Welcome to North Korea--or welcome to the parts of North Korea that regulated tourism is allowed to see, I should say.
In All Monsters Must Die, Magnus Bartas and Fredrik Ekman ( I'm going to go with The Authors from here on in) give us a look into the oppressive regime from the inside in the year 2008. No, of course they are unable to see the rampant famine of the majority of the population. They are brought on a tour of all the "great" sights of the country: the birthplace of Kim Jong-il (a log cabin that looked to be built 20 years prior,) Mount Baekdu--which always has snow on its crest (even though as their guide was explaining this phenomenon, it was devoid of any,) the USS Pueblo (the American spy ship that was seized in 1968, the North Korean's apparent proudest moment of thwarting their imperialist enemy to date) are among the most notable.
Yes, the guides are zany. It is truly another world in North Korea. When talking about haircuts (North Koreans can choose from five,) Mr. Song (a guide) explains that hair drains the brain of essential nutrients and so the longer the hair, the bigger the detriment. This is a theory that I have never heard.
But it isn't just wackiness on the tour, there is a sense of unpredictability as well. When another tourist is prying too much for Song's liking, he basically threatens his life. Sure--why not?
The primary focus of the book is on a Choi Eun-hee and Shin Sang-ok. Madame Choi was a famous actress in South Korea; Chin, her ex-husband, was the country's greatest director. In 1978, they were kidnapped and taken to North Korea--the primary players in Kim Jong-il's plan to develop his nation's movie industry.
We all know that Kim was a movie buff, but The Authors delve much deeper into his hobby which, by the end of their explanation, seems much more calculated than quirky. The power of melodrama was instrumental during Kim Jong-il's regime (and currently, I suppose, as nothing has changed with Kim Jong-un.)
I really enjoyed All Monsters Must Die. It was acclaimed in Sweden upon its release in 2011 and I'm happy it finally made its way over here. I haven't read any other travelogues about North Korea so I don't really have anything to compare it to, but I think it was pretty thorough. I also appreciated the story of Choi and Shin, which was integral in their description of the country.
Also, the translation was fantastic (not that I speak Swedish, I just mean that I never would have known that the book was originally written in another language.) Saskia Vogel did the wonderful work.
I'd recommend All Monsters Must Die to anyone that appreciates history and wants to know a little bit more about a country that they will probably never visit.