The best non-fiction books about North Korea

Who am I?

I’ve always been fascinated by niche film world stories, and the kidnapping of Shin Sang-Ok and Choi Eun-Hee was my way in to North Korea, a country I was a layman about until I started researching A Kim Jong-Il Production. One thing I’ve found, through the writing of that book, traveling to North Korea, and the ensuing book tour, is that it’s a country it’s impossible not to be obsessed with once you’ve scratched the surface. The struggles and lives of ordinary people – in the face of such a repressive authoritarian regime – are unforgettable.

I wrote...

A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator's Rise to Power

By Paul Fischer,

Book cover of A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator's Rise to Power

What is my book about?

Before becoming the world's most notorious dictator, Kim Jong-Il ran North Korea's Ministry for Propaganda and its film studios. Conceiving every movie made, he acted as producer and screenwriter. Despite this control, he was underwhelmed by the available talent and took drastic steps, ordering the kidnapping of Choi Eun-Hee (Madam Choi) —South Korea's most famous actress—and her ex-husband Shin Sang-Ok, the country's most famous filmmaker. 

A nonfiction thriller packed with tension, passion, and politics, A Kim Jong-Il Production offers a rare glimpse into a secretive world, illuminating a fascinating chapter of North Korea's history that helps explain how it became the hermetically sealed, intensely stage-managed country it remains today.

The books I picked & why

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Nothing to Envy

By Barbara Demick,

Book cover of Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

Why this book?

Demick is a journalist whose book is based on interviews with over 100 North Korean refugees, all of whom have fled the city of Chongjin, in the north of the country. Chongjin is North Korea’s third-largest city and relatively close to the Chinese border; it’s also on the sea. As a result, the book paints the most representative and human portrait of what it’s actually like to live under the Kim regime – up to 2009. It’s gripping, eye-opening, and profoundly moving.

Without You, There Is No Us

By Suki Kim,

Book cover of Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea's Elite

Why this book?

In 2011, novelists and journalist Suki Kim spent six months teaching English to young members of the North Korean elite at the all-male Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, and this is her account of that experience. Where Demick’s book is an unparalleled insight into the life of ordinary North Koreans, Suki Kim lays bare the denial and self-deception required of her students, and the claustrophobia and absurdity of living in the “upper classes” of North Korea’s supposedly egalitarian society.

Dear Leader

By Jang Jin-Sung,

Book cover of Dear Leader: My Escape from North Korea

Why this book?

Jang Jin-Sung was Kim Jong-Il’s poet laureate, assigned to a division permitted to consume censored foreign materials. His life is about as good as life can get in North Korea – until one of the foreign magazines he has lent to a friend goes missing, and Jang must flee his home country or face retribution. Dear Leader is fascinating because it’s a book written by a genuine insider, a man who, until his own neck was on the line, served the regime more-or-less happily. To be honest, Jang is not a particularly likable narrator, but there’s an honesty and an urgency to the writing that illuminates the cynicism and manipulation at the heart of the regime.

The Invitation-Only Zone

By Robert S. Boynton,

Book cover of The Invitation-Only Zone: The True Story of North Korea's Abduction Project

Why this book?

Starting in the 1970s, several dozen Japanese civilians – everyday people – were abducted by North Korean commandos and sent to detention centers known as Invitation-Only Zones, where the Kim regime attempted to brainwash and turn them into spies in their service. When that failed, the abductees were turned into teachers instead, to teach North Korean agents how to live undercover in Japanese society. It’s the kind of thing so crazy a lot of people don’t even believe it can be true – Kim Jong-Il only admitted to some of the abductions in 2002, and even then only to thirteen of them – and Boynton tells it meticulously and captivatingly.

Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader

By Bradley K. Martin,

Book cover of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty

Why this book?

A mammoth volume, and yet somehow an unputdownable page-turner. It’s the best available overview of North Korea’s first, and most influential, leaders, Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il, and the society they created. It’s clear, measured, and detailed – and even though it’s fifteen years old, as an explainer, it’s a necessary foundation for any layperson trying to get to grips with the dynamics behind the headlines.

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