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Comrades and Strangers: Behind the Closed Doors of North Korea

This book sets out with the admirable aim of demystifying the closed society of North Korea. The world should know more about this paranoid and isolated vestige of communism, if only because of its huge standing army and its nuclear weapons programme. Michael Harrold, as the first Briton to live and work in the country, would seem the ideal person to lift the veil of secrecy. In 1986, in response to a job advertisement, he travelled to Pyongyang and began work as an English language advisor on translations of the works of Kim Il Sung and his son, Kim Jong Il.

It is sometimes difficult to see what attracted Harrold to North Korea; he admits he took the job on a whim, knowing little of the peninsula’s history or culture. It is even harder to see why (apart from inertia and a certain fondness for the Korean people) he stayed for seven years. His book is a wearying litany of stultifying days arguing over abstruse grammar in the Great Leader’s speeches and nights spent drinking and smoking in the hotel bars.

The book is overlong and Harrold is exasperatingly coy about an (imagined?) love affair with a Korean girl. It comes as a relief when the author is unceremoniously thrown out of the country following a squalid, drunken fight in the street.

All those years of translating turgid official prose has done nothing for Harrold’s own style, which is flat and humourless. Comrades and Strangers is a muddle and a missed opportunity to do justice to an important and timely topic.

New Internationalist issue 379 magazine cover This article is from the June 2005 issue of New Internationalist.
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