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Beyond the Headlines: North Korea — Paradise or Purgatory?

Satellite image of North and
South Korea at night

Given North Korea's isolation from the rest of the world, it's surprising how many scholarly books have been published on the country's economy, politics, history, and culture. The growing number of refugee memoirs depicting North Korea's cradle-to-grave propaganda machine and its oppression of civilians is perhaps less surprising but more tantalizing for presenting an insider's account. Bestsellers like Escape from Camp 14 satisfy what Christopher Hitchens called our "[preoccupation with the] imposing and exotic forms of totalitarianism" ( 2/1/10). More fascinating, however, than the salacious details divvied out in North Korean histories and memoirs, is that the genre is as contradictory and elusive as the country itself: while everyone agrees that a certain level of brutality and deprivation exists in North Korea, there's virtually no consensus regarding the strength of the Kim dynasty, the threat North Korea poses to the world, or even what the daily life of the average civilian is like. The best a curious reader can do is read a bit (or a lot) of everything, seeking commonalities and making meaning of the mystery that is the Hermit Kingdom.

Here's a list of brilliant titles to get you started.

Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee — A Look Inside North Korea
by Jang Jin-sung

The first memoir by an elite governmental figure, Dear Leader is the escape tale of Jang Jin-sung, former North Korean poet laureate and advisor to Kim Jong-il. Unique in its depiction of life at the top, Jin-sung's memoir provides a thrilling dystopian account of his life in and escape from North Korea. Packed with new information on North Korea's propaganda department and the lives of its political elite, Dear Leader also excels as a memoir of resilience and survival — with enough eerie Hunger Games parallels to seduce the most stalwart fiction fans into reading a history book this summer.

North Korea: State of Paranoia: A Modern History
by Paul French

Paul French's new history of North Korea is garnering advance praise for its objectivity and overall lack of sensationalism. A general history of the country stretching from the end of WWII to today, North Korea: State of Paranoia's finest feature is its focus on the country's newest leader, Kim Jong-un, and French's analysis of the government's economic agenda vis-à-vis China, Japan, South Korea, and the U.S. Perhaps due to the limitations on foreign scholars researching North Korea, French's data is often out of date (circa 2002), but this turns out to be more of an annoyance than a demerit, as North Korea: State of Paranoia still provides the freshest, most evenhanded assessment of the Kim dynasty past and present available. This title is best for serious readers.

A Capitalist in North Korea: My Seven Years in the Hermit Kingdom (Available Aug. 2014)
by Felix Abt

Felix Abt spent seven years as the North Korea country director for ABB, a Swiss power company, and his forthcoming memoir gathers everything you think you know about North Korea and throws it out the window (including things you know from reading other memoirs about North Korea). According to Abt, not only is there a flourishing underground consumer economy, but a desire among North Korean elite and youth to abandon the ideology of North Korean purity and isolation for border-stretching capitalism. While Abt's memoir is not an apology for North Korean governance — many of his observations are sobering and alarming — it's notable (and sort of shocking) for its optimism and assurances that life in North Korea is more multidimensional than other literature suggests.

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea
by Guy Delisle

Pyongyang is a graphic novel account of the two months Guy Delisle spent in Pyongyang while working for a French animation company. Two qualities put this book at the top of my North Korea reading list: first, Delisle's illustrations do an excellent job of conveying the grim ironies, isolation, and sheer weirdness he experienced as a foreigner in Pyongyang; second, Delisle isn't a journalist or scholar, which means his impressions aren't swayed by the need to prove a thesis. Pyongyang is fairly superficial in its account of North Korean life (Delisle never traveled unchaperoned), but it's a charming and funny introduction to the country. This title is suitable for teens.

The Aquariums of Pyongyang
by Kang Chol-hwan and Pierre Rigoulot

Similar to the popular Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden, Aquariums is a memoir of childhood in one of North Korea's brutal prison camps for political dissidents. Kang Chol-hwan's prose is direct and often surprisingly sarcastic, and his tale of suffering and escape makes for captivating reading. This is a great pick for readers interested in firsthand accounts of human rights violations in North Korea, as well as information on the lives of the Korean Japanese, a critical minority in the country.

The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves — and Why It Matters
by B. R. Myers

Myers's 2011 exploration of the North Korean worldview shattered Western preconceptions about North Korea as an exemplar of Stalinism or patriarchal Confucianism. Instead, Myers argues, the North Korean identity derives from a race-based nationalism more akin to Japanese fascism than communism. Myers's argument is especially compelling when he discusses how the ultranationalist, military-state mentality of North Korea impacts negotiations over its nuclear arsenal. The Cleanest Race is persuasively argued but also controversial due to the anecdotal nature of much of Myers's evidence.

Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty
by Bradley K. Martin

Martin provides an excellent — and spine-tingling — double portrait of North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. While much of the background information on North Korea's isolationism and human rights abuses will be familiar to avid readers of North Korean history and memoir, Martin skillfully navigates the complex mythologies surrounding the Kim dynasty, resulting in an unusually lucid account of the Kims' rise to power.

More suggested reading:

This Is Paradise: My North Korean Childhood
by Hyok Kang

A rare everyday account of childhood in North Korea by an escapee.

The North Korean Economy: Between Crisis and Catastrophe
by Nicholas Eberstadt

Eberstadt's examination of North Korea's command economy is highly valued by North Korea scholars and policy analysts.

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

A social study of six "ordinary" North Koreans as they navigate the transition from Kim Il-sung to Kim Jong-il and the famine that followed.

Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West
by Blaine Harden

Harden's biography of Shin, a young man who grew up in a concentration camp and trekked thousands of miles across China to freedom, provides a stunning look into human rights abuses in North Korea.

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Rhianna is Powell's history and social science book buyer.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee - A...
    Used Hardcover $19.50
  2. North Korea: State of Paranoia: A... New Trade Paper $19.95
  3. A Capitalist in North Korea: My...
    New Hardcover $22.95
  4. Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea Sale Trade Paper $9.98
  5. Aquariums of Pyongyang
    Used Trade Paper $8.95

  6. Under the Loving Care of the... Used Trade Paper $10.95
  7. This Is Paradise!: My North Korean... New Trade Paper $13.95
  8. The North Korean Economy: Between... New Trade Paper $45.50
  9. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in...
    Used Trade Paper $10.95
  10. Escape from Camp 14: One Man's...
    Used Trade Paper $10.50

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