BOOK REVIEW: Pirate of the Far East by Stephen Turnbull

Pirate of the Far East: 811-1639Pirate of the Far East: 811-1639 by Stephen Turnbull

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Unfortunately, the first thing one notices about this book is what seems like a typo in the title. Instead of “Pirates of the Far East,” it’s Pirate of the Far East, which suggests piracy wasn’t so much of a problem in the region because there was only the one pirate—and that the author isn’t a fan of either definite or indefinite articles. I’m sure this was done intentionally, but it does read oddly and sounds tinny.

This slim book is a typical edition of the Osprey military history series. All of these books are less than 100 pages, illustrated, and focus on a specific class of warfighter over a defined period. In this case, the book presents a class of pirates called wako for the period from 811 to 1639. Wako literally refers to Japanese pirates, but–in fact–these marauders of the high seas were often mixed nationality crews. The book also provides information about counter-piracy activities and those groups of warriors, such as Shaolin monks, who fought against piracy back in those days.

This book covers a range of topics including: the life of a pirate, pirate ships, strategy, tactics, and weapons—as well as the history of these groups. The book has five actual chapters, but there are short units providing important information that would usually be appendices, e.g. a chronology, a discussion of museum exhibits, and an annotated bibliography.

The illustrations are mostly drawings, but include maps and photographs as well. Some of the art is drawn in the present-day by the illustrator Richard Hook, but some are historic pieces from art collections. The photographs also include some present-day photos of locations that were once bases of piracy, as well as photos of museum exhibits (e.g. topographic and other models.) The graphics are helpful in showing how pirates dressed/armored and were armed. The maps and drawings are particularly helpful.

I’d recommend this book, but I do think it’s overpriced at full price. At a mere 64 pages—a pamphlet more than a book–paying $10 or more seems a bit pricey despite the useful graphics and the fact that the author is among the most renowned authorities on Japanese warriors and medieval military tactics. All that said, there are relatively few books on the topic, and it’s not easy to get this information from other sources.

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BOOK REVIEW: Escape from North Korea by Melanie Kirkpatrick

Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia's Underground RailroadEscape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad by Melanie Kirkpatrick

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Escape from North Korea is the most intriguing non-fiction book I’ve read in recent months. Kirkpatrick offers a glimpse into the operations of a modern-day underground railroad, one whose stories—sadly—are often no less chilling than those associated with its US Civil War namesake from 150 years ago.

The 17 chapters of this book are arranged into six parts. The organizational logic of the book takes the reader from the germ of an idea to flee all the way to settling into life in a free country, with all the trials and tribulations that are experienced in between. It begins as a story of one person who decides to escape, and who must virtually always get across the border into China on his or her own. Once across the border, there is help to be had if the refugee can find it before he or she gets caught by the Chinese and repatriated or is exploited by nefarious individuals. Danger is ever-present, occasionally even once the individual gets to South Korea.

Chapters 3 through 7 were particularly interesting because they looked at various classes of escapee, some of which one might not realize existed. It starts with the classic defectors, similar to those one might associate with the USSR—political, military, sporting, and artistic figures. This was the main class of refugee until people began starving in the 1990’s due to nation-wide famine.

Next is a chapter on brides for sale. Many North Korean women end up forced into slave marriages. China has a dearth of eligible women due a bias against female children, particularly combined with its one-child policy. Some women are lured across the border under false pretenses, but others, finding themselves fugitives in China, end up being exploited due to their vulnerability. Each bride fetches about $1,200 to $1,500 ($500 to $800 from the wholesaler to the retailer.) There’s also a chapter devoted to the children of such marriages, and particularly the cases in which the mother is repatriated and the child ends up orphaned because children born in China will not be taken by the North Koreans and frequently the fathers want nothing to do with the children. Pregnant women repatriated to North Korea are often forced to abort pregnancies involving Chinese fathers.

One of the most intriguing chapters was on the North Korean lumberjacks residing in Siberia. This profit-sharing deal goes back to the Soviet days. When the Soviet Union imploded, however, the arrangement was kept with some worker rights installed on paper to appease Russia’s newly developed human rights watchdogs. One might wonder how the Kims—fearful of dissidents as they are—would let a group live outside the country on a remote site that’s hard to guard. The answer is that all the lumberjacks had to have both wives and children at home to serve as hostages. Still, some decide to make the break.

There is also a chapter about the Prisoners of War from the Korean War who were trapped on the wrong side of the border.

I’m fairly well-read on the subject of North Korea, but, like most Americans, the bulk of this has to do with Pyongyang’s nuclear program. I, therefore, found some of the stories of the regime’s depravity to be beyond the pale. A sampling of such stories includes:
-guards severely beating a prisoner and then having other prisoners bury the victim alive

-the warden in a state-run orphanage having orphans fight each other for bigger food servings

-a family that killed themselves rather than be repatriated to North Korea

-individuals, such as Ri Hyok-ok, who were executed for distributing bibles

-North Korea’s provision of family information on trans-border family members as a profit-making scheme

-Kim Jong Il pulling a Pol Pot and shutting down the universities and colleges and sending students to work on farms and in factories for months in 2011 because he was afraid that the Arab Spring might be infectious

-Kidnapping foreigners on foreign soil, which North Korea has even admitted to openly.

Sadly, the woeful tales aren’t limited to the North Koreans. Kirkpatrick devotes a considerable amount of space to chastising the Chinese for repatriating North Koreans. Under international law, which China ratified, refugees shouldn’t be sent back to their country of origin if it’s likely they will be punished. China claims that individuals are economic migrants and not political refugees, and it compares them to Mexicans crossing onto American soil—without addressing the fact that Mexicans are not sentenced to hard labor or killed when they are returned to Mexico. The Chinese might also point to Hwang Jang-yop, the author of the North Korean Juche (self-reliance) policy, as an example of a “true” political refugee that they didn’t repatriate, but allowed to migrate to South Korea (where the North Koreans tried to assassinate him in Seoul several times.)

There’s even some disappointing behavior on the side of the US. In 2006, an American consulate employee in China not only turned away several North Korea refugees, but–by speaking openly over an unsecured line–got a conductor on the Underground Railroad arrested.

The end of the book contains an interesting description of how the Kims are beginning to lose the war on keeping the information age out of North Korea. From balloon drops to radio broadcasts, North Koreans are beginning to get true information about both the outside world and their own leadership. Lest one think that no one could possibly believe the propaganda out of Pyongyang, even in the absence of information inflows, there’s a story about an immigrant to America who had a hard time coaxing his family out because they believed that America was out to kill North Koreans. This father’s story of the good life in sunny Florida didn’t entirely convince them, and ultimately they had to be coaxed to their new home in stages. It’s telling that the cellphone was only introduced in North Korea in 2008. While cellphones aren’t that useful for the railroad because they can’t call outside the country, they do allow for some spread of information inside.

One might think that once a North Korean gets to freedom, everything is hunky-dory, but Kirkpatrick discusses the problems that most North Koreans have adjusting to life in South Korea. As workers, North Koreans tend to lack initiative. They just want to be told what to do, and will do no more. It’s not that they’re inherently lazy; they come from a world in which initiative is not rewarded but is often punished.

While it may be hard to believe, most of the emigrants have trouble coping with the massive amount of choice available in their new homelands. Having an entire aisle of the market devoted to laundry detergent overwhelms them. Apparently, a few—very few—have even snuck themselves back into North Korea where all they have to do is do what they’re told, eat what they can, and maybe starve to death.

I think this is an important book that should be read by anyone interested in world affairs. North Korea is truly unique in the world. One telling line from the book was, “Even during the Communist era, Russia was more liberal and prosperous than North Korea.” The continuance of the Kim Dynasty is an unstable proposition, and it’s impossible to know when it will fall and what damage will be done internationally when it does.

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The Most Intense Blockbuster You’ll Never See

REV_Kirkpatrick-designAmong the Kindle Daily Deals yesterday was a book entitled Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad by Melanie Kirkpatrick. It was well-timed to a news story about a Korean War Veteran, Merrill Newman, whose video statement as a prisoner of the DPRK was released the same day. Anyway, I bought the book and I’m hooked. The stories it contains are a mix of chilling and thrilling.

As I began reading, I wondered why no one had made a major Hollywood blockbuster based on an escape from North Korea. It’s a journey fraught with peril. There’s so much to go wrong from being shot in the back crossing the Tumen River to being repatriated to being double-crossed by smugglers to falling into the hands of traffickers or other predators. Adding to the challenge is the fact that most North Koreans are severely undernourished, and each is on his or her own for the first part of the trip–getting across the border. Furthermore, it’s not uncommon for North Koreans to stick out physically because they’re unusually small and, as pointed out by one of Kirkpatrick’s sources, prone to bad hair and split ends.

I know these are words that writers despise but the screenplay practically writes itself.

Then I remembered, oh yeah, this will never be a movie because China’s government would be one of the villains, and Hollywood isn’t in the business of making films that PO the Chinese any more. Why is China the villain? Well, it’s not the main villain. That distinction, of course, goes to the Kim dynasty, presently personified by Kim Jong Un–who has been the biggest bastard yet when it comes to escapees. China’s policy is one of repatriation. It would be kinder for China to just execute the North Koreans themselves. One of the stories early in the book is about an entire family that was to be sent back who–having eaten their first decent meal in a long time–decided to die full and committed suicide while in Chinese custody. Lest one think that this is a Communist thing, Kirkpatrick points to Vietnam as one of the countries that quietly helps North Korean escapees get to safety. Like the democracies that do so, Vietnam keeps this on the down-low to avoid cheesing off the Chinese, but at least they do it.

Why would such a movie be good? Because everybody needs to know what’s going on, and movies are the surest injection point into the public consciousness. There have been books and documentaries about this for years, but I don’t think most people realize how bad it is.

I should point out that there have been films on the subject. The Crossing, made in South Korea, is probably the most well-known feature film on the subject. It’s about a father who crosses the border to get medication for a wife, but ends up stuck on the other side of the border during which time his wife dies and his boy becomes–for all intents and purposes–an orphan. This film is apparently based on a true story.

And there have been a number of documentaries on the subject. The Defector: Escape from North Korea is one of the best.

This is the book trailer for the Kirkpatrick book.

Hae Kum Gang: Korean Food in Bangalore

Jeyuk-Chulpan with assorted sides.

Jeyuk-Chulpan with assorted sides.

I’ve been eating a lot at restaurants since we moved to Bangalore, both because it’s (usually) cheap and for the experience of it. I’ve eaten at enough places to have developed some favorites, but I try to keep broadening my experience by eating at as many new places as  I can.

Today, I had a lunch experience that was new on two fronts. For one thing, it was a restaurant that’s new to me, but–for another–it was my first experience with Korean food as prepared in India. I’ve eaten at several Chinese restaurants in India, and, while the places I’ve tried were all pretty good, they were all distinctively Indo-Chinese. In other words, the dishes didn’t taste like they did in other places at which I’ve had Chinese food, e.g. China. On the other hand, the Bangalorean Thai restaurant, Lan Thai, seems pretty authentic to me, except perhaps the diminished use of fish sauce (which is incredibly popular in Thailand and almost non-existent in India.) I was, therefore, uncertain what to expect from Hae Kum Gang–other than that it had a pretty high rating on Zomato and so it likely had decent food.

I can’t say what Korean food tastes like in Korea, as I’ve not yet gotten outside of Inchon airport, but Atlanta had a pretty huge Koreatown and I ate at a variety of Korean restaurants there. (A Korean man once told me that Korean food in Korea tasted very different because of the taste of the vegetables–given the spice palette of Korean food, I wasn’t sure whether to dismiss this as nostalgia–e.g. tasting the difference between American cabbage and Korean cabbage through the kim chi chili seasoning and fermentation seems a bit of a challenge.)

At any rate, what I found at Hae Kum Gang was on par with what I’ve had in Duluth, Georgia.  This was a pleasant surprise because their menu states Korean, Chinese, and Japanese cuisine. While these cuisines have some overlap–particularly with Korea in the middle–they are each distinct. My concern was based on bad experience with “multi-cuisine” restaurants in India that try to do everything and end up doing everything in a mediocre fashion.  (Hampi was loaded with such places.) What I ordered was pretty typically Korean, I imagine if you had a Chinese or Japanese dish off the menu you might not find it authentic, but rather like a Korean interpretation of the dish. (Although, Duluth has some fine sushi places with Japanese names and advertising themselves as Japanese food, but clearly owned, run, and staffed by Koreans.)  

I ordered the Jeyuk-Chulpan, which was described as: “Stir-fried pork with vegetables, served in spicy chili sauce on a sizzler plate.” The description was spot on. The platter sizzled for about 15 minutes after it got to the table. The dish had a pleasant level of heat (spice) and was tasty.  This isn’t a dish for those watching their cholesterol. The pork was quite fatty, which, of course, made it sumptuous and delicious but higher in fat content than many might desire. For lunch it suited me. It’s not something that I would eat for dinner, both because I don’t sleep well if I have red meat immediately before bedtime and because one needs some active time to burn off some of those calories  before going to bed. 

I was told a bowl of steamed rice came with this dish, but was pleasantly surprised to find seven other sides were brought out as well. Getting a load of side dishes along with your main is not uncommon with Korean food and I’ve had similar experiences elsewhere. The first small plate to arrive was Yukhoe,–a spicy Korean answer to steak tartare. I was a little reluctant about eating a raw beef dish in India, but I forged ahead and found it delectable. It was spicy, and warmed through–though not enough to cook the meat. While it was tasty and I’m none the worse for wear, I don’t know if I’d recommend you partake of this dish unless you know your constitution to be caste-iron and you like to live a little on the wild side. In the US, where there are all sorts of regulations and health inspections in restaurants, there is still invariably a warning to consume at your own risk. The same could be said of Japan, where 4 people died (35 hospitalized) in 2011 from eating a batch of the Japanese version of this dish that was tainted with E. Coli.  The standard for raw beef dishes is less than a day between slaughter and freezing and less than a day between thawing and use. I can’t say what this restaurant’s practice is. It tasted clean and fresh, but exercise care.

There was also a soup and a salad. The soup actually tasted more like something I’ve had on occasion in India than anything I’ve had in a Korean restaurant, except the vegetables were typically Korean. I believe the salad was a seaweed. There was also braised tofu, boiled baby potatoes in a teriyaki-esque sauce, and the Korean mainstay kim chi.  If you eat the Yukhoe, I’d recommend you eat your kim chi. Kim chi isn’t a personal favorite of mine, but its fermentation may offer you some assistance in digestion.

I’d recommend Hae Kum Gang.  My food was 480 Rs. (plus tax, tip, and a mineral water), which is pricey by Indian standards–but, as I always say, sushi and brain surgery are two things you don’t want a great deal on.

No, I don’t know if the name is supposed to register as “Hey, Come Gang!”

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