The best books on the North Korean economy

Who are we?

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. 


We wrote...

Witness to Transformation: Refugee Insights Into North Korea

By Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland,

Book cover of Witness to Transformation: Refugee Insights Into North Korea

What is our book about?

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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The books we picked & why

Book cover of Marching Through Suffering: Loss and Survival in North Korea

Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland Why did I love this book?

Economics does not always make easy reading, so stories are best told by listening to how privation is felt in everyday life. Sandra Fahy’s book is a terrific recent addition. An anthropologist, Fahy interviews famine refugees, who tell their tales. A common theme was that they worked hard and many believed at least to some extent in the regime. But they became disillusioned and defected not only because of economic conditions but for professional reasons; that they were prevented from putting their expertise and skills to use.

By Sandra Fahy,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Marching Through Suffering as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Marching Through Suffering is a deeply personal portrait of the ravages of famine and totalitarian politics in modern North Korea since the 1990s. Featuring interviews with more than thirty North Koreans who defected to Seoul and Tokyo, the book explores the subjective experience of the nation's famine and its citizens' social and psychological strategies for coping with the regime.

These oral testimonies show how ordinary North Koreans, from farmers and soldiers to students and diplomats, framed the mounting struggles and deaths surrounding them as the famine progressed. Following the development of the disaster, North Koreans deployed complex discursive strategies to…


Book cover of North of the DMZ: Essays on Daily Life in North Korea

Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland Why did I love this book?

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. 

By Andrei Lankov,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked North of the DMZ as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Kim dynasty has ruled North Korea for over 60 years. Most of that period has found the country suffering under mature Stalinism characterized by manipulation, brutality and tight social control. Nevertheless, some citizens of Kim Jong Il's regime manage to transcend his tyranny in their daily existence. This book describes that difficult but determined existence and the world that the North Koreans have created for themselves in the face of oppression. Many features of this world are unique and even bizarre. But they have been created by the citizens to reflect their own ideas and values, in sharp contrast…


Book cover of A Most Enterprising Country: North Korea in the Global Economy

Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland Why did I love this book?

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. 

By Justin V. Hastings,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Most Enterprising Country as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

North Korea has survived the end of the Cold War, massive famine, numerous regional crises, punishing sanctions, and international stigma. In A Most Enterprising Country, Justin V. Hastings explores the puzzle of how the most politically isolated state in the world nonetheless sustains itself in large part by international trade and integration into the global economy. The world's last Stalinist state is also one of the most enterprising, as Hastings shows through in-depth examinations of North Korea's import and export efforts, with a particular focus on restaurants, the weapons trade, and drug trafficking. Tracing the development of trade networks inside…


Book cover of Unveiling the North Korean Economy: Collapse and Transition

Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland Why did I love this book?

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.

By Byung-Yeon Kim,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Unveiling the North Korean Economy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

North Korea is one of the most closed and secretive societies in the world. Despite a high level of interest from the outside world, we have very little detailed information about how the country functions economically. In this valuable book for both the academic and policy-making circles, Byung-Yeon Kim offers the most comprehensive and systematic analysis of the present day North Korean economy in the context of economic systems and transition economics. It addresses what is really happening in the North Korean economy, why it has previously failed, and how the country can make the transition to a market economy.…


Book cover of The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un

Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland Why did I love this book?

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. 

By Anna Fifield,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Great Successor as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The behind-the-scenes story of the rise and reign of the world's strangest and most elusive tyrant, Kim Jong Un, by the journalist with the best connections and insights into the bizarrely dangerous world of North Korea.

Since his birth in 1984, Kim Jong Un has been swaddled in myth and propaganda, from the plainly silly -- he could supposedly drive a car at the age of three -- to the grimly bloody stories of family members who perished at his command.

Anna Fifield reconstructs Kim's past and present with exclusive access to sources near him and brings her unique understanding…


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Unsettled

By Laurie Woodford,

Book cover of Unsettled

Laurie Woodford

New book alert!

What is my book about?

At the age of forty-nine, Laurie Woodford rents out her house, packs her belongings into two suitcases, and leaves her life in upstate New York to relocate to Seoul, South Korea. What begins as an opportunity to teach college English in Asia evolves into a nomadic adventure.

Laurie spoon-feeds orphans in Ethiopia, performs 108 bows at a Buddhist mountain temple, walks shelter dogs in Peru, milks goats in Fuerteventura, and gets lost in Mexico, all the while navigating dating at midlife.

After four years of traveling, Laurie’s return “home” becomes an unexpected adventure of its own when she ends up in Arkansas and meets Bruce, a bird-loving, bearded Quaker, and then struggles to reconcile her need for freedom with her longing to feel settled.

Unsettled

By Laurie Woodford,

What is this book about?

At the age of forty-nine, driven by an urgent restlessness, Laurie Woodford rents out her house, packs her belongings into two suitcases, and relocates to Asia. What begins as an opportunity to teach college English overseas, evolves into a nomadic adventure as Laurie works and volunteers in South Korea, Ethiopia, Peru, Spain, and Mexico. After four years of traveling, Laurie's return "home" to the U.S. becomes an unexpected adventure of its own when she ends up in Arkansas and meets Bruce, a bird-loving, bearded Quaker, who challenges her to reconcile her life of fierce independence with her longing to feel…


5 book lists we think you will like!

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