While recently book browsing at a local Barnes & Noble, I noticed a strange addition to the bookshelf holding children’s guides to foreign countries. The Scholastic Children’s Press has a series called “A True Book,” and one stood out: “A True Book About North Korea.” I immediately reacted in horror: how could the children’s book company delicately explain gulags, slave labor, or a militaristic society which starves its people while lavishing luxury goods on its ruler?
Of course, the book explained none of these things. It was as if Kim Jong-un himself had written a children’s guide to his great kingdom. Scholastic has printed a brochure for North Korea filled with outright lies, not to mention lies of omission. The back cover even exclaims, “ALL NEW ALL TRUE!” for irony’s sake. Variations of this “TRUE” exclamation appear several times, even in the index.
Parroting North Korean Propaganda
It was with horror that I read this description of the Hermit Kingdom on the book’s back cover: “The capital city has an excellent subway system. It is decorated with wall paintings and chandeliers.” Before even opening the book it was clear it would be completely unfaithful to what life is like in North Korea.
There are, in fact, just two subway stations that seem to meet this description. They are the only two stations foreigners are ever brought to. North Korean officials claim the whole system looks like this, but it’s impossible to know if any other stations even exist. One foreign visitor was able to escape his minders and tried to make his way into a station never before visited by an outsider. He found it closed. Some North Korea watchers believe parts of the system exist, but none are in use, and that there is just a shuttle that runs between the two show stations while visitors are present, with actors playing the part of busy commuters. The elaborate game North Koreans play to keep the illusion of a working system in place is straight out of ‘The Truman Show.’
Another pivotal North Korean talking point revolves around the devastating famine of the mid-1990s, and how it impacted the country’s present economy. Scholastic, like North Korean propagandists, claims, “Unfortunately, juche (self-reliance) has not always worked. In the mid-1990s, floods and drought led to terrible famines. Many people died or lost their homes. Today, North Korea is a poor country.”
Juche has never worked. North Korea has been reliant on foreign handouts from its inception. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, it has held the Western world hostage with threats of nuclear advancement and war in exchange for food aid. The famines of the ’90s, which killed one to two million people, were not due to natural causes. They were directly caused by the policies of North Korean leaders, who prioritize their own caviar and movie collections over the health and welfare of their people.
The Only Things Communist Countries Produce Are Poverty and Deception
The abject poverty most North Koreans find themselves living in isn’t due to the famines or American sanctions (as North Koreans claim). It’s Communism. At the end of the Korean War, both the North and the South were in rough shape. Today, they could not be more different. The change took place in just one generation: the South embraced market economics and made great strides in increasing individual liberty for its citizens. The North did the very opposite, and got opposite results.
Scholastic claims Pyongyang is filled with modern apartment buildings and architecture. The truth is, many buildings are simply unfinished outer shells. One of the most iconic buildings, a hotel in the center of the city, cannot be completed because of what is believed to have been flawed architectural planning. The windows can’t have glass installed because of poor design, and an elevator cannot be installed for the same reason. It was under construction while North Koreans starved in the 1990s. Now it sits empty.
One of the most ridiculous lines from Scholastic comes regarding North Korea’s economic “talents.” Scholastic states: “Since the 1990s, North Korea has been involved in a high-tech industry—computer animation. North Koreans are respected for their technical skills in this field. They use the latest animation software.” North Korea may be known for its use of computers and the Internet, but only insofar as malicious hacking, as Sony Pictures learned the hard way after the production of “The Interview,” a comedy about the dictatorship starring Seth Rogen and James Franco. Unmentioned by Scholastic is the true nature of the North Korean economy, which leaves its citizens living hand to mouth, scavenging for food.
What else are North Koreans skilled at, according to Scholastic? Propaganda. What that word actually means (remember, the book is geared toward children) is explained in a glossary in the back, but in context, readers are told that propagandists “give poetry readings. They perform plays and songs. These performances are intended to inspire the country’s workers.” A child reading about these North Korean propagandists might wonder why the United States doesn’t have any of our own, because golly, don’t they sound wonderful?
It Would Be Funny If It Weren’t So Horrible
There are several other laugh lines, including: “North Korea puts great emphasis on education. All schooling is free. Today, almost all adults can read and write.”
Wait ‘til actual North Koreans hear about this! While schooling is technically free, it’s widely known from defector testimony and interviews that parents are “expected to provide desks, chairs, building materials and cash to pay for heating fuel.” One of the most disturbing reports is that, to set the foundation for the brainwashing that will continue throughout a North Korean’s life, the only heated room in an entire school is a room dedicated to worshiping the Kim family. Thus the only warmth a child feels all day is while admiring a photo of their Great Leaders.
Here’s another gem: “North Koreans shop mostly in simple stores that sell local products. They buy fruits and vegetables at outdoor markets. To purchase food, people must present food coupons. These are handed out by the government.”
The truth is, as in other Communist countries, the food voucher system sounds great in theory but fails in practice. There are usually not enough fruits or vegetables to go around, making government food coupons useless, leaving North Koreans at the mercy of the black market for food.
Scholastic, at the very least, explained the class system that rules North Korean society. Unfortunately while discussing the lowest group, those who are perceived to be “disloyal,” Scholastic fails to mention that while “people in this group are forced to work in mines or on farms” they are trapped in gulags, tortured, and live surrounded by barbed wire. Even though this, like many other topics, are inappropriate for children to learn about, it raises the question of why Scholastic is even bothering to write a children’s book about the regime if its offenses are just going to be sugar-coated and glossed over.
This isn’t the first time Scholastic has showcased a bias, which generally leans leftward on domestic politics. Michelle Malkin showcased the publisher’s sympathies toward Occupy Wall Street, and Eric Bolling exposed its bias toward socialism with a story on “redistribution of wealth” questions for a fifth-grade math assignment. It’s unsurprising to find academics predisposed to liberal thinking. One would think, and hope, however, that the difference between liberalism in the United States and deadly socialism in North Korea would have been clear even to the writers and editors Scholastic employs.
Perhaps that’s why Scholastic tells us “Propaganda is considered a form of art.” If so, “A True Book About North Korea” is truly a masterpiece.