Marching Through Suffering: Loss and Survival in North Korea
We teamed up about fifteen years ago around a common interest in the political economy of North Korea; Haggard is a political scientist, Noland an economist. Both of us had spent our careers focused on Asia but looking largely at the capitalist successes: Japan and the newly industrializing countries of Korea, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia. But what about the anomalous cases in the region that did not get on the growth train? The “Asian miracle” was hardly ubiquitous…what had gone wrong? North Korea was clearly the biggest puzzle, and we ended up researching and writing on the famine, refugees, and the complexities of international sanctions.
The North Korean famine was a train wreck of unbelievable proportions, resulting not only in starvation and death but a massive refugee outflow and heartbreaking human rights abuses. But refugees were also fonts of information, as a flood of memoirs demonstrated. Our approach was to survey refugees in a more systematic fashion, in effect polling them on everything from their views of the regime and interactions with the security apparatus to household finances and aspirations beyond North Korea. We show that in the aftermath of the famine, households engaged in entrepreneurial activity, moved around the country, and even engaged in trade with China. Although the future of North Korea does not look bright at the moment, much more is going on below the surface than you might think including a thriving market economy.
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As a Russian, Lankov has a particular affinity for North Korea; he intuits how such economic systems work. A historian with some of the best work on the politics of the 1950s, he has more recently turned to projects interviewing refugees including on the economy of the North. He introduces the country’s weird political system, but also analyzes daily life, from personal status badges to schools, food and surviving in the underground market economy as well.
The title of this book is doubly surprising. Is North Korea enterprising? And North Korea “in the world economy”? Isn’t it the hermit kingdom? Hastings picks up a theme that was central to our work on the famine: that the socialist sector in North Korea has undergone a secular decline while households and entrepreneurs have constructed a complex market economy that is partially above ground, partly below it. But Hastings goes further, showing how that market economy is integrally tied to China. And the book has the added attraction of focusing attention on lucrative black markets that range from amphetamine to counterfeited one hundred dollar bills.
For those with some economics background and willing to do their homework, Kim’s book is the state of the art. He has sorted through all the shards of data out there—on prices, output, and trade--and pulled them together into a compelling mosaic. Of particular interest is his discussion of possible transition paths--were the regime to change course--as well as the possibility that the system might come crashing down altogether.
Ana Fifield is a top-flight journalist, and this is the most detailed biography of Kim Jong Un to date. Fifield has interviewed everyone who could possibly be interviewed, going back to teachers in a Swiss boarding school for insights into Kim Jong Un’s psyche. But why would such a book get mentioned in a list on the Korean economy? Because North Korea is best understood as a monarchy, and the court economy is non-trivial. Among many other details, Fifield provides insight into the lavish lifestyles of the family and the small circle of insiders that are at the core of the regime. Needless to say, the contrast with the lives of everyday North Koreans could not be more stark. An added benefit: the book contains a funny story involving Noland, President Barack Obama, and NBA coach Steve Kerr.
We think you will like Dear Leader: My Escape from North Korea, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, and Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea if you like this list.
From Paul's list on The best non-fiction books about North Korea.
From Zoya's list on The best books about the Karen and human rights that inspire me.
I met Barbara at an international conference on human rights called Oslo Freedom Forum, in Norway, where we were both speakers at that conference. After talking to her, I read her book and learned more about the heart-breaking situation in North Korea. It was a real eye-opener for me and inspired me to see the courage of North Korean refugees who escaped the atrocities and speak out for their own homeland.
From Conrad's list on The best memoir-based graphic novels.
The Canadian animator offers a revealing account of his two-month trip to North Korea to oversee a cartooning project. In deceptively simple words and drawings, Delisle gives us a front-row view of this complex, enigmatic totalitarian society. Everyday life in Pyongyang is rich fodder for this hilariously grumpy author. What’s it really like living in North Korea? Read this book and weep—and laugh.