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North Korea is like no other tyranny on Earth. Its citizens are told their home is the greatest nation in the world, and Big Brother is always watching. It is Orwell's 1984 made reality.
Award-winning BBC journalist John Sweeney is one of the few foreign journalists to have witnessed the devastating reality of life in the controversial and isolated nation of North Korea. Having entered the country undercover, Sweeny posed as a university professor with a group of students from the London School of Economics.
Huge factories with no staff or electricity, hospitals with no patients, uniformed child soldiers, and the world-famous and eerily empty DMZ - the Demilitarized Zone, where North Korea ends and South Korea begins - are all framed by a relentless flow of regime propaganda from omnipresent loudspeakers. Free speech is an illusion: One word out of line, and the gulag awaits. State spies are everywhere, ready to punish disloyalty at the slightest sign of discontent.
Drawing on his own experiences and his extensive interviews with defectors and other key witnesses, Sweeney's North Korea Undercover pulls back the curtain, providing a rare insight into life there today while examining the country's troubled history and addressing important questions about its uncertain future.
For many years I've heard odd news from North Korea. I was curious enough to examine North Korea vs South Korea on google maps and was amazed at the differences. Clearly North Korea seemed like it was a bit crazy so I wanted learn what made it tick.
The author travels through North Korea as part of a tour, escorted always by the two government appointed handlers. In between humorous interludes as things don't always make the impression that the handlers intend, Sweeney goes into history and information to other sources to explain the odd behavior of the people. In particular, by the end of the book I finally understood that the government has actually accomplished an amazing feat. They have used specific techniques to make the people actually and truly love the rulers which kill them and starve them while living an opulent lifestyle themselves. And this isn't just that the people have learned to pretend. They actually feel deep affection, and even those that escape across the border have trouble shedding their deep beliefs.
I also learned that they feel that the USA is their biggest enemy, and that fantasizing about killing our soldiers and defeating us in battle is a great source of entertainment for them. This seemed odd to me, since I don't think Americans think much about North Korea at all. Sweeney does a great job of why this is.
Overall, I enjoyed this book very much. Sweeney has a snarky wit, and compassion for the people who are caught up in the insanity.
21 of 24 people found this review helpful
This is a great book if you are fascinated by North Korea. It manages to have some moments of humor mixed in with shocking stories of people having their lives stolen.
9 of 11 people found this review helpful
A riveting account of bizarre land trapped under the most opaque of dictatorships. The author (and narrator) succeed with a tone that is both humorous and heartbreaking. Wry descriptions of the authors own strange visit are entertaining and balance the tales of suffering and cruelty that are the status quo in North Korea.
8 of 10 people found this review helpful
There is something wrong with this book. I'm not sure it's the reporter style of journalism from John Sweeney or the reader from Gildart Jackson, but "North Korea Underground" almost feels like reading a half paragraph article at the grocery store with lots of pictures of famine. The way that the information was presented, it almost felt arrogant and cocky, like the author had a chip on his shoulder to disapprove North Korea before entering the regime.
There is not really a first person perspective on what is like to live under a dictatorship. Almost all of the examples and events are from other publications that are well documented from the past. Everything is from the eye of the author. and other sources. The human interest is almost non existing in this book. It doesn't question the author's abilities because North Korea still freezing over and pigs are flying, but it questions the motives from Sweeney.
7 of 9 people found this review helpful
North Korea is hideous I know and wanted to look closer. This is a smart book with lots of information; the author did his research and also gives his own impressions of what saw there -- who he talked to, what he learned and an awful lot about what he thought about it.
There were two big detectors though, one was the amazingly slow narration, I do believe it was altered down because I listened at 1.7x and was fine. Second, the author seems mean spirited, which is also impressive because he's talking about North Korea after all and so quite a lot of derision is almost expected. But about every sentence had a witty slash in it, that's tiresome. About any random sentence might get him killed there, or worse.
He's a smart investigative journalist who has taken Scientology to task, and North Korea is an even harder nut to crack. He smashed it. So ... I recommend it, but this reading is slow and the text is bitter.
15 of 20 people found this review helpful
Seriously, there are a lot of things in "North Korea Undercover" that are sheer tragedy, but in the hands of John Sweeney, they're actually hilarious.
There's nothing funny about executions... until there is. Nothing funny about mass unemployment and underdevelopment... until there is. I guess what saves this book from being offensive is that it's so darned enlightening.
I got into North Korea whilst doing research and quickly became quite a rabid fan of N. Korean nonfiction, having ten audiobooks alone on the subject. If you've done the defector books, and if you've done (or prefer not to do, as it's a bit academic:) "Nothing to Envy" (which you can find here on Audible), "Undercover" is for you. It's an incredibly wry look at what it means to be North Korean, especially of the "middle-class." The stores with nothing to sell, the hospitals that have no medicine but will somehow cure you before noon, the factories that have no employees and produce nothing, the sporadic electricity, and ESPECIALLY the constant, looming threat of war with America.
It's hilarious, especially when Sweeney pushes the envelope and ruffles the feathers of the group's handlers, true-believers or just-trying-to-get-along types.
There's plenty of history here too about the Kims. It's horrifying, yet somehow also written in an almost affectionate style as an homage to how the general population gets along. There's a trip to the zoo... then information about the camps. There's splashing around in waterfalls... then sightings of poverty beyond the imagination.
Sometimes the text does indeed slow down, but Gildart Jackson is a fine narrator, and you'll find yourself chuckling despite the fact that your mind was just about ready to wander.
A fine book, just coulda used some minor editing.
And please. If you do insist on splashing in North Korea's waterfalls? Wear underpants without holes. Your minders will really appreciate it.
9 of 12 people found this review helpful
Any additional comments?
John Sweeny is a great journalist & is a pretty good overview book but lacks depth. I have many books on North Korea & those are written by defectors, some very high level ex government officials. They give a much better insight to daily life, where as this book is more outside looking in as he really only went on the standard tour any person can take. So is full of what one can learn from the internet. Interesting for beginners in the subject, but there are much better books.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
This book is a very satirical look at the situation in North Korea. It does not appear to exaggerate the facts but does give quite hilarious comparisons to them. The humor was unexpected as this is a very serious subject, but I welcomed it. I did not find that the joking nature of the author took away from the information presented. The humor is presented well by the narrator who reads the book as though he is annoyed by the very existence North Korea.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
Author's travel narrative style rivals that of Bill Bryson. Unfortunately, the excellent narration didn't prevent me from losing interest regularly during the journalistic (second-hand) reports of conditions there.
10 of 15 people found this review helpful
What could have made this a 4 or 5-star listening experience for you?
The experiences of the author's trip to North Korea were all very similar. 10 trips to different facilities - all just for show, not actually working. I was expecting a more insightful analysis of the culture, and the sarcastic tone of the book was offputting.
Has North Korea Undercover turned you off from other books in this genre?
Would you be willing to try another one of Gildart Jackson’s performances?
2 of 3 people found this review helpful