The Enduring Cambodian Political Economy?

January 18, 2018

The Enduring Cambodian Political Economy?

by Heidi Dahles, Griffith University

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Phnom Penh Skyline 2017 – Phnom Penh Is Changing Day By Day

Cranes building Phnom Penh’s rapidly rising skyline give testimony to Cambodia’s enduring economic success as well as to China’s commitment to investing in the Kingdom’s infrastructure. Cambodia has been highly successful in attracting foreign direct investment, creating employment and alleviating poverty for millions. The outstanding performance of its economy has been widely acknowledged: the Asian Development Bank calls Cambodia the ‘new tiger economy’ and the World Bank announced Cambodia’s transition from a low-income to a lower middle-income country. The widely held expectation is that Cambodia will achieve upper middle-income status by 2030 if recent growth rates are sustained.


That said, Cambodia also still holds least developed country status. For this reason, Cambodia is likely to retain the preferential trade agreements and donor payments that the country has enjoyed for decades. Economic prosperity is set to advance — unless politics gets in the way.

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Cambodia’s economic rise starkly contrasts the political chaos that reached a climax in November 2017 with the dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party — the country’s only major opposition party — and the detention of its leader, Kem Sokha. Prime Minister Hun Sen has also threatened to close the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, which was founded by the detained opposition leader.

The moves have been widely condemned as marking Cambodia’s shift to a one-party dictatorship, and many Western countries have threatened action. Member states of the European Union announced restrictions on rice imports from Cambodia, while Canada and Australia encouraged Cambodia to reinstate proper democratic processes. Perhaps the strongest response came from the United States, which Hun Sen has accused of supporting the arrested opposition leader’s efforts to conspire against the Cambodian government. In response, the United States immediately cancelled the US$1.8 million in funding it had pledged for the 2018 Cambodian general elections and it announced visa sanctions against Cambodian officials who were ‘undermining democracy’.

Since the 1991 Paris Accords, the United States has spent billions supporting the democratic process in Cambodia in order to restore and preserve peace after two decades of civil war and Khmer Rouge atrocities. Unfortunately, the recent political developments are widely viewed as a collapse of the democratisation process — a view that is shared by international rights organisations such as Global Witness and Human Rights Watch. Further recommended sanctions include asset freezes, travel bans on senior officials, trade restrictions and the suspension of all technical assistance for elections.

The Cambodian government and the ruling party have been rather bemused by Western criticism. The Prime Minister welcomed the cutting of US aid for the elections, pointing out that this would make an end to NGO meddling in Cambodian affairs. After all, Western aid has always been conditional on the government maintaining proper democratic processes and institutions. Alluding to the robust performance of the Cambodian economy, a spokesman of the ruling party dismissed concerns saying: ‘everything is better now than before’.

Will Cambodia’s political fiascos put an end to its economic rise? Cambodian unions fear foreign sanctions will involve a cancellation of preferential tax rates. In a joint statement, the four major unions in the country appealed to foreign embassies and buyers to treat their industries as separate from politics.

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Economic analysts expect the current political instability will have only limited, short-term effects. The West will tighten sanctions if Cambodia continues its crackdowns on democratic institutions such as civil society organisations and independent media outlets. These crackdowns are most likely to intensify in the run up to the 2018 general elections. Foreign investment in Cambodia overall will hardly be affected either way as the overwhelming majority comes from other Asian countries.

As one of China’s most favoured nations, Cambodia not only receives economic investment and aid with ‘no strings attached’ but also receives Beijing’s political approval. China has explicitly expressed its support for the Cambodian government and Hun Sen, who is one of Beijing’s most important allies in Southeast Asia (and in the South China Sea dispute in particular).

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New Roads for Cambodia

Similarly, the Cambodian business community is championing close ties to the government. It views an election victory for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party as the most desirable scenario since any other outcome would be detrimental to established business interests.

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His Majesty King Norodom Sihamoni

While the political drama is unfolding, Cambodian people go about business as usual and politics does not seem to be the first thing on their minds. The current ‘crisis of democracy’ has been a long time coming and is not alien to the region at large. Authoritarian rule is enduring across Southeast Asia. Arguably, as the United States rapidly loses its role as protector of democracy, the ensuing ‘politics of disorder’ is swiftly becoming the new regional order.

Heidi Dahles is Adjunct Professor at the Griffith Business School, Griffith University.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2017 in review and the year ahead.

Steve Bannon has a point, says Dr. Fareed Zakaria

January 14, 2018

Steve Bannon has a point, says Dr. Fareed Zakaria

by Dr. Fareed Zakaria

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The fire and fury over Michael Wolff’s book has largely centered on the personalities and power struggles within the White House. But behind all of that lies an important political development, one that explains the real rift between President Trump and his former chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon. Trump seems to have abandoned populism.

Remember candidate Trump? His signature issue was immigration, on which he promised an unyielding hard line, including a border wall and mass deportations. His “Contract with the American Voter” was brimming with populist measures, from tough actions against China to a trillion-dollar public works program. His economic plans focused on goodies for the middle class, from a 35 percent tax cut for middle-class families to deductions for child and elderly care. He called for severe restrictions on lobbying and for term limits on members of Congress.

Trump’s final campaign ad featured images of billionaire financier George Soros, Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet L. Yellen and Goldman Sachs’s Chief Executive Lloyd Blankfein, darkly narrated by a Trump speech in which he warns against the “global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities.”

Flash forward to Trump today. There is no wall, and the President now speaks of a “bill of love” that could offer a path to citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants he once promised to deport. His relations with China have been decidedly chummy, as have those with another country he excoriated on the campaign trail, Saudi Arabia. The focus of his economic program has been to return vast sums of money to large corporations. Most of his tax law’s benefits go to those firms and to people in the highest income brackets.

Oh, and these economic policies are being designed and implemented by Blankfein’s former No. 2 at Goldman Sachs, National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, and a former Goldman partner, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

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More so than the personality clashes between Bannon and Jared Kushner, and the gossip about who is up and down in the White House, this is the great divide that developed in the early months of the Trump administration. Bannon must have watched with incredulity as the candidate who campaigned as a fiery outsider against the Republican establishment essentially handed over the reins of his government to House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). McConnell is quoted in Wolff’s book as saying, “This president will sign whatever is put in front of him.” Moments after Trump blasted Bannon last week, McConnell’s political team tweeted out a GIF of the majority leader beaming.

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Where did Trump’s populism come from in the first place? To answer this question, the book to read is not Wolff’s gossipy confection but Joshua Green’s highly intelligent “Devil’s Bargain.” In it, Green points out that Trump originally had a mish-mash of political views that leaned in no particular direction. But he began going on talk radio and addressing conservative audiences and realized that it was not economics but social and cultural issues such as immigration that fired up crowds. Trump was initially “indifferent to the idea” of a wall, according to Green, but campaign aide Sam Nunberg is quoted as saying that when Trump tried out the idea for the first time at the Iowa Freedom Summit in January 2015, “the place just went nuts.”

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Unencumbered by any deep ideology of his own or any ethical qualms — as demonstrated by his embrace of birtherism, for example — Trump was able to adopt these issues far more quickly than his 16 competitors in the Republican primaries. He distinguished himself by taking on the most hard-line positions, thus winning over the GOP base. That, in addition to his colorful, charismatic style, created a bond between him and a new bulwark of the Republican Party, the white working class, that appears, for now, unbreakable.

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“…we appear to have a return to the 1920s, an era of unrestrained capitalism, giddy market exuberance, a shrunken state and dramatically rising inequality.”–Fareed Zakaria

I don’t agree with many of Bannon’s proposals, but he was surely right in recognizing the populist fury that runs through a large swath of the country. One wonders what will happen to it as time passes and Trump’s voters notice that they have ended up with something quite different than they had imagined. During the presidential transition, Bannon told Wolff that the Trump era would be like America in the 1930s, with a massive public works program that would get blue-collar workers back into shipyards, mills and mines. Instead we appear to have a return to the 1920s, an era of unrestrained capitalism, giddy market exuberance, a shrunken state and dramatically rising inequality. Is this what the laid-off steelworker in Ohio voted for?

Is Trump’s America the ‘dispensable’ power in Asia-Pacifc?

January 14, 2018

Is Trump’s America the ‘dispensable’ power in Asia-Pacifc?

by David Camroux, Sciences Po (CERI)

Image result for Madeleine AlbrightFormer Secretary of State Madeleine Albright
Madeleine Albright, one of several scholar–statespersons the unique American spoils system used to produce as Secretary of State, characterised the United States as ‘the indispensable power’. In relation to East Asia today, that description seems no longer salient. In this vein, perhaps thirty years from now we will look back on US President Donald Trump’s first official visit to East Asia as the moment when the United States abandoned a superpower role in Asia and grudgingly accepted that hegemonic power in the region would be shared with China.

In his obsession with dismantling the legacy of his predecessor, Trump withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) days after taking office. The TPP was the economic pillar of the US ‘pivot’ to Asia announced by former president Barack Obama in 2009. It marked a continuity in US Asia policy back to 1945 in that it constituted the economic element of a threefold approach. The other two pillars were hard security (reflected in Obama’s pledge to move 60 per cent of US naval assets to the Pacific) as well as public diplomacy or soft power in promoting international public goods (such as democracy and human rights). It also meant providing an intellectually formidable State Department with adequate resources.

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Trump’s trip to Asia in November 2017 demonstrated that his administration has largely abandoned, or at best severely weakened, two of the three pillars of this bipartisan foreign policy edifice. While in relation to North Korea there was a bellicose reaffirmation of the US commitment to playing sheriff, the multilateral economic and soft power dimensions were significantly downgraded. US proposals for bilateral trade deals were greeted with polite silence. Given the Trump administration’s drive to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement and the US–Korea Free Trade Agreement as part of its ‘America first’ agenda, US credibility as a trustworthy trading partner has been sorely compromised.

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As for US soft power, Trump’s ‘bromance’ with his Philippine counterpart President Rodrigo Duterte — shown through the former’s previous praise for the latter’s war on drugs, which has resulted in some 12,000 extra-judicial killings — has demonstrated a downgrading of human rights concerns. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s call in Naypidaw for an independent inquiry into what the UN has categorised as the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya seemed an effort of diplomatic tokenism. Only under pressure from the US Congress did he later invoke the term ethnic cleansing and the possibility of sanctions against the Myanmar military (Tatmadaw).

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By contrast, China potentially has the economic clout and political influence to impose a solution on the top ranks of the Tatmadaw. Tillerson’s Chinese counterpart Foreign Minister Wang Yi has proposed a three-phase plan for resolving the Rohingya crisis — a proposal that received support from both Bangladesh’s and Myanmar’s governments, with Aung San Suu Kyi visiting Beijing on 30 November.

In Manila there was the striking juxtaposition of the weakened US President vehemently defending a curious mix of bilateralism and isolationism against recently emboldened Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has been positioning his country as the champion of multilateralism and defender of the existing international order.

Rhetorically, for Trump, the term Asia Pacific has been replaced by ‘Indo-Pacific’: a revival of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s idea of a quadrilateral security arrangement involving Australia, India, Japan and the United States. If the United States cannot be a leader in a multilateralised East Asia, then perhaps it can consolidate three existing bilateral relations to be the first amongst equals.

But if we examine the practice of Trump’s administration, does the United States have the capacity to fulfil even this limited goal? Even further, does it have the desire to?

The breakdown of its Asia foreign policy status quo involves a combination of wilful negligence and discreet sabotage. Abandoning the TPP fell into the first category, while the hollowing out of the US State Department is a combination of both. Ten months after Trump’s inauguration, many senior positions in the State Department still have not been filled. Some one hundred senior diplomats have left and the threat of a one-third budget cut remains. The Trump administration’s gratuitous assault on multilateral institutions and agreements such as the WTO, UNESCO and the Paris Climate Change Agreement is being conducted in the same vein.

Yet while the United States has been seeking to weaken the international institutions it helped establish, China has been creating new international institutions to further its aims. An October 2014 China Monitor suggests some fourteen parallel and alternative multilateral structures with the potential to supplant existing ones. The most visible in Asia is the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. At what point a parallel institution supplants an existing one — if that is the objective of the Chinese leadership — is debatable. Still, in terms of articulating a long-term vision, China’s Belt and Road dwarfs anything that Trump seems capable of offering.

The question is whether this new emerging order will involve ‘multilateralism with Chinese characteristics’. Much will depend on whether other powers, notably the European Union, can compensate for the US vacuum to preserve and promote a liberal multipolar international environment.

David Camroux is Senior Research Associate at the Centre for International Studies (CERI), Sciences Po, Paris and Professorial Fellow at the Vietnam National University (USSH), Hanoi.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2017 in review and the year ahead.

Asia: After a Goldilocks Year, 2018 Could Be Time for the Bears

January 6, 2018

Asia: After a Goldilocks Year, 2018 Could Be Time for the Bears

by Philip Bowring@www.asiasentinel,com

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If 2017 was a year in which the global economy and its stock markets performed much better than expected in the face numerous threatening political issues, could 2018 be the opposite? For sure there is a Goldilocks feeling at present, in Asia as elsewhere.

For all his sound and fury Donald Trump has yet to do anything that would cause immediate and serious alarm in the outside world – yet.  Despite taking the US out of the TransPacific Partnership trade agreement, he hasn’t yet acted on the North American Free Trade Act, and may not, being under intense pressure from US manufacturers to maintain at least the framework. Asian exporters that act through NAFTA are holding their breath.

The Chinese economy has weathered more fears of the impact of accumulated domestic debt. Xi Jinping has been anointed emperor but now looks more focused on delivering a domestic agenda than in further aggravating relations with China’s neighbors.

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Cambodia–China’s Strategic Partner–President Xi Jinping with Prime Minister Samech Hun Sen

Thanks to Trump’s disinterest in the US’s allies in east Asia, contempt for trade deals and climate change, China can sit back and see its prestige and influence increase without needing to push too hard. A new, more dovish president in South Korea has also helped. In Southeast Asia, politics in Thailand and Malaysia remained largely frozen, with thoroughly reprehensible leaders in both, and with both unlikely to be replaced.

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Thailand is mostly still mourning the late king and Malaysia’s fractured opposition continues to fail to capitalize on the evidence of massive plunder by Prime Minister Najib Razak and UMNO at large. In Myanmar Aung San Suu Kyi has proved a figurehead as the military pursued ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas without hindrance, and ASEAN again proved incapable of influencing members in the direction of religious and racial tolerance.

Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo was bruised but unbowed by the victory of Islamists in the Jakarta guberenatorial election and in India Prime Minister Modi was bruised by elections in his home state of Gujarat but appears to have considerable staying power. So too may Rodrigo Duterte in spite or because of continued extrajudicial killings, now aimed at Communists as well as drug dealers. On the brighter side, the economy continued to grow steadily and significant, if still inadequate, tax reform was enacted.

Japan’s Shinzo Abe strengthened his position via elections but conservatives lost badly in South Korea after the impeachment of president Park Geun-hye with liberal Moon Jae-in winning easily with 41 percent of the vote against two candidates.

Globally commodity prices, including oil, have moved up enough to ease concerns of most producing countries yet not enough, it seems, to generate inflation scares. Likewise gradual interest rate rises, actual or promised, have been absorbed. In Asia growth has been steady if unspectacular,m and globally problem countries Brazil and Turkey have bounced back. Europe has so far mostly rejected populism and the euro is again a favored currency. Britain’s Brexit is suicidal but in slow motion and largely irrelevant outside the eurozone.

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Without being unduly pessimistic, it seems that 2018 has the potential for upsetting this relatively benign outlook for Asia. First is the question whether Trump will actually wage an economic war against China. Alleged failure of Beijing to bring North Korea to heel will always be the excuse, irrelevant though it should be to trade issues. It may be Trump’s only alternative as even he realizes that there is no way of ending Pyongyang’s nuclear capability short of a potentially nuclear war which even his most gung-ho generals do not relish.

Any serious measures against Chinese exports to the United States would result in retaliation against the US, put downward pressure on world trade, which has been growing at a healthy 4 percent, and possibly induce copycat moves by other countries.

Any such economic conflict would damage all of east Asia, even assuming – which is a big if – that the US makes it clear that it will not take similar measures against the many other Asian countries which enjoys large trade surpluses with the US. Even if this does not transpire, stock markets in the region may already be quite fully valued after rises of 15-30 percent in the past year.

Also on the economic front, the notion that the world can have years of almost zero interest rates and huge credit expansion without a payback time could well be tested in 2018. The reality of promised interest rates rises and ending of bond purchases by central banks has yet to hit, and no harder than in the US, where last week it was reported that a stunning 35 percent of Americans have been reported to debt collection agencies trying to collect an average of US$5,200 per person. If interest rates were to rise, consumer debt could mean disaster.

Sinisterly, the yield curve has started to reverse, a chillingly reliable harbinger of recession. However, interest rates may be brought forward by the Fed if cracks appear in the assumption that inflation is dead and buried. Take China, whose role in global trade is readily transmitted to the world. Its official consumer price index is still rising at just under 2 percent. But the GDP deflator, which measures much more, is now more than twice that. Producer price inflation is over 5 percent and even if some of this reflects short term movements, it can’t be long before there is a reflection in consumer prices, even if delayed by price controls in an energy market due to be deregulated.

Chinese export margins may be squeezed but with the yuan strong against the US dollar, moving from 6.90 to 6.50 over the past 12 months, Chinese price pressure will be transmitted elsewhere.

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Whither ASEAN in the Trump Era?

Trump’s neglect of Asian issues apart from North Korea and China trade will continue to undermine the US position in the region, and may get worse if Secretary of State Tillerson is replaced by someone who reflects Trump’s unsettling proclivity at unorthodoxy. However, the notion of Indo-Pacific as a strategic concept may continue to find quiet support now that Japan, India and Australia have become informally committed to it. Other countries in the region may see the merits in arrangements which at least in part compensate for the decline of US influence and interest.

Xi Jinping will probably be mainly concerned with domestic issues – further shoring up the power of the Communist Party and focusing on financial stability, income distribution problems and the environment. Indeed, it will be a test of the Xi’s concepts and of the role of the party, if it can produce the results which could be used to justify the more oppressive nature of the system he has imposed.

Less secure is Thai junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha, who is no longer shielded by the mourning period and is due to deliver some elections, however distorted by the new constitution. He has also been prone to gaffes. The political situation looks to become more fluid, meanwhile the king remains largely hidden from public view, often in his German redoubt, but will continue to create waves of his own. Najib on the other hand look likely to survive Malaysia’s elections thanks to opposition weakness, despite Mahathir’s attempts to galvanize Malays, and a system massively weighted towards conservative rural constituencies.

Indonesia has till April 2019 to wait for its presidential election but the campaign will begin in earnest in October 2018 with Widodo hoping that the current pickup in the economy, unspectacular though it is, will have enough momentum to keep him ahead.

Hong Kong will continue to find that its new chief executive Carrie Lam is even more determined than her predecessors to do what she is told by Beijing. But pro-democracy groups will face tests of their popularity in by-elections to replace legislators elected in 2016 but disbarred during 2017.

What to read about North Korea

January 4, 2018


North Korea may be the most secretive and totalitarian country in the world, as well as the wackiest. As a result, it inspires some of the best fiction and nonfiction, so the upside of the risk of nuclear war is an excuse to dip into literature that offers glimpses of this other world — and some insights into how to deal with it.

Thousands of North Koreans have fled their homeland since the famine of the late 1990s, and many are writing memoirs recounting their daily lives and extraordinary escapes. A leading example is IN ORDER TO LIVE: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom (Penguin, paper, $17) by Yeonmi Park, with Maryanne Vollers. Park is a young woman whose father was a cigarette smuggler and black market trader. As a girl, she believed in the regime (as did her mother), for life was steeped in propaganda and anti-Americanism. Even in her math class, “a typical problem would go like this: ‘If you kill one American bastard and your comrade kills two, how many dead American bastards do you have?’”

What opened Park’s eyes was in part a pirated copy of the film “Titanic.” The government tries hard to ban any foreign television, internet or even music, and North Korean radios, which don’t have dials, can receive only local stations. But the black market fills the gap, with handymen who will tweak your radio to get Chinese stations, and with illegal thumb drives full of South Korean soap operas.

I’m among those who argue that we in the West should do more to support this kind of smuggling, because it’s a way to sow dissatisfaction. Indeed, what moved Park was the love story in “Titanic”: “I was amazed that Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were willing to die for love, not just for the regime, as we were. The idea that people could choose their own destinies fascinated me. This pirated Hollywood movie gave me my first small taste of freedom.”

In the end, Park’s father was arrested for smuggling, and the family’s life collapsed. Park and her sister went hungry and had to drop out of school, and she survived eating insects and wild plants.

So at age 13, Park and her mother crossed illegally into China — and immediately into the hands of human traffickers who were as scary as the North Korean secret police. They raped her mother and eventually Park as well, and both struggled in the netherworld in which North Koreans are stuck in China — because the Chinese authorities regularly detain them and send them home to face prison camp. Park and her mother were lucky, finally managing to sneak into Mongolia and then on to South Korea.

Another powerful memoir is THE GIRL WITH SEVEN NAMES: A North Korean Defector’s Story (William Collins, paper, $15.99) by Hyeonseo Lee, with David John. She is from Hyesan, the same town as Park. It’s an area on the Chinese border where smuggling is rampant, where people know a bit about the outside world and where disaffection, consequently, is greater than average.

Still, Lee’s home, like every home, had portraits of the country’s first two leaders, Kim Il-sung and his son, Kim Jong-il, on the wall. (The grandson now in power, Kim Jong-un, hasn’t yet made his portrait ubiquitous.) Lee begins her story recounting how her father dashed into the family home as it was burning to rescue not family valuables but rather the portraits of the first leaders. There’s an entire genre of heroic propaganda stories in North Korea of people risking their lives to save such portraits.

Like other kids, Lee grew up in an environment of formal reverence for the Kim dynasty. At supper she would say a kind of grace — to “Respected Father Leader Kim Il-sung” — before picking up her chopsticks.

“Everything we learned about Americans was negative,” she writes. “In cartoons, they were snarling jackals. In the propaganda posters they were as thin as sticks with hook noses and blond hair. We were told they smelled bad. They had turned South Korea into a ‘hell on earth’ and were maintaining a puppet government there. The teachers never missed an opportunity to remind us of their villainy.

“‘If you meet a Yankee bastard on the street and he offers you candy, do not take it!’ one teacher warned us, wagging a finger in the air. ‘If you do, he’ll claim North Korean children are beggars. Be on your guard if he asks you anything, even the most innocent questions.’”

Hmm. No wonder my attempts at interviewing North Korean kids have never been very fruitful.

Lee escaped to China at age 17 and started a new life in Shanghai but remained in touch with her family. One day her mom called from North Korea. “I’ve got a few kilos of ice,” or crystal meth, she said, and she asked for Lee’s help in selling it in China. “In her world, the law was upside down,” Lee says, explaining how corruption and cynicism had shredded the social fabric of North Korea. “People had to break the law to live.”

It’s fair to wonder how accurate these books are, for there’s some incentive when selling a memoir to embellish adventures. I don’t know, and in the case of “In Order to Live,” skeptics have noted inconsistencies in the stories and raised legitimate questions.

So how did North Korea come to be the most bizarre country in the world? For the history, one can’t do better than Bradley K. Martin’s magisterial UNDER THE LOVING CARE OF THE FATHERLY LEADER: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty (St. Martin’s Griffin, paper, $29.99). Martin recounts how a minor anti-Japanese guerrilla leader named Kim Il-sung came to be installed by the Russians as leader of the half of the Korean peninsula they controlled after World War II. Martin discovers that Kim’s father was a Christian and a church organist, and Kim himself attended church for a time. That didn’t last, and Kim later banned pretty much all religion — though he became something of a god himself, quite a trick for an atheist. But do North Koreans really believe in this “religion”?

Judging from defectors I’ve interviewed and much of the literature on North Korea, many do — especially older people, farmers and those farther from the North Korean border. That’s partly a tribute to the country’s shameless propaganda, which B.R. Myers explores in his interesting book, THE CLEANEST RACE: How North Koreans See Themselves — And Why It Matters (Melville House, paper, $16). He notes that North Korea produced a poster showing a Christian missionary murdering a Korean child and calling for “revenge against the Yankee vampires” — at the same time that the United States was the country’s single largest donor of humanitarian aid. Myers argues that North Koreans have focused on what he calls “race-based paranoid nationalism,” including bizarre ideas about how Koreans are “the cleanest race” — hence the title — bullied and persecuted by outsiders.

For a more sympathetic view of North Korea’s emergence, check out various books by Bruce Cumings, a University of Chicago historian, like KOREA’S PLACE IN THE SUN: A Modern History (W.W. Norton, paper, $19.95). Cumings argues that North Korea is to some degree a genuine expression of Korean nationalism. I think Cumings is nuts when he says, “it is Americans who bear the lion’s share of the responsibility” for the division of the Korean peninsula. But his work is worth reading — unless you have high blood pressure, in which case consult a physician first.

Whatever the uncertainties about the accuracy of recent North Korean memoirs, it’s absolutely clear that some stories about North Korea are fabricated — because they’re fiction. Today’s political crisis with Pyongyang is a great excuse to read Adam Johnson’s THE ORPHAN MASTER’S SON (Random House, paper, $17), which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2013. Johnson tells the story of a military man turned prisoner turned celebrity turned villain, dealing for a while with utterly confused American visitors — an account so implausible and bizarre that it’s a perfect narrative for North Korea.

The other fiction that I’d recommend is the Inspector O series by James Church, the pseudonym of a well-respected Western intelligence expert on North Korea. Inspector O is a North Korean police officer who investigates murders, a bank robbery and various other offenses, periodically dealing with foreigners and turning down chances to defect.

Inspector O is a complex, nuanced figure who understands that the regime he serves is corrupt, brutal and mendacious, but he remains loyal. That’s because he is a deeply patriotic and nationalistic Korean, and he resents the patronizing scorn of bullying Westerners. I think many North Korean officials today are an echo of the conflicted nationalist Inspector O.