The Hermit King reviewed

Chung Min Lee, The Hermit King: The Dangerous Game of Kim Jong Un. St. Martin’s Press, 2019

As I began writing this book review, the American president, Donald Trump, fired John Bolton, his national security advisor. News reports said the two of them had a falling out over ways to deal with Iran, North Korea, and the Taliban. Bolton is a hawk in all three areas. He would happily go for military solutions while Trump says he wants to make deals. He just doesn’t see deal making as a two-way street. With Trump, it’s always “my way or the highway.”

My guess is that the author, Chung Min Lee, would stand with Bolton. Lee doesn’t like the North Korean leader. He also doesn’t trust South Korean president Moon Jae-in’s willingness to find a solution to the on-going conflict. In a 2018 interview with Truthout, Noam Chomsky points out that Moon and Kim Jong-un signed a joint Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula. It “affirmed the principle of determining the destiny of the Korean nation on their own accord.” That is, without reference to any of the domineering superpowers.

Chung Min Lee, “is a senior fellow in the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Prior to joining Carnegie, he taught for twenty years at the Graduate School of International Studies (GSIS) in Yonsei University in Seoul.” His book does not provide much context to help us understand either North Korea or its president, Kim Jong-un.

North Korea didn’t get the way it is by accident. It is the result of 69 years of American military actions and threats, and political and economic isolation. Before that, it suffered through another 35 years of occupation by Japan.

Korea and Japan had a long history of warfare, leading up to 1910 when it was annexed into the Japanese empire. Throughout the second world war, the Japanese occupiers had a policy, and a practice, of kidnapping Korean women and sending them away to become “comfort women” for their soldiers.

In 1945, the victorious countries liberated Korea from Japan but didn’t really set it free. They put half under Soviet influence and half under the United States. Not long after, the Cold War heated up and the American State Department began seeing dominoes falling all across South East Asia.

Korea and several other south-east Asian countries began looking towards the socialist world for an escape from imperialist domination. Hostilities broke out between the northern half of Korea, led by Kim Il-sung, and the southern half, led by Syngman Rhee. The north was supported by the Soviet Union and China. The south had the United States and the newly created United Nations on its side.

The Korean War was the first hot war to erupt from the cold war. It was never concluded. An armistice was signed in 1953, but not a peace treaty. This is the historical context behind the current situation in Korea. The Hermit King largely ignores it and paints a belligerent picture of Kim Jong-un.

We can get an idea of Lee’s attitude when he says, in Chapter 2 that “North Korea is one of the largest criminal syndicates in the world: churning out counterfeit notes (such as fake U.S. $100 bills that are nearly indistinguishable from the real thing); manufacturing and trading illicit drugs; running alcohol- and tobacco-smuggling rings; sending out slave laborers to Russia, China, and parts of the Middle East; and, increasingly, undertaking bank heists through computer hacking.”

That’s quite an incredible charge sheet. It raises the question of how one of the poorest countries in the world can sustain a criminal operation larger than the Central American drug cartels, and more successful than the Wall Street hedge fund manipulators. It just isn’t credible.

It’s not the only head-scratcher. In the introduction, Lee says that one of Kim Jong-un’s rivals, Jang Song, was accused of high treason in 2013. Lee writes that he was “handcuffed, held by two armed guards, sentenced by a military tribunal and executed immediately by antiaircraft guns.” I’ll give Lee the benefit of the doubt here and assume a typo. The copy I read was an uncorrected digital galley received through There are much more efficient methods of execution available to those inclined to carry one out.

The Hermit King is too biased to be of much help to anyone interested in getting to the bottom of the Korean conflict. The search for a solution requires a much more textured analysis than Lee provides.

The Hermit King will be published by St. Martin’s Press on 05 November 2019. I received an advance copy from the publisher through