North Korea, Caught in Time: Images of War and Reconstruction, by Chris Springer (with an essay by Balazs Szalontai). Reading, U.K.: Garnet Publishing, 2010. xxviii, 148 pages, illustrations, map, index. $49.95 cloth.
As Balazs Szalontai, the author of the background essay to this slim but very engaging volume, notes, little has been written on how average North Koreans lived through the perilous period of the Korean War (1950-1953) and the years of intense reconstruction that followed its devastation. This has largely to do with that country's mania for secretiveness. Until the unprecedented--though still highly stilted--access to North Korea afforded by the information revolution of latter days, it is perhaps the period of 1948-1956, before Kim Il Sung had solidified his hold on power and sequestered his country within its own reality, that offered the outside observer the best chance of understanding the lives of average North Koreans. Even for this earlier period, however, studies are rare. Though in no way claiming to be such a study, Chris Springer's volume of black-and-white photos (culled from two unlikely sources, the Hungarian National Museum and the Museum History Institute and Museum of that country's Ministry of Defense) does its bit to address this shortage and offers a valuable, fascinating, but also frustrating glimpse into the lives of the North Korean people during those watershed years.
North Korea, Caught in Time comprises two primary elements--a twenty-page essay by Balazs Szalontai ("The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the Forgotten Side of a Not-so-forgotten War") followed by the photographs themselves, divided broadly into five categories: War, Reconstruction, Politics, Agriculture Industry, and Culture Education. This is supplemented by a map, index, and postscript on further sources.
Balaazs Szalontai (currently a professor at Mongolian International University) offers what can only be called a gem of an essay that provides the reader--and viewer--a succinct but eloquent overview of the conditions average North Koreans faced just before, during, and in the wake of the Korean War (i.e., the Great Fatherland Liberation War). As the title reveals, Szalontai frames the popular North Korean experience in terms of the Biblical four horsemen--purveyors of famine, conquest/persecution, war, and death. This certainly works on some levels (combined North Korean civilian/military casualties as a result of the war may have numbered as high as two million), but clashes in tone with the more hopeful thematic organization of the collection itself. Nevertheless, the author makes a noble effort to paint a picture of the life of average North Koreans during and following the conflict based on what few sources and secondary studies are available. However, rather than a portrait of the average North Korean, the essay may more accurately be described as an overview of the conditions and events that most affected the average North Korean between approximately 1950 and 1956. As is the case with the photographs themselves, the "average North Korean" remains a shadowy figure.
Since so much of the introductory essay is based on Hungarian sources--a fact that contributes to rather than diminishes its value--this reader felt it would have been more meaningful had these important witnesses been engaged more fully. Who were these Hungarian officials, what were their backgrounds, what brought them to North Korea, and what was their fate? Such questions were not addressed, understandably perhaps, in light of the book's primary topic. Yet considering the archival source of the photographs, there is another story that could have been more fully related here. Finally, the essay, engaging as it is, rarely refers to the photographs themselves, resulting in a slight disconnect. Save for a few references to photos likely taken by the Hungarian diplomatic staff, one could read this opening essay separately and hardly realize it constituted an introduction to a collection of photographs. …