Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Escaping 'Escaping North Korea'

Jon Stewart needs to come to some sort of arrangement with America about books. At this point, he represents probably the #1 conduit for information about new books for most people under 50, and he's only fulfilling a third of his responsibilities. He owes us more.

Is this unfair to say? Probably. Americans can always read book blogs or magazines. There are CSPAN broadcasts. If all else fails, there are those weird daytime cable commercials where James Patterson looms up from a Dianetics-ad-like background and thrusts his fucked-up beard at you. For most of us, though, Stewart's Daily Show offers the most convenient and least stuffy or "promotional" showcase for new books.

Unless I loathe the author's politics or find his topic too much of a niche interest to add something to my life, there's always a chance that I'll finish watching a Daily Show interview and add the book in question to my wish list. Stewart's a funny guy who's very good at showing his interest in books, and that's infectious. The problem is, about half the time that I finish these books, I have a reaction of, "Yo, what the fuck, Stew-beef?"

See, at this point, Stewart and his staff have gotten so good at picking out entertaining or thought-provoking parts of books to highlight that they can make anything seem pretty decent. However, they have declined to concurrently develop a means of signaling important qualifications to the audience. What viewers need to know is not whether something can seem worth talking about for a few minutes but how much they should want to read something. They need to be told something like:
1. While we have made this book seem interesting, it's actually a load of fact-free garbage that you will learn nothing from.
2. In the five minutes we spent making this book seem interesting, we have told you everything of interest about it.
3. There's plenty more interesting about this book, but it's sort of fluffy.
4. This book is good. Buy it.
I have no idea how to implement this subtly enough. It's not my job. But, in a pinch, I'd suggest the following system, based off the fact that Stewart likes banging the book on the desk. For number one, merely prop the book up and hold it. Number two, bang the book once and hold it up. Number three, bang the book twice. Number four, bang the book three emphatic times. That way we'll know.

I bring this up because I'm looking at my copy of Escaping North Korea and resenting John Stewart at the moment. After a Daily Show segment, I put it on my wish list, intending to go back later and decide whether to leave it on the list after user reviews filled in and gave me an idea of how good it was. Instead, I forgot about it; some well-meaning family member bought it for me for some reason, and here we are.

How do you pan a well-meaning book?

With fiction, it's somewhat easier. All fiction books are well-meaning. Someone thinks they've got a corking story on their hands or a brilliant insight into the human condition, and they want to share it with you. Unless the author cynically co-opts several trending plot elements or cashes in with another needless book in a series (see: sci-fi/fantasy), you're dealing with the same impulsions that go into all fiction. Some books are good; some suck, and them's are the breaks.

Negative reviews can write themselves with non-fiction, too. There are the obvious examples, like works extolling American torture, and subtler ones like pop-histories meant to sell books with glossy and sensational details laid atop a thesis that's historically/sociologically laughable on its face. The problem Escaping North Korea poses is that it's so very clearly sincere, so very clearly has the best intentions and is still so very poorly written.

"Escaping North Korea" and helping others to do so is Mike Kim's vocation in the full Christian sense of the word. One day he's a successful Korean-American businessman. The next, he beseeches God to reveal to him how best to help North Korea (the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK). At the beginning of the book, he literally puts his hand on the map of Korea and prays for it, seeking guidance. The gesture reveals the literal intensity of his sincerity, but at the same time it gives an irreligious reader an indicator of how many troubles he might have with the book. To a Christian reader, this is a moment of profound, wonder-working power. To an agnostic, it's an opportunity to wonder if God sucks at cartography.

Christianity, and Mike's personal calling, drive the events of the book. It makes sense. One, Korean-Americans and South Koreans are demographically very Christian, so members of either group are likely to be religiously representative of the whole. Two, because South Korea, China and the U.S. cannot have official organizations supporting defection from the DPRK, the work falls to clandestine NGOs, which are largely Christian and which function in China (the DPRK's northern neighbor) in much the same way that they do in the DPRK itself.

There is a third factor at work here, one of trust. Across the border in China, members of the groups Mike works with rely a great deal on personal connections. They need to trust people not to reveal them to the Chinese authorities. They need to trust that North Koreans coming over the border are not spies. They need to trust that the North Koreans who lead them back into the DPRK aren't leading them into traps that could result in torture and death. To a certain extent, Christianity is a binding factor and a litmus test. The words of the gospels are code in terms of both language and a binding sense of brotherhood.

True to his faith, Mike downplays his own role in his story. Many books of this kind paint the author as the hero of the story, minimizing the misery of faceless millions to emphasize danger, sacrifice, suspenseful scenes with border patrol agents, slick cloak-and-dagger exchanges and anything else that makes the narrator look amazing. Despite the excitement of a charge at a British embassy and the frisson of potentially deadly encounters at foreign borders, Mike effaces himself, focusing instead on the dangers besetting his charges and creditably passing up chances to make himself seem like the sexy hero. Mike is a good guy. I like Mike.

Yet despite this goodhearted element, the book possesses some deep flaws. Mike doesn't appear to have any formal writing training, and it shows. In fact, he's spent several years testifying before agencies and making presentations designed to elicit donations, and the book often reads like a pitch — be it an evocative plea before a governing body or a Powerpoint for deep-pocketed donors.

You can't blame the guy: his business background likely laid the foundation for this kind of presentation. He probably organized his thoughts through such a format long before he began working in China and the DPRK. Later, his experiences were unavoidably further distilled through this kind of presentation to address the financial needs of the agencies he worked with. His prose is bad from necessity, which makes it a forgivably earnest bad. Unfortunately, the book suffers as a whole.

It enumerates all the horrors you would expect it to: famine, torture, indefinite detention, execution, shamelessly costly and grandiose public projects that don't work, senior party members choking on sybaritic indulgence, people shot dead for theft of food, people shot dead at the border, etc. Then there are horrors you might not expect: Chinese mafia smuggled into the DPRK to select women for sex-slave trade, women who escape on their own and are taken off the streets in China to work in sex-slave trade; and, worst of all, the notion that these women sometimes serve a fetishistic purpose, because their underdevelopment from malnutrition makes them look almost like children.

These are the striking, powerful notes. These details damn the DPRK, and nobody with a heart could say otherwise. The problem is, Mike's all over the map. Despite chapters that denote intended topics, aspects of famine or sex work or imprisonment or a dozen other things might receive equal time in a section of the book nominally reserved for something specific. The chapters work only as things listed in the table of contents. Otherwise, they're just well-meaning divisions amongst a lot of well-meaning text that goes where it wants to go at any given moment.

Again, this probably owes a lot to Mike as a Powerpoint presenter. In order to tell you of the severity of the famine, he turns to the personal story of Nice Lady X. A dire policy effect cannot be vivified without a personal anecdote. Thus Nice Lady X has her story told, showing how cruel the famine can be on a family level. However, Mike can't resist mentioning how Nice Lady X also discovered the power of The Word, and suddenly a famine anecdote switches course to explain how a cell of Christian readers emerged in her village, and which of them later escaped to China, and which are now healthier and teaching other people to read the Bible. Hundreds of these stories fill the book, and they're all a lot like political stump speeches, with the person exemplifying whatever policy position needs to be humanized.

They also raise an uncomfortable question that Mike, for obvious reasons, does not address: if his goal is to liberate people from an ideology that prescribes for them a total commitment to rules of conduct and even spiritual thought (Juche), then why is he so eager to replace one with another? This is not to suggest that Christianity is anything near so ugly as Juche, but Mike keeps telling us that he's rescuing people from an absence of independent thinking, from a hive-mind that tells them how to behave. Then the first thing they encounter, across the border, is a group of people who all share the same set of beliefs about their spiritual lives and actions.

Cynically speaking, if Mike's mission were to detail how susceptible Koreans are to faulty logic and emotional ransom, then he's succeeded fantastically in ways he didn't intend. But even from a Christian standpoint, this still seems like a shabby transition. Mike repeatedly tells us that these people live in a kind of netherworld, a non-place where madness is the norm. He tells us that they have little free will. People who emerge from that cannot make choices, at least not ones that bear any resemblance to reality. What, then, does it say for Mike's faith that it's supplanted one fostered in a fantasyland, when those adopting it have never been tested by a world that has any meaning?

The horror stories and disorganization elide big thoughtful questions like that, but they also help to elide fairly light analysis and data about the bigger strokes, outside the personal testimonials. The end notes are thin, as if Mike or his editor couldn't decide on either something wholly memoir-ish or more activist reporting, then opted to split the difference. The choice minimizes both options. Mike's recollections are often just that; worse, just as often, he relates things he heard from someone in the DPRK or from another missionary worker. It's first-person anecdote long past the hearing, plus hearsay. Then, when he turns to factual reporting, it makes the narrative seem unsure of itself, running away from the personal focus to the macro perspective, the worldwide attention. Regrettably, there it turns mostly to online sources, cited infrequently. If one were to look at the endnotes without reading the book, the impression would be of someone writing a personal story and then Googling to legitimize it. That might not be unfair.

Mike doesn't seem to have labored philosophically over his experience much outside the Bible. His is an affirmation of plain ideas, plain convictions, plain tautologies. The beginnings of chapters quote from the Bible, from the Statue of Liberty, from the preamble to the Declaration of Independence. Later he begins a chapter about the gulags by quoting from Million Dollar Baby. In an even later chapter, he describes, in detail, the condition of Josh Hartnett in Black Hawk Down before quoting his character in connection to something that isn't really clear. At the end of the book, he likens himself to Frodo, from The Lord of the Rings, at length. At that point, the quotes from Martin Luther King look like someone running to Google or Bartlett's.

The solutions the book offers are vague and non-committal. Mike asks several experts, from diplomatic and human rights fields, to weigh in on how to fix North Korea. Tellingly, he doesn't challenge a one; nor does he offer his own solution. Instead he tells us that the solution will be difficult and may involve some parts of the things that other people said. After reading a book of such unpleasantness, even a compromise solution is welcome. Mike skips that. Perhaps advocating a concrete course of action would prevent future donations.

This is a pity. The DPRK represents some of the worst of humanity, and those who rescue people from it represent some of the best. No one could doubt this. But Mike Kim's scattershot and strenuously Christian approach to his topic lessens the impact of a basic point. He promotes a faith that can be as all-encompassing and all-answering as the ones his rescues have left, then damns a regime for infantilizing people in a school of belief where they can't think for themselves. Mike tells us how people escape from North Korea, but then it's just as important to know how faithful they became in Christ.

That said, the primary flaws in Mike's book are not religious. It suffers from repetition caused by disorganization. It piles testimonials upon testimonials to make the same point again and again, often in ways that digress from the ostensible point of chapters. The problem with Mike Kim's Escaping North Korea is that he thinks of it in donor presentations, in the interests of his faith and without an idea of what the two of them mean to people not already beholden to both. He's written a book with a sweet and endearing heart. The problem is that sometimes it has no brain.

Rating: 1
The DPRK is one of the most satirically sublime nations ever created. Yet you will not find anything that isn't 100% serious here. You will find statistics that seem to have been shoehorned in after the story was written and calls for international ideas tacked on almost as an afterthought. This is a memoir and a Christian mission. There are commendable and wonderful parts to it. We should celebrate how Mike shepherded people to a freer world. But the book isn't just those golden moments. It's a lot of clunky, unstudied and hearsay bits in between. It wanders. It knows what it means to say, then never fully or effectively says it. The full weight of circumstance, that should make its point, instead overwhelms it.

There are better books about the DPRK and its culture out there. Strong recommendation to avoid, unless you need a gift for that devout grandma.