Book review: A Capitalist in North Korea, by Felix Abt

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 August, 2014, 11:57am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 August, 2014, 11:57am

A Capitalist in North Korea: My Seven Years in the Hermit Kingdom
by Felix Abt
2 stars

Julian Ryall

Felix Abt spent a remarkable seven years in North Korea representing the ABB Group, a Swiss power company, with plenty of adventures along the way. Few Westerners have had a similar opportunity to meet and work alongside ordinary North Koreans - let alone socialise with them - and his book demonstrates an abiding affection for the people of this benighted state.

Unfortunately, Abt carries over that genuine respect and warmth for its people to a regime that deserves no such devotion.

The personal insights are fascinating - plastic surgery is all the rage in Pyongyang, we are told, hamburgers are readily available and young North Koreans are excited about the possibilities of a more open future - but too often Abt comes across as an apologist for the regime of Kim Jong-il and his son and successor, Kim Jong-un.

While human rights activists claim prison camps hold as many as 200,000 people, the UN estimates the figure at 120,000. Abt says that figure "represents less than 1 per cent of the total population". So that's acceptable? Many would argue that the punishment is excessive given these individuals have been detained for attempting to flee over the border, uttering misgivings against the regime, trading on the black market or some other relatively minor infraction.

The author also dismisses the testimony provided by people who have managed to escape and tell harrowing stories of being required to attend public executions, starvation, abuse at the hands of camp guards and children born into life in the camps with no hope of escape other than death.

The Western media is apparently to blame for the publication of such stories as we fall for the defectors' tales because they make such good headlines.

Abt concludes that change is slowly coming to North Korea - he admirably set up the Pyongyang Business School to teach Western tactics to future entrepreneurs and founded the Pyongyang European Business Association - and says engagement, exchanges, ideas and assistance are the only way to help North Korea rejoin the international community.

That's a nice theory. Critics might point out that on every occasion that Pyongyang has been given an opportunity to moderate its behaviour - halting its nuclear programmes, declining to fire ballistic missiles, toning down the rhetoric - the regime has declined to seize that chance.

The fact that China appears to have finally lost patience with an important strategic ally suggests the Kim dynasty may have outlived its usefulness to all sides. Perhaps genuine change really is in the air.