What We’re Reading: Quiet Americans and Defections

Weekly reviews of what’s on our bookshelves.


The Quiet American
By Graham Greene

Regular readers of GPF might remember that I reviewed David Halberstam’s “The Best and the Brightest” earlier this year. In Halberstam’s account of the politics of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, he mentions several times the unique prescience of an author named Graham Greene, an English writer I had somehow avoided reading until I picked up “The Quiet American.”

Written in 1955, the year after France relinquished its colonial claims over Vietnam, Greene’s novel is about a British journalist named Thomas Fowler who gets involved in a love triangle with a bright-eyed CIA agent named Alden Pyle and a young Vietnamese woman named Phuong. I won’t say much more about the plot because this is the sort of book that shouldn’t be spoiled. What I can say is that Halberstam was right about Greene being remarkably prescient, not just about how the U.S. meant to escalate the war in Vietnam, but about how the U.S. has conducted its foreign policy for generations.

Fowler, from whose perspective the plot takes place, is certainly the protagonist but isn’t the titular quiet American. Like the author, an Englishmen, he was born in the early 1900s into a British Empire at the height of its power and he lived to see the slow degradation of the empire in the 20th century. Greene’s detached and eerily uncanny observations are meant to be a critique of America’s naive belief in its own exceptionalism by way of Pyle, but it is not a critique that could have been levied by someone without firsthand experience of the very thing he was criticizing. In that sense, “The Quiet American” is as much an indictment of the British Empire’s past as it was a critique of the U.S. empire’s future.

It’s to Greene’s credit that I couldn’t help but forget Fowler’s nationality. I worry that it also may reveal a deeper truth about the United States’ place in the world today that I am not quite ready to face.

Jacob L. Shapiro, director of analysis

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
By Barbara Demick

It’s generally understood that North Koreans have been trying to flee North Korea ever since there was a North Korea, but estimates on the number of defections since the 1950s vary widely. South Korea’s Ministry of Unification says some 33,000 North Koreans have fled to South Korea since 1998. This figure obviously excludes defectors in China and Russia who are much more difficult to track.

Defections are an embarrassment to the regime, and those who leave the notoriously secretive state risk putting the family members they’ve left behind in danger of being tortured, killed or placed in detention camps. Last year, North Korea’s ambassador to Rome, Jo Song Gil, abandoned his post and fled Italy with his wife to an undisclosed location. Their teenage daughter, who had been living with them in Rome, was immediately sent back to North Korea, where some Italian officials fear she will be punished for her parents’ betrayal.

Which is why it is notoriously difficult to persuade defectors to speak publicly about their experience. Yet it’s the one of the only ways to learn what life is really like in the hermit kingdom. In “Nothing to Envy,” journalist and former Seoul-based correspondent for the Los Angeles Times Barbara Demick provides six such accounts, detailing the lives of defectors who made it to South Korea from Chongjin. Located near the northern tip of the country, Chongjin is far from the capital city, Pyongyang, and vastly different from the image of North Korea that the government wants to portray to the outside world – which is the main reason Demick selected this city as the focus of her book.

The book details many traditions and cultural practices in North Korean society, including, interestingly, its dating customs and social hierarchies. In 1958, after the conclusion of the Korean War, Kim Il Sung introduced an ambitious project to classify every North Korean by their loyalty to the regime. It took into account the backgrounds of one’s parents, grandparents and other relatives. Anyone with connections to the South, as well as pro-Japan and pro-U.S. people and those who came from wealthy or religious families, were placed in the hostile class, considered impure and politically suspect. As a former South Korean soldier who was captured by the North during the war, the father of one of the main characters of the book was himself classified as hostile, a ranking that severely limited his opportunities (he worked in notoriously dirty and dangerous mines most of his life) and was then passed on to his children.

The level of repression and suffering in North Korea is hard to imagine. So too is the idea that most North Koreans believe that life outside the country would be worse. It’s a perception the regime has carefully crafted over decades through propaganda, including signs hung over roads, railway stations and fields proclaiming slogans like “We have nothing to envy in the world.” It’s a mindset that can be understood only through the stories of the people who lived there and took great risks to get out.

Valentina Jovanovski, editor

Valentina Jovanovski
Valentina Jovanovski is an editor at Geopolitical Futures. She works with analysts to hone their writing and handles daily digital publishing and communication of analytical content to subscribers. Ms. Jovanovski was previously an analyst at a research firm focusing on corporate social responsibility before moving to London, England, to earn a diploma in journalism. She worked in Budapest for two years as a freelance journalist, writing for several international publications. She was also an associate editor for an English-language Hungarian news portal. She has an honors bachelor’s degree in political science and geography from the University of Toronto and a master’s degree in political science from Carleton University in Ottawa.