Joseph Park is 31 years old, a defector from North Korea and a prophet of the revolution. In his former homeland the revolution in question is already under way and, to borrow Gil Scott-Heron’s memorable phrase, the revolution will not be televised because this time it’s going to be marketised. As Joseph tells it the whole process may well now be unstoppable. All this and virtually no one outside North Korea has even noticed it’s begun.
Joseph has come a long way to tell his story and, while his personal history is fascinating, it’s his extraordinary revelations about the hidden life of North Korea that will truly astonish you, because this is a story you won’t have heard anywhere else.
I meet Joseph on a warm July evening when he gives a talk at MadLab (Manchester Digital Laboratory) – an eclectic community organisation of ‘geeks, artists, designers and hackers’. The room is full and from the looks of the audience they’re mainly under 30. Geek chic and pre-talk devotion to smartphones is much in evidence, and judging from the calibre of the many questions they ask they’re a pretty smart bunch.
Joseph himself, youthful and ever smiling, could easily pass for just another byte young thing in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, but his journey to hipster town has been a tad more complex than most. However, he hasn’t flown halfway around the world just to tell us the story of his life; he’s come to tell us about a grassroots economic movement that’s already begun dissolving the foundations of the world’s most authoritarian regime. Let’s start with that life story.
Joseph Park was a trader from early on. His first encounter with micro-capitalism came when he was just six years old, watching his father make deals with Chinese traders: hard cash for dried fish. This was Joseph’s first lesson in economics. A few years later he learnt his first lesson in politics when he arrived home from school and found two drab coloured olive lorries parked outside the family home. A neighbour, a kindly woman who had often been in their house, had betrayed them to the State and now its uniformed servants were exacting revenge for his father’s acts of economic independence by taking away everything the family owned.
When Joseph was 13 he read Daniel Dafoe’s great classic Robinson Crusoe and dreamed of sailing the world as captain of a great trading ship. Sadly, and somewhat predictably, his childhood dream foundered on the reality of Stalinist absolutism. For me this is a memorable detail, illuminating not only the power of literature to fire the imagination, but also the failure of the average totalitarian mind to comprehend it. One can’t help but imagine the narrow minded board of dogmatists who foolishly approved Robinson Crusoe for public consumption in the People’s Paradise:
“What’s it about?” asks one.
“It’s the story of a man shipwrecked on an island and his efforts to make his own furniture”, answers two.
“It will encourage the workers to make do and mend. Very well, approved then,” pronounces three.
There was evidently no Captain Beatty on that particular committee, thank God.
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Tags: North Korea