x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Required reading: North Korea

Denis Rodman thinks North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un is an awesome guy. Is he right?

These are strange times. Nevertheless, few of us - even in our wildest imaginings - could have concocted the meeting that occurred last week, between the former basketball star Denis Rodman and Kim Jong-un, the supreme leader of North Korea.

Rodman was in North Korea last week with the media organisation VICE. The idea? That basketball might bridge the gap between the US and the Korean dictatorship. Rodman seems to have embraced the idea to an extent that has surprised, surely, even the VICE producers. "You have a friend for life," he told Kim Jong-un, before hugging him and declaring him an "awesome kid". Does this mark the start of a new, Rodman-inspired thaw in US-North Korea relations? And just how awesome is Kim Jong-un and the dynasty to which he is heir?

You'll find part of the answer in Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Life in North Korea by the US journalist Barbara Demick (Granta,
Dh55), who interviewed more than 100 defectors. Her book follows the lives of six ordinary people as they struggle through the grinding poverty - and terrifying state oppression - of the famine that struck in the mid-1990s, killing millions.

Turn to Bradley K Martin's Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader (St Martin’s Griffin, Dh55) for more on the Kim dynasty. Kim Il-sung led the Democratic People's Republic of Korea from its foundation in 1948 until his death in 1994. His son, Kim Jong-il, is said to have been a supernatural entity whose presence could make fruit trees bloom and snow melt. The ubiquitous state song Kim Jong-il is Immortal as the Sun was not enough to prevent his death in 2011.

For a firsthand account of life under the Great Leader, see The Aquariums of Pyongyang (Atlantic Books, Dh61): author Kang Chol-Hwan's family was jailed in a concentration camp. It's estimated that hundreds of thousands of North Koreans are political prisoners today. Meanwhile, Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son (Black Swan, Dh50) - about a North Korean intelligence officer - is heralded as the best longform fiction about the country.

It seems unlikely that Dennis Rodman has read any of these books. Perhaps, instead, he's been immersed in Kim Jong-il's Life and Literature: one among the thousands of works that official biographers claim the Great Leader wrote. Copies are - much like the truth in North Korea - almost impossible to find.

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