reading lists

The Best Books About North Korea, According to Authors and Historians

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Welcome to Reading Lists, comprehensive book guides from the Strategist designed to make you an expert (or at least a fascinating dinner-party companion) in hyperspecific or newsworthy topics. Up first: a selection of books about North Korea, recommended by researchers, professors, authors, and public-policy scholars.

For our North Korean primer, we consulted a knowledgeable group that includes Barbara Demick, author of National Book Critics Circle finalist Nothing to Envy; Jonathan Cheng, the Seoul bureau chief at The Wall Street Journal; John Park, director of the Korea Working Group at Harvard’s Belfer Center for international affairs; Jieun Baek, author of North Korea’s Hidden Revolution; Darcie Draudt, Ph.D. student in political science at Johns Hopkins; Bruce Cumings, a historian of East Asia and a professor at the University of Chicago; Isaac Stone Fish, senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations; and Suki Kim, author of Without You, There Is No Us.

Each of these experts sent us a list of books, from their favorite defector memoirs to the most thorough overviews of the Kim dynasty. The titles ultimately included on this list were recommended by at least two experts. One notable absence: novels written by authors currently living in North Korea. Over email, Meredith Shaw, a Ph.D. candidate at USC, explained the gap thusly: “The novels produced by the Party are intended as internal propaganda, and as such are naturally not translated into English.” The list that follows is a literary portrait of North Korea, told instead through hard-nosed reporting and some remarkable memories.

Every single person I spoke to said that to learn about North Korea, pick up Nothing to Envy by Los Angeles Times journalist Barbara Demick. It’s a part-novelization of interviews with over 100 refugees from Chongjin, North Korea. Demick covers the famine of the 1990s, the route the main characters took to Seoul, and the effects of the 2009 currency reform. “Demick researched this book while serving as the L.A. Times Beijing bureau chief, and she would travel up to the North Korea border region to talk to people living there illicitly from North Korea,” Darcie Draudt says. “The book tells a very empathetic and relatable account that talks about regular needs of people who happen to live in North Korea, and includes even a love story.” Adds Jonathan Cheng: “This title tops many North Korea reading lists for a reason. Demick paints a vivid portrait of life, told through the eyes of the people who lived it.”

Andrei Lankov, a Russian scholar who lived as an exchange student in North Korea in the 1980s, published this history text in 2013. It’s a crowded topic — a search of “history of North Korea books” turns up some 54 million results on Google — but nearly every expert, author, and professor I spoke with cited it as their favorite expert-yet-readable background of the nation. “This book is by far the most comprehensive backgrounder on North Korea, by one of the most knowledgeable scholars of this country,” Jieun Baek said. It begins after World War II and at the regime’s start in 1948, and carries through to the present, and argues that the nation’s survival against all odds demonstrates that its leaders are not irrational, but rather brilliantly calculating.

Understanding North Korea means understanding the three generations of Kims, a lineage referred to in North Korea as the Mount Paektu Bloodline. According to Demick and Bruce Cumings, a historian of East Asia, no one explains the family better than Bradley Martin, in this 900-page book. “This big, fat book is a very accessible account of what makes North Korea tick,” Cumings says. “It’s one of the first books I would read if I wanted to learn about North Korea and didn’t have much of a base of knowledge.” “This encyclopedic book could have benefited from an exacting editor,” says Cheng, “but it does a good job of reflecting decades of travel to the North and tea-leaf-reading on its leaders by a longtime Korea hand.”

A spate of memoirs have been published by North Korean defectors in recent years; experts tend to believe that many of them are (at least somewhat) sensationalized accounts. Most everyone I spoke to agreed that Aquariums of Pyongyang, written by Kang Chol-hwan, who was imprisoned in the Yodok concentration camp for ten years as a child, represents the best of the genre. “Aquariums came out way before all of the many, many others,” says Suki Kim, author of another book on this list (see below). “It is by far the most believable of all of them. And the author, who ultimately became a reporter in South Korea, is a true intellectual, who is able to speak about his experience with nuance.”

Hyeonseo Lee grew up in a rarified version of North Korea: Her mother had a high songbun (the nation’s political caste system), and grew up with no shortage of food, a pet dog, and clothing made overseas. That is, until the famine hit and her mother and brother’s attempted escape from the country landed them both in a Laotian jail. Lee’s book, which recounts her efforts to free her family, was nominated for numerous awards, and Lee’s 2013 TED Talk was viewed over 17 million times.

We live in a time of constant, alarming push notifications alerting us that, for instance, our president has decided to taunt Kim Jong Un via Twitter. Perhaps you’d like to know what U.S.-DPRK relations looked like before this presidency. For that, Draudt and Park both suggest The Impossible State by Victor Cha. Cha is a good authority: He led the U.S. delegation to the six-party talks — the 2003 negotiations attempting North Korea’s peaceful denuclearization. “This is a comprehensive account for the dominant logic of U.S. policy toward North Korea,” Draudt says. “The book is long, but not dense, and would be helpful for readers wanting to know better the history of U.S. policy toward the peninsula, as well as how it affects our relations to North Korea today.”

The government makes academic fieldwork close to impossible in North Korea. Still, Sandra Fahy, an anthropologist from the University of London, managed to cull together an ethnographic account of the nation by interviewing more than 30 North Koreans who defected to Seoul and Tokyo, starting in the 1990s, during the famine. “Dr. Fahy moves beyond analyzing the lived experiences of the individual North Koreans and ties their stories to wider sociopolitical themes, including the tensions between communalism and alienation, loyalty and distrust, and belief and doubt in the regime,” Draudt says. “Marching Through Suffering chronicles extraordinary human detail through an academic lens,” Baek says.

Suki Kim went undercover as a missionary and a teacher at the all-male Pyongyang University of Science and Technology for six months in 2011. Her account — which includes the death of Kim Jong Il — is an in-depth depiction of the nation’s capital. “It’s the only book I know of that really grasps the mind-set of the North Korean elite,” says Barbara Demick. “Complete with the deception and self-deception necessary to survive in that regime.”

The identity of the Inspector Oh series author is a mystery: He uses a pseudonym, but gets identified on book covers as a “former Western intelligence officer with decades of experience in Asia.” Isaac Stone Fish, a senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations, says that the world of Inspector Oh is “a believable and humane universe of love, intrigue, and spycraft, with North Korean characteristics. Inspector Oh, a North Korean detective, solves mysteries while contending with starvation, torture, and the difficulty of finding the perfect piece of wood in Pyongyang (Inspector Oh, the titular character, is a whittling fanatic).”

Drifting House

Fish also recommends Drifting House, a collection of short stories about all manner of the Korean immigrant experience, from running away from the famine to Korean strip malls in Los Angeles. It’s by Krys Lee, a Korean-American born in Seoul. “The title story, Drifting House, follows three starving children fleeing China into North Korea in search of their mother,” Fish says. “It leaves little faith in humanity — except for this brilliant writer’s ability to tell the tale.”

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The 10 Best Books About North Korea