Welcome to the Strategist’s “Reading Lists.” These book guides are meant to help you become an expert (or at least a fascinating dinner party guest) in hyper-specific or newsworthy subjects. Up first: a list of books about North Korea that researchers, professors, authors, and public-policy experts think are good. Barbara Demick, the author of the National Book Critics Circle finalist Nothing to Envy, was one of our sources for our North Korean primer. Jonathan Cheng, the Seoul bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal, was another. John Park, the director of Harvard’s Be
There are many books about North Korea that these experts sent us. They included everything from books about defectors to books about the Kim family. The books that made the final cut on this list were recommended by at least two experts. One thing that’s missing: books written by people who live in North Korea. Over email, Meredith Shaw, a PhD candidate at USC, explained why there was a big gap: “The novels produced by the Party are meant to be internal propaganda, and as such, they are not translated into English,” she said. You won’t find any novels on this list, but you will read about North Korea in a hard-nosed way and remember some truly amazing things.
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
People told me that if you want to learn more about North Korea, read Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick, a LA Times reporter. Part of the book is based on interviews with more than 100 North Korean refugees who came to the United States from the city of Chongjin. Demick talks about the famine of the 1990s, the route the main characters took to Seoul, and the effects of the 2009 currency reform. He also talks about the famine in the 1990s. Dimick wrote this book while she was the Beijing bureau chief for the L.A. Times, Darcie Draudt says. She would go up to the North Korea border area to talk with people who were living there illegally from North Korea, Draudt says. “The book is very empathetic and relatable. It talks about the needs of people who live in North Korea, and even has a love story in it.” Adds Jonathan Cheng: “This book is often at the top of North Korean reading lists for a good reason.” People who have lived their lives are shown in Demick’s book how their lives were.
The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia
It was written in 2013 by Andrei Lankov. He was a Russian scholar who went to North Korea as an exchange student in the 1980s, and he wrote the history text then. Many people write about North Korea’s history, and a search for “history of North Korea books” on Google brings up 54 million results. But almost every expert or author or professor I talked to said it was their favorite expert-yet-readable background on the country. “This book is by far the most in-depth backgrounder on North Korea, written by one of the best-known scholars of this country,” Jieun Baek told me. It starts after World War II and at the start of the regime in 1948, and goes all the way to the present. It says that the country’s survival against all odds proves that its leaders aren’t irrational, but rather clever.
Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty
It’s important to know about North Korea to understand the three generations of Kims, which is called the Mount Paektu Bloodline in North Korea. No one can explain the family better than Bradley Martin, who wrote this 900-page book. Demick and Bruce Cumings, a history of East Asia, agree. ‘This big, fat book is very easy to read about what makes North Korea go.’ People who want to learn about North Korea but don’t know much about it should read this book first. In Cheng’s opinion, this “encyclopedic” book could have used a more careful editor, 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.
The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag
Recent years have seen a lot of memoirs written by North Korean defectors. Experts believe that many of them are overblown. It was agreed that Aquariums of Pyongyang, written by Kang Chol-hwan, who was held in the Yodok concentration camp for 10 years as a child, is the best of this kind of story. People who write other books on this list say that “aquariums came out long before all these other things” (see below). “It is by far the most plausible of all of them,” says the man. And the author, who ended up becoming a reporter in South Korea, is a true thinker who can talk about his experience with a lot of thought.
The Girl With Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story
Hyeonseo Lee grew up in a very different version of North Korea. Her mother had a high songbun (the country’s political class system), and she grew up with no shortage of food, a pet dog, and clothes made outside of North Korea. It wasn’t until the famine hit and her mother and brother tried to flee to Laos that they both ended up in jail. Several awards were nominated for Lee’s book about how she tried to free her family. Lee’s 2013 TED Talk was watched more than 17 million times.
The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future
We live in a time where we get push notifications all the time that tell us, for example, that our president has decided to mock Kim Jong Un on Twitter. Before this presidency, maybe you’d like to know how US-DPRK relations were like before this one came into office. The Impossible State by Victor Cha is both recommended by Draudt and Park for that reason. Good thing about Cha is that he led the U.S. delegation to the six-party talks, which took place in 2003 and tried to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons in a peaceful way. According to Draudt, “This is an in-depth look at what drives US policy toward North Korea and how it has changed over time.” “The book is long, but not very dense. It would be good for people who want to know more about the history of U.S. policy on the peninsula and how it affects our relationship with North Korea today.” “The book is long, but not very dense.”
Marching Through Suffering: Loss and Survival in North Korea
The government in North Korea makes it almost impossible to do research in the field for school. Sandra Fahy, an anthropologist from the University of London, was still able to get an ethnographic account of North Korea by interviewing more than 30 defectors who came to Seoul and Tokyo in the 1990s during the famine. She did this by interviewing them. In her book, Dr. Fahy goes beyond focusing on the lives of individual North Koreans and connects their stories to larger sociopolitical themes, like the tensions between communalism and alienation, loyalties and distrust, and belief and doubt in the regime, says Draudt. Baek says that “Marching Through Suffering” is a book that shows “extraordinary human detail through an academic lens.”
Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea’s Elite
A woman named Suki Kim went undercover as a missionary and teacher at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology in 2011. She worked there for six months in 2011. In her account, which includes the death of Kim Jong Il, she gives a detailed picture of the capital of the country. “It’s the only book I know of that really understands the mind-set of the North Korean elite,” says Barbara Demick, the author of the book. “Complete with the deception and self-deception that is needed to live in that kind of regime.”