Over the past decade or so, the number of books about North Korea has risen dramatically. Initially fuelled by gut-wrenching memoirs recounting tragic tales of escape from barbaric prison camps, international focus began to shift towards North Korea in the early 2000s.
Frequently lampooned as a hermit kingdom, where anything other than devout loyalty to a brutal hereditary dictatorship meant life in prison, many historians and journalists began to delve deeper.
Recently a number of books about North Korea have emerged that try to look beyond the headlines and uncover how an apparently anachronistic Soviet-era state can still operate and exist in the 21st century.
Interest in North Korea continued to grow with the appointment of Kim Jong-un as Supreme Leader of the DPRK in 2011.
Initially seen an inexperienced rookie whose incompetence might bring about the collapse of the DPRK, instead Kim Jong-un solidified his control and subsequently thrust North Korea further into the international spotlight.
Kim’s focus on developing, and constantly testing, nuclear missiles, along with a series of historic meetings with the President of the United States, means that North Korea is never far from the headlines.
The ruling regime holds a vice-like grip on all aspects of information inside the DPRK. Pyongyang also does its very best to limit and control what the outside world knows about the country.
In spite of this, as more North Korean defectors reach the outside world, and as the country opens ever so slightly to tourism, more and more is known about life inside North Korea.
Including books about escaping North Korea written by defectors, personal accounts from Westerners placed in Pyongyang, deep academic dives into the complexities of the DPRK and more, here’s our guide to the very best books about North Korea.
Of the many books by North Korean defectors, The Aquariums of Pyongyang was the first to reveal the horrors of North Korea’s internment camps.
Though the Kim regime frequently denies their existence, up to 120,000 political prisoners are believed to be detained in hellish conditions across a number of internment camps located throughout North Korea.
Kang enjoyed a comfortable childhood in Pyongyang, and his family were considered a fixture among the upper-echelons of North Korean society.
Yet the family’s Japanese heritage was to prove their undoing. Kang’s grandfather was accused of treason and sent to a prison camp, as were his extended family, including Kang who was then aged only 9 years old.
Kang spent ten years inside Yodok concentration camp, where prisoners are used for slave labour regardless of their age or condition.
Malnutrition, torture and death are a daily part of life in the camps and Kang gives a searing account of his experiences and the lives lived by the prisoners inside North Korea’s labour camps.
Shin Dong-hyuk was born inside Kaechon internment camp around fifty miles north of Pyongyang. He is believed to be the only person to have been born inside a concentration camp to have escaped from North Korea.
Escape From Camp 14 is not an easy read, documenting the extraordinary depravity of life inside the camp in horrific detail. Malnutrition, torture and death are a daily part of life inside Camp 14.
Despite living alongside his parents and brother, Shin reveals that there is no family bond. Even relatives are seen as competitors for the tiny amount of food available inside the camp.
A few years after the publication of the book Shin later confessed that some of the details in his story were incorrect. He revealed that he had been moved to another camp, from which he escaped twice before being recaptured, once from China where he had spent four months in hiding.
Despite these admissions, Escape From Camp 14 is still seen as a vital account inside the unimaginable horror of North Korea’s prison camps
In Order To Live is Yeonmi Park’s account of her escape from North Korea following the arrest and imprisonment of her father.
Park’s family lived in the city of Hyesan, close to the Chinese border, and her parents were well connected working for the Korean Workers Party and the Korean Army.
Like most people, Park’s father traded on North Korea’s flourishing black market, an essential way to survive following the collapse of state handouts after the famine of the 1990s. Eventually arrested for smuggling, the family planned to escape to China after his eventual release.
In Order To Live is an eye-opening insight into the heartbreaking consequences and effects of North Korea’s oppressive regime on its own people.
Park also recounts the horrendous experiences of those who try to escape from a female perspective. Women who try to defect from North Korea are often trafficked into China and subjected to forced marriages and sexual violence, which Park experienced first hand.
Park also tells of the difficulty in adjusting to the outside world whilst trying come to terms with the reality of the North Korean regime.
Dear Leader is another fascinating tale of escape from North Korea with a twist. Jang Jin-sung was an established member of the country’s elite.
His position offered Jang a charmed life, shielding him from the famine that shattered the rest of the county. As a poet working for the state propaganda department, Jang had even enjoyed the company and admiration of Kim Jong-il.
Jang’s position and work allowed him access to foreign books, newspapers and magazines, ownership of which is a criminal offence for anybody else in North Korea.
When a copy of a foreign magazine goes missing, Jing had no option but to attempt to escape from North Korea in order to save his life.
Jang’s unique account blends the story of his escape with details of his life amongst North Korea’s elite. Along the course of his story Jang also exposes how North Korea has secretly committed acts of espionage, kidnapping and terrorism, all in the name of keeping the regime in power.
Not only is Dear Leader the tale of one man’s incredible escape, it’s also one of the most explosive books about North Korea, exposing the secretive inner workings of the ruling regime. Thanks to Jang’s position within the country’s elite and the knowledge he holds, this is one of the best books about escaping North Korea.
Perhaps the most well-known of all books on North Korea, Nothing to Envy has become the go-to account of life inside the DPRK.
In her multiple-award winning book, Demick tells the stories of six North Korean defectors from the northern city of Chongjin, near the Chinese border.
Nothing To Envy vividly documents the lives of the six defectors whilst still living in North Korea, as well as the series of events that individually lead them to flee the country.
Each of the defectors came from markedly different backgrounds within North Korean society, determined by their position within the country’s stringent social hierarchy.
Besides the six main defectors Demick also interviewed over 100 North Korean refugees in order to fully understand and present a picture of daily life in the DPRK.
Through her interviews Demick describes in detail the devastating effects of the famine that battered North Korea in the 1990s, known as the Arduous March, and how it forever altered the relationship between the population and the state.
For many years Demick was based in Seoul as a foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. There she frequently reported on the condition and plight of escapees from North Korea. In Nothing To Envy she has written one of the very best books on North Korea.
North Korea is often characterised as a cartoon-like Soviet era relic. Media reports frequently portray the DPRK in the same light, rarely scratching the surface to look beyond highly choreographed military parades and crowds of thousands fawning at the feet of their dear leaders.
The reality is that North Korea is a multi-faceted state where for many people daily life comes with the same pressures that are found in every other country in the world. The difference is that life here also has to contend with one of the most oppressive regimes the world has ever seen.
North Korea Confidential paints a fascinating a picture as is possible of real life in North Korea. A huge range of information and personal accounts of North Korean society have been drawn from hours of interviews with a range of sources, including defectors, smugglers, high ranking officials and foreign diplomats.
Life in North Korea is changing at a rate of speed that it has never previously seen. Far from being a communist state, black market capitalism is thriving and keeping the country’s economy afloat.
K-pop and TV dramas made in South Korea are more popular than ever. North Korea Confidential also dispels the myth that all of the regime’s power is only held by Kim Jong-un.
Without You There Is No Us is one of a handful of accounts of life inside North Korea from foreigners living in Pyongyang.
Suki Kim spent six months teaching English in Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, a privately funded university where lessons are taught in English, mostly by teachers from overseas.
The university’s students are the children of Pyongyang’s elite, groomed for future leadership roles within the North Korean establishment.
Kim’s life in Pyongyang draws parallels with the life of the citizens of North Korea. She is confined to the campus, all correspondence is monitored, she is told that all staff are subject to surveillance.
As a Korean American born in Seoul Kim is frequently torn between her own family history and the terrible impact caused by the division of Korea and the alternative version of the truth that surrounds her in North Korea.
Yet Kim forms a strong bond with her students, who are inquisitive and curious with a real desire to learn. The sudden death of Kim Jong-il exposes the sharp differences between Kim and her students. With the North Korean population distraught, Kim questions how a divided Korea could ever be reunited when so many disparities exist between them.
Only Beautiful Please offers another unique perspective of life in North Korea. John Everard served as Britain’s ambassador to the DPRK for two years from 2006.
During his spell as ambassador Everard managed to travel to more areas of North Korea than most foreigners will ever see and build relationships with a range of the well-heeled of Pyongyang.
His account of those two years is a fascinating look at life in North Korea taken from his own observations. There aren’t many surprises – life in North Korea is tough – but Only Beautiful Please does paint a more vivid picture of daily life in the DPRK than defector accounts alone. Everard’s writing humanises the people of North Korea, revealing how life is lived under an autocratic regime.
Everard writes in an anecdotal style, frequently adding humour along with personal accounts and examples of his own experiences within North Korea. An added bonus, Everard also includes plenty of his own photographs from his fascinating journeys around the country as ambassador.
The Real North Korea takes a deep dive into the DPRK and how it manages to survive. Andrei Lankov is perhaps the world’s foremost North Korea expert.
Born in Soviet Russia, Lankov studied in Pyongyang’s prestigious Kim Il-sung University. Now a history professor in Seoul, Lankov has written a number of books on North Korea.
In The Real North Korea Lankov explores how the North Korea of today came into being, how it has managed to maintain its existence for so long in the face of such powerful enemies, and how the world needs to handle the now-nuclear DPRK.
Lankov also argues that despite popular opinion, North Korea is actually a master of geopolitical gamesmanship and highly skilled in protecting the status quo.
Though heavy on detail The Real North Korea is by no means a hard to read academic textbook. Lankov writes in an easy to follow style, making several decades of North Korea’s political history engaging and easy to understand.
In The Cleanest Race, B.R. Myers delves into the culture of North Korea and to try to reveal how North Koreans look at themselves as a society and how this shapes their world view.
So often characterised as erratic and impetuous, Meyers suggests that the outside world cannot fully understand North Korea until it tries to see how North Korea views itself and its place in the world around it.
Meyers explores the ruling regime’s use of myth, race, propaganda and culture in such ways that has created a commonly held public consciousness within North Korea.
Myers examines the regime’s promotion of the idea of the racial purity and superiority of Korea and how this has helped to support the associated mythology of the ruling Kim dynasty.
He also discusses the constant stream of propaganda, the highly-revised histories and the heavily controlled North Korean culture that is created for domestic consumption.
Designed to extoll and spread the ideas, virtues and desires of the state, Myers explores how this has created the national consciousness and North Korea’s view of their place in the world.
Little was known of Kim Jong-un when he ascended to the position of Supreme Leader of North Korea following the death of his father in 2011.
Much of his early life remains shrouded in mystery, but The Great Successor is as complete a biography that can be written about one of the world’s most elusive leaders.
Anna Fifield spent years covering Asia for the Washington Post, which included several visits to North Korea. Alongside extensive research, Fifield alos traces as many people known to have had contact with Kim Jong-un in order to put together a picture of his life.
Fifield even managed to track down Kim Jong-un’s aunt and uncle, who now live in the United States and once acted as surrogate parents during his time in private school in Switzerland.
The Great Successor puts together a picture of Kim Jong Un’s immensely privileged early life as well as examining how he continues the family tradition of authoritarian and ruthless leadership of North Korea.
The book also explores how his policies are shaping modern day North Korea, from the rise of capitalism that is creating a growing elite in Pyongyang, to the development of nuclear weapons and growing diplomatic relations with Russia, China and the United States.
Not all books about North Korea are focussed on the study of or the escape from a repressive dictatorship. There are plenty of coffee-table books that showcase some of the DPRK’s unique Soviet-inspired style, and Inside North Korea is just one of them.
The North Korean capital of Pyongyang is a fascinating place. Almost totally destroyed during the Korean War, the city has been rebuilt to reflect its position at the heart of the North Korean state.
Heavily inspired by the imposing grandeur of the Soviet Union, Pyongyang is overloaded with symbolism.
Huge monuments celebrate the Supreme Leaders and commemorate key dates and victories in battle; grand boulevards (largely free of traffic) meant to rival the streets of Paris or Moscow dissect small sections of the city; metro stations that resemble opulent ballrooms are decorated with socialist mosaics and lit by chandeliers.
Inside North Korea is a beautiful collection of 200 photographs of various locations across Pyongyang, including museums, galleries, sports facilities and schools as well as famous monuments and landmarks.
Inside North Korea provides a fascinating glimpse into the unique architecture and surprisingly colourful skyline of Pyongyang. The photos also help to illustrate just how pervasive and dominating the regime’s ideology really is, where public space is filled with monuments that glorify the state.
Nick Bonner is the founder of Koryo Tours, the first travel agency to specialise in holidays to North Korea.
Over the course of countless visits to the DPRK over the last twenty years Bonner has compiled quite a collection of North Korean packaging and design.
Made In North Korea showcases a large portion of Bonner’s collection. As with North Korea’s architecture, the country’s graphic design also has a distinct Soviet yet colourful style.
The collection includes a wealth of DPRK-made design, including postcards, food packaging, hotel brochures, cigarette cartons, comic books and much more besides.
The photos are accompanied by text that explains the meaning and reasoning for many of the designs. As is to be expected, many of the designs are deliberately loaded with political imagery.
Perhaps the most famous example of North Korean design is the propaganda poster that the state uses to stoke up patriotic fervour.
The posters carry idealised messages that you would fully expect from North Korea. Many decry the United States, North Korea’s eternal enemy. Others urge the need for unity through productivity, hard work, and a good harvest.
As well as showcasing pieces of art, North Korean Posters also offers another chance to see how the state controls the mindset of a nation through repeated themes and messages.
These posters show how North Korea portrays itself as a victim in the face of perceived international aggression, and how only through a united struggle can the ultimate victory be achieved.
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