Academic journal article North Korean Review

North Korea under Communism: Report of an Envoy to Paradise

Academic journal article North Korean Review

North Korea under Communism: Report of an Envoy to Paradise

Article excerpt

North Korea under Communism: Report of an Envoy to Paradise By Erik Cornell, London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002, $49.95. ISBN-13: 978-0-7007-1697-5, 208 pp.

Few people would believe that a book about North Korea could be partly amusing-that is, until they come across Erik Cornell's book with its rather ironic subtitle. Mr. Cornell opened the Embassy of Sweden in Pyongyang back in 1975. At that time it was the first Western embassy in North Korea. He served there as chargé d'affaires until 1977, and returned to the country for a short period in 1988. This is what makes the book interesting: Unlike many experts on North Korea he actually has stayed there for a prolonged time.

After a very brief historical review, which makes up the first of 26 chapters, Cornell in chronological order tells of his experiences as a diplomat working in the North Korean capital. The reader gets a firsthand account of the difficulties involved with establishing an embassy-from the troubles of opening a bank account and mediocre North Korean interpreters to the refusal of the host country to recognize foreign drivers licenses.

Recalling the 1976 smuggling scandal that involved North Korean embassies in Scandinavia, Cornell illustrates how tough negotiating with the North Korean counterparts used to be due to inadequate knowledge of international relations and diplomatic codes of conduct on the North Korean side.

But Erik Cornell also talks about the day to day-life, which was dominated by the fact that for a foreigner there was basically no social life and nowhere to go-a fate that, by the way, most of the embassies of the communist bloc shared. Furthermore, Cornell offers in-depth descriptions of noteworthy events he attended, such as the inauguration of the Mansudae Theatre, the visit of a plenary meeting of the Supreme People's Assembly or the ceremony on the occasion of the 40th jubilee of the North Korean Republic.

So what's amusing about it after all? Cornell understands how to loosen the narration by frequently mentioning bizarre incidents he witnessed. For example, while describing how horrible he found most of the official meetings and banquets, he reports the Cuban ambassador's wife's attempt to start a normal conversation with a Korean by asking about local burial customs, which was blighted with the answer that "in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea people do not die so much" (p. …

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