Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Escape from Camp 14: the true North Korea and the grotesqueries of Rodman's visits

I've just read a fabulous book, "Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West".  It's a quick read -- one night for me on the Kindle -- and I wish I'd had it before I went to the North: four visits in the middle 1980s to do trade in coking coal (ironically, the trade that is said to have done for Kim Jong Un's uncle).  We also bought some product into Australia from the North, to try to generate foreign currency for them, so they could buy more coking coal -- we developed new products for them, electric fencing insulators and metal fencing posts, both of which are consumed in vast quantities in Australia, much more than our modest population would indicate, for we are a vast country that needs a lot of fencing.
We did that business, very successfully, until we tweaked the tail of the "Big Aussie", BHP, which had distribution around Australia, principally through the Elders Group.
BHP was worried enough about our inroads to their monopoly that they told their distributors to stop buying from us, or else....
In our dealings with officials from the North, in Pyongyang and the port city of Chongjin, we came to various conclusions about our business partners, a principal insight being that they all lied, to a man and woman.  We concluded they lied for they -- the lucky elite -- did indeed know that they were not living in a "Workers' Paradise", that the whole concept of "Juche" was a pile of crock that had been fed to them since childhood, so what was lying to foreigners?  Nothing, just a means of getting the upper hand.  At least for a while.
For while we, a small outfit, selling them coking coal, demanded that we be paid with so-called "Confirmed Letters of Credit" (that is, confirmed payment by a reputable international bank), later entrants to the business including a large outfit called Kembla Coking Coal Ltd, bought into the assurances of North Koran traders that they could count on simple Letters of Credit (not confirmed: so that you're counting on a North Korean Bank to make good on the payment).
The KCC people took our business away -- profitable and fun business it was, too -- by shipping coking coal under simple Letters of Credit.  We took some grim satisfaction -- schadenfreude, surely -- in the fact that KCC never got paid for about 8 shipments before they wised up that the wouldn't ever get paid.  So the North's tricks and lies only worked short time.
Back to the book: there's a lot of insider knowledge of how the country works and how its elite live and work.  I wish I'd had it when we were there in those 1980s days.
Five stars from me.  Kindle it now.
Meantime, Dennis Rodman is pimping it up in North Korea, calling the place -- and its portly tyrant --  "Cool, really cool".  No it's not; it's grotesque, Dennis.