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Inside the Hermit Kingdom

by Yi Sun-Kyung

Inside the Hermit Kingdom is journalist and filmmaker Yi Sun-Kyung’s first book. It is in three sections: a personal odyssey of her adjustment as an immigrant to Canada, her attempt to discover the real North Korea which had been demonized in her childhood, and her return to the South to resolve the many conflicting emotions she has about the place.

The immigrant experience is essential background for the rest of the book and has some vivid moments – as when the 10-year-old Yi Sun-Kyung lives in fear of the RCMP for weeks after becoming a Canadian because she only pretended to swear loyalty on the Bible – but it is familiar territory.

The account of three weeks in North Korea is the heart of the book. However, it tells us more about how that strange place, one of the most closed societies in the world, tries to manipulate outside opinion than it does about the lives of the people there. For example, a farmer extols his barn full of tractors for having made manual labour a thing of the past, while in the fields behind him, labourers tend his crops. Yi Sun-Kyung clearly becomes frustrated by this mind-numbing propaganda and with her inability to break through the rigid formality of her minders, but the reader is still left wishing for deeper insights.

Yi Sun-Kyung’s return to South Korea finally resolves some of her feelings about her homeland. This section, in which she compares the similarities in the two Koreas, and inserts personal analysis and musings, has a depth not present before.

Inside the Hermit Kingdom is flawed, but Yi Sun-Kyung was in a certain amount of danger on her visit, and I doubt if anyone could have broken out of the propaganda cocoon in which she was kept. She does offer fascinating insight into the workings of a totalitarian state, and she does her best to compensate for a lack of concrete information by making the trip part of a larger personal exploration, though this is only partially successful. Nevertheless, the lack of available information on North Korea will make this a valuable document of interest to many.


Reviewer: John Wilson

Publisher: Key Porter


Price: $26.95

Page Count: 208 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 1-55013-904-5

Released: Sept.

Issue Date: 1997-9

Categories: History