated the nepotism that so dominated ancient Korea, along with the vast array of palaces and the complete deification of the leadership by the peasantry.
I highly recommend Mr. Martin's book. And like it or not, North Korea is in our future.
on April 4, 2005
This is a wrenching book of profoundly honest and searching scholarship unmatched in published literature about North Korea. Bradley Martin's reporter background serves him well throughout - there is not one page in over 800+ pages that derives from a dogmatic bias; I believe he has the intelligence to realize that a 'just the facts, ma'am' style is clearly the most effective means of revealing the inner truth about the Kim dynasty and the situation in North Korea. Martin's extensive travels in North Korea serve him well in reaching beyond a framework of historical fact to form a vital and unique aspect of the book's success. The opening third of the book devoted to the rise to power of Kim Il-Sung is noticeable in its strict fairness with the facts, an admirable restraint indeed, and the book gets off to a good start because of it.
The following chapters on Kim Jong-Il are equally revealing of those aspects of North Korea that presently concern the rest of the world. Martin goes out of his way to extend to Kim Jong-Il a full treatment of his not inconsiderable theatrical and musical gifts - something many writers would not and do not do - and the terror of the Stalinesque munchkin's madness is made all the more compelling for it.
I do think the book is overly lengthy. Reaching the sixth or so multi-page transcript of interviews with North Korean defectors I felt enough was enough. Nothing uniquely viable is being presented by that time, and while one can respect whatever reasons Martin had for such extensive interview minutiae, it becomes somewhat wearying. That is, however, a very minor complaint against a many faceted, enthralling, even exhilarating portrait of a sad and dangerous country. This is the book to read on North Korea. Enthusiastically recommended on all counts.
on April 12, 2007
Bradley Martin needed 13 years to write this book, and the result is an extensive, thorough and objective overview of "modern" North Korea (the DPRK).
"Under the loving care..." covers the history of the DPRK and the Kim dinasty, from the early 20th century, when Kim Il-Sung was born (in 1912) until the present day.
Mr Bradley starts by showing the origins of the Kim family, and does a very dilligent work of trying to separate facts from myths (this is by itself a challenge, since the DPRK has consistently attempted to positively exaggerate the origins and life of Kim Il-Sung). He follows the historical timeline and shows how Kim Il-Sung grew militarily and politically, how he managed his relations with China and the USSR, and how he was able to set himself as the leader of the DPRK. Mr Bradley continues with a multi-faceted perspective of the Korean war (in the 1950s) and how Kim Il-Sung evolved his leadership style and developed his "juche" (self-reliance) philosophy. He also shows the process that Kim followed to set the stage for his succession by Kim Jong-Il (his older son). As he proceeds with the story, the author takes good care of also presenting information about the political, social and economic situation in the DPRK, and how it evolves. He moves forward to detail the transition from Kim Father to Kim Son. He provides details about the personal behaviour, managing style, beliefs and personal life of both Kim's. He finishes the book with a sort of 21st century update, in which he delves into the succession issue (who will follow after Kim Jong-Il?)and about how in the recent years the relationship between the DPRK and the rest of the world has deteriorated.
In my opinion, important issues that the reader must take into account before getting this book are:
- Mr Bradley is a journalist. He seems to be a serious one and does not pretend to act as a foreign affairs analyst, or as diplomat or politician. In my opinion, he does a very good of separating his political views from the story. So, he focuses on showing the facts. Sometimes he speculates about the reasons for X or Y person or government to behave in Z way, but I don't recall any instance in which he jumps to conclusions or judges (positively or negatively) anyone. This makes of "Under the loving care..." a very objective and rational piece. This book does not seem to have an "agenda".
- In addition to his observations from his trips, he has based this book on many other sources and has done a tremendous job in documenting them (there are 135 pages of Notes and references at the end of the book!). He also has done a very good job in linking the issues and the sources. This book was not written in haste.
- Mr Bradley had the chance of visiting the DPRK many times in the last 20 years. This allows him to put his observations into perspective. He has the rare chance of being able to compare how the country has evolved.
- The most relevant complaint I have is that, in his quest for objectivity and thoroughness, Mr Bradly uses almost 200 pages of the book to detail the stories of many exiles and his interviews with them. There comes a point when the stories beging to get repetitive. It took me a good while to pass this part of the book. Actually, I did something rare (for myself): I stopped reading the book for a couple of weeks, read a lighter book and came back. I respect his work but in my case I got bored. I just kept going out of discipline.
I am very much satisfied with reading "Under the loving care...". Its objectivity and thoroughness make of it a very good introduction to the Hermit Kingdom. It was my first read about the DPRK, and probably the last (it's so complete, I don't need much more, and will search for other topics...).
I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in learning about the DPRK, with two caveats:
- The reader must be patient, for it's a long book (712 pages, before the notes and references)
- The reader must have an open mind. This book is not set up to defend nor accuse the Kim's, the DPRK, Japan, South Korea, China, the USSR or the US of anything.
on December 19, 2011
Out of the 5 books I've read on North Korea, Bradley Martin's "Under the Loving Care..." is by far my favorite for being the most comprehensive of them all. I admit that at almost 900 pages, its one bulky read - but I didn't find any point where I found myself getting bored in dry details thanks to his captivating story-telling capabilities. As a journalist, he had access to both high and low officials on both sides of the border, defectors of every type (from successful businessman to the most lowl-ranking political prisoners), as well as aid agency representatives and other diplomats. Since the view of North Korea for foreigners is almost completely manipulated, Martin had some of the best access available for a foreigner, which gives this book added value compared to a lot of the shorter "Defectors' Stories" digests that tend to dominate the North Korea non-fiction market. I really believe more than any other book, this one satisfied my hunger for North Korea information.
What really sets this book apart, though, is that there tends to be more balanced analysis from Martin, which is in sharp contrast to the rigidly black-and-white way in which a lot of writers tend to portray the North Korean system. He tries to tell the positives of North Korea, however far and few they may be, and the improvements that have come, such as changes in the legal system to make it slightly less draconian than before, or the instances of free markets opening up. Don't get me wrong, I agree that the North Korean regime is a nightmare, but avoiding exaggeration of any particular injustice helps one to better assess the full picture. He even analyzes the "official" biographies of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il to decipher whatever truth there lies inside. There are topics for which even he finds it difficult to reach a conclusion due to the honest lack of persuasive consensus - for example, why the WFP does not operate in certain parts of North Korea. Other writers might quickly conclude it being due to political prisons or military bases, but Martin gets multiple perspectives to get all the information out. This truly makes the book "the whole picture", or at least the maximum we can get out of this closed society.
on September 4, 2006
Journalist Bradley K. Martin's Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader is an excellent examination of daily life under the regime of North Korean dictator Kim Il-Sung and his son, Kim Jong-Il. While this book is weaker when discussing the salient foreign policy issues of missile tests and nuclear programs, it is an outstanding reference to the repression, fear, and brainwashing at the heart of the Kim regime.
Between 1979 and the paperback's publication in 2005, Martin has been on multiple trips to North Korea, one of the world's most isolated and authoritarian regimes. He has also been posted for significant periods of time in South Korea both as a reporter and a scholar. The result is that Martin has an outstanding bird's-eye view of the regime as well as access to defectors and other first-hand accounts which are critical to a work like this. Martin makes the most out of these resources, interviewing dozens of defectors over a long period of time on multiple subjects. While it would be natural for someone engaged in such an interview project to come to wholeheartedly believe everything the defectors have said, Martin applies a vigorous critical eye to the defectors' sometimes conflicting accounts. While Martin in no way minimizes the inherent evil in the Kim regime, he does help to sort some of the wheat from the chaff when it comes to defector testimony and rumors which circulate regarding the Kim regime.
Martin is clearly no fan of Kim il-Sung or Kim Jong-Il, and his chapters detailing their early lives and personal attributes do not shy away from strange or negative data. However, he avoids falling into the easy trap of making them both cartoonish bad guys (see: Team America and even points out the (limited) positives in both personalities, leaving the novice reader with a nuanced view of both Kims. However, due to the paucity of reliable information, these chapters sometimes read more like gossip columns of the Kims personal lives rather than detailed biographies. This is in no way Martin's fault, as the available information consists of North Korean hagiographies or biased and partisan attacks on North Korea's ruling family.
This is not primarily a political history; while major issues such as the Panmunjom axe-wielding incident and the 1990s famine are addressed, they are only superficially examined, though the issues pop up repeatedly in lengthy extracts of defector interviews. Indeed, when Martin delves into foreign policy, such as his examination of foreign policy in Chapter 36, he often makes broad and poorly evidenced assertions. For example, the hardcover edition will leave the reader with the impression that in 2004 "Kim Jong-Il wanted to join the international system and was willing to give up his country's role in proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in exchange for sufficient help in reaching that goal. If he and his military colleagues could be persuaded that they would never be attacked by the United States or South Korea, they might even give up on the longer-range missiles and the atomic bombs in their stockpile." The reality is that even after the 1994 nuclear agreement, it appears that North Korea tried to have it both ways, accepting foreign aid while continuing a covert nuclear program that resulted in success. There is no reason to believe that a 2004 offer of aid would have led to a different conclusion, though Martin tries hard to link tensions to the Bush administration instead of the Kim regime. Indeed, some of the latter original chapters almost read like an advertisement for John Kerry, who was in an election campaign against Bush as this book was being finished.
Similarly, the original hardcover contained a long piece on economic reform in North Korea and posited that Kim Jong-Il, having consolidated his political power, was pursuing a policy of economic reform. Fortunately, both this assertion and the comments on the nuclear program are diluted by Martin in a new Epilogue which includes details of his 2005 trip to North Korea. Based on his first-hand observations and conversations with aid workers in North Korea, the paperback is able to scale back some of the more grandiose claims of the hardcover edition, portraying North Korea as less committed to reform and engaged in a far more modest reform program than the 2004 edition would have predicted.
These problems with Martin's foreign policy analysis should in no way discourage a novice reader who wants to learn more about North Korea. This book simply is stronger when discussing daily life in and the history of North Korea than it is at discussing current events. Martin describes in detail the system of repression, including punishment of multiple generations of political opponents and an economic/political system that puts Communist Party officials above the law and normal citizens at risk of arrest, starvation, or worse. These chapters, which consume the vast majority of Under the Loving Care, are outstanding. It also helps that, as a journalist, Martin has combined a quick and readable prose style with meticulous research, as evidenced by his 134 pages of footnotes.
The bottom line is that this is an excellent book and that it will provide insight to the casual observer who is interested in getting a well-researched and nuanced view into a country in the so-called 'Axis of Evil.' Although long, this book is rich in detail and easy to read and I highly recommend it.
on January 3, 2005
After more than 30 years traveling through, studying, teaching and writing about modern Asia I rarely come across books that are really all that helpful. Rather, most are full of material I already know folded in with a few nuggets of new information. That though is absolutely not true with regard to Bradley Martin's book, Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty. The book is an absolute marvel of new information. From this professor's perspective this book is a wonderful contribution to the limited information available about North Korea and should be read by both professionals and the general public. I highly recommend it.
Steven A. Leibo Ph.D.
on October 17, 2005
This book is an amazing account of the history of and life inside of North Korea. The book primarily relies on the testimony of defectors. It is filled with any number of compelling stories about what it is really like to live in North Korea. These stories augment a well written straightforward account of North Korea's history and the life of the Kim's. It makes for fascinating reading and a disturbing portrait of a thoroughly evil regime.
My only complaint about the book concerns its last chapter. After spending 500 pages making an airtight case that Kim Il Sung and his successor Kim Jong Il are dangerous psychopaths running an enormous criminal enterprise in North Korea, the author spends the last chapter arguing that the North Korean's would no long pose a threat if the West would just reason with Kim Jong Il. It's as if the other 550 pages of the book do not exist. A disappointing end to an otherwise fascinating and well written book.
on August 17, 2005
A thorough history of N Korea concentrating on Kim Il-Sung and his son. IMO, Martin does try to delve into where KJI is coming from and in his approach to governing and international relations. And he does give credit to Kim Il-Sung when he thinks it is due (regarding the guerilla days). The book could have been edited down further, but I have to admit that the numerous interviews of defectors is necessary. They are the ones who have the first hand knowledge of the closed society. The sometimes repetitiveness of the interviews is necessary to reveal the humanity beneath the statistics and show where there is consensus from the defectors and where there is divergence of opinion.
I liked Jasper Becker's 'Rogue Regime' a bit better but they complement each other. Becker's is no holds barred, rightly saying that there is no way that North Korea could have gotten a worse duo of leaders. Martin's is more thorough and nuanced and sometimes too willing to give the Kims the benefit of the doubt.