What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

September 18, 2017 Issue

Evan Osnos, in his extraordinary “On the Brink,” in this week’s issue, reports on a trip he made to Pyongyang, North Korea, last month, three days after Trump’s “locked and loaded” tweet. I say “extraordinary” because Osnos’s piece puts us on the ground inside North Korea at the very moment when the U.S. and North Korea appear headed for the unthinkable – nuclear war. It’s the equivalent of having an American reporter in Havana at the time of the Cuban missile crisis. I confess I read “On the Brink” somewhat perversely, hoping not only to gain insight into what Kim Jong Un is really up to (are his threats serious or is he merely posturing?), but also to enjoy a good travel tale. I wasn’t disappointed. In Pyongyang, Osnos stays at the Kobangsan Guest House (“The place had an air of low-cost opulence—chandeliers, rhinestones, and pleather sofas”). He has supper with a Foreign Ministry official in a private hotel dining room (“We were in a private hotel dining room that felt like a surgical theatre: a silent, scrubbed, white-walled room bathed in bright light. Two waitresses in black uniforms served each course: ginkgo soup, black-skin chicken, kimchi, river fish, and vanilla ice cream, along with glasses of beer, red wine, and soju”). In the company of a Foreign Ministry guide, he tours Pyongyang and notes what he sees:

Soviet-era Ladas and ancient city buses ply the streets, while passengers stick their heads out the windows in search of cool air. Buildings are adorned with Korean-language banners hailing the “Juche ideology,” the official state credo, which glorifies self-reliance and loyalty. On an embankment near a major intersection, workers in gray coveralls were installing an enormous red sign that praised the “immortal achievements of the esteemed Supreme Leader, comrade Kim Jong Un, who built the nuclear state of Juche, the leader in rocket power!”

Some women can be seen wearing stilettos and short skirts, though these can be no higher than two inches above the knee, according to Workers’ Party regulations. (Jeans are still practically taboo, because of their association with America.) Now and then, I saw people hunched over cell phones. Since 2013, Pyongyang has had 3G mobile service, but most people have access only to North Korea’s self-contained intranet, which allows them to send e-mail inside the country and to look at some Web sites.

I passed couples whispering on park benches, and a grandmother following a toddler across fresh asphalt. A black Lexus, buffed to a high shine, honked its way through pedestrians. (Officially, most private cars are provided as gifts from the Supreme Leader, but insiders acquire cars by registering them in the names of state enterprises.) We came upon a van fitted with oversized loudspeakers on its roof. Pak said that the message being played was a “warning about American aggression.” He explained, “We have a propaganda unit in every district.” Nobody seemed to be paying much attention.

I relished Osnos’s use of “I”; it’s the glue that holds his extensive report together, enlivening it with personal perspective (e.g., “Outside the Administration, the more people I talked to, the more I heard a strong case for some level of diplomatic contact”).

My takeaway from “On the Brink” is that North Korea is deeply sunk in its own mythology (some would say propaganda), dangerously cut off from reality. In one of Osnos’s most compelling passages, he writes,

Every country valorizes its war record, but North Korea’s mythology—the improbable victory, the divine wisdom of the Kim family, and America’s enduring weakness and hostility—has shaped its conception of the present to a degree that is hard for the rest of the world to understand. In something close to a state religion, North Korea tells its people that their nation may be small, but its unique “single-hearted unity” would crush a beleaguered American military. That’s a volatile notion.

My favorite details in “On the Brink” have nothing to do with nuclear war. Osnos and his guide stop for lunch at a “large blue-and-white boat that doubles as a restaurant, moored on the banks of the Taedong River.” Osnos writes,

The restaurant’s distinguishing charm is that you can catch your own lunch in its tanks. On the way to our table, we passed a man standing on a ladder, holding a net, trying to nab a large fish with long whiskers. We reached a dining room where several tables were occupied by families, whose members ranged in age from a grandfather in a Mao-style suit to a couple of kids chasing each other around the table.

Details like that man with a net, standing on a ladder “trying to nab a large fish with long whiskers,” and those kids “chasing each other around the table” help humanize a people who, in many respects, seem quite other.    

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