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Red Rogue: The Persistent Challenge of North Korea
Red Rogue: The Persistent Challenge of North Korea
by Bruce E. Bechtol
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $26.90
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Red Rogue: valuable perspective on North Korea, November 29, 2007
Notwithstanding the diversity of the numerous books recently published on subjects North Korean, many aspects of this reclusive nation's inner workings and policy priorities have yet to be adequately dissected and explained. Making a major contribution to filling some of these gaps is Bruce Bechtol's "Red Rogue: The Persistent Challenge of North Korea." Bechtol brings to his work a unqiue voice and perspective molded by service as a Marine, an all-source Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, and, most recently, Marine Corps Command and Staff College professor.

My personal goal in reading "Red Rogue" was to learn more about North Korean strategic thinking and military operations, and, in this regard, two areas of discussion stand out, each strong enough alone to justify picking up this book. The first of these is Bechtol's discussion of a Northern Limit Line (NLL) naval skirmish that occurred in June 2002. Some media and analytical reporting had treated the deadly incident as an example of a rogue military element expressing disatisfaction with Kim Chong-il's policies. To the contrary, as Bechtol's expert analysis indicates, this was a carefully-staged action that required considerable coordination and practice to execute. The second of the major analytical contributions Bechtol makes is his focus on North Korean motivations for specific actions and general policy courses. He handles this as a coda to his deconstruction of the NLL incident and in a more general way elsewhere in the book. In his introduction, for example, Bechtol references the U.S. Department of Defense's instruments of national power (IOPs) analytical framework used to assess the diplomatic, informational, military, and economic instruments that any foreign power has at hand to advance its national interests. Regarding a nation such as North Korea, where so much of foreign analysis is riveted on the idiosyncratic behavior of Kim Chong-il, this focus of Bechtol's is a welcome reminder that North Korea as a nation has interests based on carefully-crafted IOPs that transcend the personal inclinations of its authoritarian dictator.


North of the DMZ: Essays on Daily Life in North Korea
North of the DMZ: Essays on Daily Life in North Korea
by A. N. Lanʹkov
Edition: Paperback
Price: $37.95
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43 of 48 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a real eye-opener on north korea, May 23, 2007
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For years now, Western observers of North Korea have tended to use absolutes in describing the country. It is, for example, said to be the last Stalinist nation on earth and the world's most secretive, isolated, autarkic society, while its leader (Kim Chong-il) is characterized and caricatured as odd and ruthless in the extreme. None of these descriptors is necessarily wrong, but individually and collectively they tend to obscure the fact that a great deal has changed over the past several decades.

Riding to the rescue, so to speak, is the distinguished Russian scholar Andrei Lankov, who has gathered together in "North of the DMZ: Essays on Daily Life in North Korea" articles originally printed in the "Korea Times" and "Asia Times." Lankov brings to his musings and this book exceptional skills and credentials: he writes beautifully, has a fine sense of humor, attended Kim Il-song University several decades ago, knows South Korea as well as its northern counterpart, and has personally experienced growing up in a Communist country. The resulting book is a delight to read and certainly one of the most valuable primers ever published on North Korea, with its 100-plus essays at once both anecdotal in tone and exceptionally well-researched.

Lankov's main focus in "North of the DMZ" is the life of everyday North Koreans, and in this regard the essays cover everything from the arts, media, social structure, and recreation to love and marriage, transportation, education, and food supplies. Another large portion of the essays cover policies and control systems that the government has tried to impose, with the emphasis here on how poorly these are actually working. The essays were not written with the intent of answering strategic questions about the viability of the North Korean state, and the book does not address the perspectives of those who rule or such issues as the role of nuclear weapons in ensuring the survival of North Korea. Nonetheless, "North of the DMZ" paints a compelling picture of a society and economy in flux. This society bears little resemblance to the tightly-controlled and idealized country described in official propaganda, and anyone seeking to answer strategic questions about North Korea's future will want to factor in the tactical ground truth uncovered by Lankov.


Pyongyang: The Hidden History of the North Korean Capital
Pyongyang: The Hidden History of the North Korean Capital
by Chris Springer
Edition: Paperback
Price: $25.00
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Pyongyang's Hidden History: must-read book for travelers and scholars, March 8, 2006
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"Pyongyang: The Hidden History of the North Korean Capital" is another of those recently-issued books which provide a wealth of otherwise hard-to-find information about the secretive state that is North Korea. As is the case with Robert Willoughby's "North Korea: The Bradt Travel Guide" and Jane Portal's "Art Under Control in North Korea," Springer's volume is based on first-hand observations and hard data that should rivet the attention of both the casual traveler and the serious scholar.

Springer's book, in contrast to Willoughby's, is not a classic travel guide, and this is not the book to rely on if you need the basics about gaining access to North Korea, ensuring safe travel there, arranging tours, and choosing accommodations. With less text and a narrower focus, it also covers less of North Korea's history and less of its territory. However, Springer's "Hidden History" does a more thorough job of exploring Pyongyang, documenting the history of key buildings and sites in the city, and relating political trends and events to those buildings and sites. This issue of how physical structures and city layouts reflect political priorities is of critical importance to students of North Korean history and Kim Chong-il's leadership, and no better examination of this interplay is available.


Drop Dead Cute
Drop Dead Cute
by Ivan Vartanian
Edition: Paperback
Price: $19.42
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24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Drop Dead Cute" is both drop-dead gorgeous and disturbing, February 16, 2006
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This review is from: Drop Dead Cute (Paperback)
"Drop Dead Cute: The New Generation of Women Artists in Japan" is quite simply a book that is drop-dead gorgeous. Ten artists--most in their early thirties--are profiled, and I would, figuratively speaking of course, kill to have the work of any hanging on my walls. As Ivan Vartanian, who has put this book together, notes in his introduction, most of the art reflects the so-called "super-flat" style that is all the rage among Japan's cutting-edge artists. This two-dimensional graphic style is associated with Japanese manga (adult comics) and anime (animated films), and in a number of cases the renderings of female faces here owe a great deal to the childlike, wide-eyed models of manga and anime. Another recurring theme in this art is the emphasis on animals. One artist, for example, repeatedly uses elephants as her theme with a style that resembles a cross between Hello Kitty and Babar. In large part it is this prevalence of lovable animals, child-like faces, and various dream-like themes that has led Vartanian and others to label the work of these artists "kawaii," the Japanese word for cute.

Personally I would be more inclined to apply the word "kowai," which means "frightening" in Japanese, to the work presented in "Drop Dead Cute." There is an overwhelming sense of loneliness and alienation in this graphic work, a general absence of men and of family life, all sorts of female grotesqueries, and juxtapositions of the horrific and the idyllic. Take, for example, the graphically-stunning work of Chiho Aoshima. In one print she has what is perhaps the most beautiful rendering of a Japanese plum tree that I have ever seen, and this tree in blossom is mixed with images of the mythical paradise of Mount Horai. Stranded in the high branches of the tree, meanwhile, is a naked woman bound in ropes. Another artist, Tabaimo, who works in a take-off of the ukiyoe style, has a subway car scene with a baby abandoned like a package on an upper luggage rack, a stack of dismembered forearms, and a man wrapped like a piece of sushi.

What this all means is only touched on lightly by Vartanian. He has provided a mere one page of text by way of understanding each artist, and his introduction is also just a teaser in hinting at the darker side of this art. For a fuller understanding of how an emphasis on childish themes is coexisting with a sense of alienation in Japan today, the reader of "Drop Dead Cute" would do well to acquire the more scholarly and probing "Little Boy: The Arts of Japan's Exploding Subculture."
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 6, 2007 8:52 AM PST


North Korea: The Bradt Travel Guide
North Korea: The Bradt Travel Guide
by Robert Willoughby
Edition: Paperback
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a gem of a book on north korea, February 8, 2006
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Robert Willoughby's travel guide to North Korea is fascinating on two counts. In the first instance, on the travel front itself, the author has covered several far-flung corners of the country, going beyond the more accessible capital city of P'yongyang, the Diamond Mountain resort, and the tourist-oriented luxuries of Mount Myohang. Although it is not always clear how Willoughby--or those others who contributed to his book--won permission to visit these remote locations, the guide book is explicit in pointing out that few if any foreigners are free to roam the country at will. Visits must generally be part of package tours, most of which originate in China, and the severely underdeveloped road and public transportation systems limit the number of cities that can be accessed.

On the second front, that of a descriptive journal, Willoughby's guide contributes to the outside world's knowledge of North Korea, the most secretive and hermetically-sealed of all nations on earth. Nearly all daily news reporting in the United States focuses on a North Korea that is obsessed with acquiring nuclear weapons and has clearly earned its place in the "axis of evil." It is therefore a delight to be offered detailed descriptions of the country's geographic features and flora and fauna and to find out how ordinary people go about their everyday lives. It is also a welcome surprise to learn that in some areas, such as Mount Paektu on the northwest border with China, North Koreans are both gracious and relaxed in dealing with visitors.

Willoughby's book benefits greatly from his wonderful writing skills, his British sense of humor, and the careful background research he used to flesh out first-hand observations. I found many details in this book fascinating and available for the very first time, and I would have loved to have had the guide available while I was still an intelligence officer following North Korea in the 1970s through 1990s.


Art Under Control in North Korea
Art Under Control in North Korea
by Jane Portal
Edition: Paperback
Price: $33.25
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a fascinating book with important information on north korea, February 7, 2006
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It is quite a delight these days to read a book on North Korea that manages to be politically relevant and insightful without focusing on the country's drive to acquire nuclear weapons, its appalling human rights record, or the self-absorbed behavior of its current leader, Kim Chong-il. This refreshingly different approach is what Jane Portal offers in her 2005 publication, "Art Under Control in North Korea." Portal, an assistant curator of Asian Art at the British Museum and author of a previous book on the history of Korean art, has worked hard to provide a political context for the arts in North Korea, and, overall, has proven herself a reliable scholar on this front.

That a study of the arts in North Korea should be so important is due to two circumstances: in nearly all cases, the visual, performing, and written arts are controlled by the state and the official micromanaging them since the early 1970s at least is none other than Kim Chong-il. The fact that art exists to serve the state is tackled in an introduction that puts the North Korean arts scene into historical context by offering valuable comparative background on the USSR, China, and Nazi Germany, and there then follow two more chapters that review North Korea's history. From Chapter 4 forward, Portal takes a close look at how art has been used to promote the cult of the two Kims--Kim Chong-il and his late father Kim Il-song. The changing themes and styles in art, the institutions set up to create the art, and timelines for the dedication of particularly important public works of art are all dealt with in a neutral, businesslike manner.


Little Boy: The Arts of Japan's Exploding Subculture
Little Boy: The Arts of Japan's Exploding Subculture
by Alexandra Munroe
Edition: Hardcover
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5.0 out of 5 stars Little Boy: a book of exceptional beauty and social importance, July 19, 2005
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"Little Boy: The Arts of Japan's Exploding Subculture" is far and away the most beautifully-designed and edgiest book ever issued by the Japan Society in New York. At the same time, it is the most significant. That the bilingual "Little Boy" catalogue is so stunningly beautiful and up-to-the minute reflects the fact that it was edited and produced in Japan by the graphics artists driving the trends it documents. The art it examines is, as Alexandra Monroe of the Japan Society puts it, a superflat "cartoon imagery of exploding mushroom clouds, fantastic mutant monsters, and baby-faced cyborg heroines." This art bears some resemblance to that of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, but even the art of these two icons cannot begin to hint at the revolution in graphic design that has occurred in Japan. Nor can their art prepare us for the revolution of meaning that this graphic art has assumed for the Japanese of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

And it is this last point that brings us to the seminal importance of "Little Boy" as both a book and exhibition.
To return to Munroe's essay, with which readers may prefer to begin the book, in countries other than Japan animated films, cartoon-like graphics, and comic books are typically associated with children alone. In Japan, in contrast, these art forms have been appropriated by adults as well as the art mainstream. Of greatest importance, they have become a major means by which the Japanese are attempting to deal with the dual traumas of the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the postwar dependency that a US-written constitution imposed on Japan as a player on the world stage. If such traumas were being reflected in the graphic arts alone, this phenomenon would be perhaps no more than an interesting oddity. Nearly everyday, however, attempts to grapple with the same issues are being played out on the political stage, be it in the context of a prime ministerial visit to the Yasukuni Shrine for the war dead or Japan's agonizing over how to respond to the apparent nuclearization of the Korean peninsula. It is tempting to ascribe these political developments to a renascent right-wing fringe. "Little Boy" is, however, a wake-up call telling us that the population as a whole is wrestling with issues of how their nation should be defined.


Kim Il-song's North Korea:
Kim Il-song's North Korea:
by Helen-Louise Hunter
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $87.35
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5.0 out of 5 stars critical baseline study for measuring change in north korea, April 9, 2005
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As another reviewer appropriately noted in assessing this book, "Kim Il-song's North Korea" is now 25+ years out of date. Because of this, Helen-Louise Hunter's study--edited down from a longer, classified report that she prepared while working at the Central Intelligence Agency--offers little meat for assessing the personal style and leadership track record of Kim Chong-il, who succeeded his father--Kim Il-song--as the absolutist leader of North Korea in 1994. Still, the book is a must-read for any scholar or journalist seeking to estimate the likelihood of future social collapse and regime change and/or to establish how much policy change Kim Chong-il has initiated.

The raw material of "Kim Il-song's North Korea" was meticulously culled from thousands of intelligence reports, most from defectors, which documented life in the North Korea of the mid-1970s, and this material is presented in a descriptive, generally non-judgmental manner. To the degree that any period in North Korea can be called a golden age, it was the years covered here. P'yongyang's social contract with the populace--the government will meet your basic economic and welfare needs if you cede to us all decisionmaking authority and forego any personal liberties--was basically intact at this time. So too were the country's industrial infrastructure and its tight controls on the physical movement of the citizenry, and serious questions of political stability rarely arose. Outrage over Kim Chong-il's leadership style had not yet crystallized and Kim Il-song was seen as a demigod who had helped liberate Korea from Japan's colonial occupation.

As even the most casual observer of North Korea today knows, the relative political and economic stability of the 1970s are long past, and for a dynamic understanding of North Korea in the 21st century, "Kim Il-song's North Korea" cannot stand alone. Neither, however, can we mine the full richness of more current books, including the gripping testaments of defectors, without referring back to Hunter's pathbreaking work.


Art Of The Japanese Postcard
Art Of The Japanese Postcard
by Kendall Brown
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $34.17
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars minor league art form given major league treatment, January 15, 2005
Score another home run for Boston's Museum of Fine Arts for recognizing the importance of the Lauder collection of Japanese postcards and then producing a significant book to commemorate the 2004 exhbition of these miniature masterpieces. The MFA has again assembled a cast of formidable experts to provide both historical and artistic perspective for the late 19th- and early 20th-century postcards produced by many of Japan's leading artists. It is thus the case that the text chapters that open "Art of the Japanese Postcard: Leonard A. Lauder Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston" help guide the reader through the changes in graphic art and design that followed Japan's opening to the West and the death of the classic "ukiyoe"-style woodblock art.

The postcards themselves are stunning, meriting repeated voyages through this beautifully designed and printed volume. And there are numerous other reasons to savor the images. For example, the cards that appear as numbers 9 through 60 in the catalogue/book all reflect Japan's contemporaneous take on the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05. Then there are chapters that demonstrate the impact of the West's Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements on Japanese art sensibilities. Three other cards, my favorites, illustrate famous "haiku" poems, with the artist, Saito Shoshu, using the themes of the cards to stylize the calligraphy with which the poems are rendered. Delight here in a snail's slime trail blended into calligraphic brushwork, an underwater scene in which the calligraphy takes on a very fluid style, and a poem broken up to refelct the hopping of a frog.


The Sketchbook: 80 Unique Designs by the World's Finest Tattoo Artists
The Sketchbook: 80 Unique Designs by the World's Finest Tattoo Artists
by Nancy Heimburger
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $99.75
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars graphic gems from tattoo artists: a pathbreaking book, November 2, 2004
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Rarely has the tattoo art form enjoyed a presentation in a volume as remarkable as Heimburger and Bratt's "The Sketchbook: 80 Unique Designs by the World's Finest Tattoo Artists." For starters, the "Sketchbook" does not feature photographs of tattooed bodies but rather brings together a set of original graphic designs produced by artists expressly for this collection. Then there is the beauty and quality of the book itself, which has been published by Hotei, the Leiden-based publisher best known for its first-class books on Japanese prints.

Most of the artists represented in the "Sketchbook" are fairly young and, with the exception of several members of the Leu Family of Lausanne, are not yet well-known. Their work is complex, however, and the short autobiographies provided by each artist provide insights into the special world and close relationships of the international community's best tattoo practitioners. Traditional Japanese tattoo themes dominate the graphic work, but fans of modern art in general will note and enjoy the resemblance of much of the work to that of the 20th-century surrealists and even to the specialized art genre known as exquisite corpses. Indeed, the artwork presented is so fascinating and potentially rich in symbolism that I wish it had been displayed at The Drawing Center in New York's Soho district and introduced by scholars of modern graphic art.


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