The best books on the North Korean economy

Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland Author Of Witness to Transformation: Refugee Insights Into North Korea
By Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland

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. 

The books we picked & why

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Marching Through Suffering: Loss and Survival in North Korea

By Sandra Fahy,

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

Why 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.

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

By Andrei Lankov,

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

Why 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. 


A Most Enterprising Country: North Korea in the Global Economy

By Justin V. Hastings,

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

Why 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. 


Unveiling the North Korean Economy: Collapse and Transition

By Byung-Yeon Kim,

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

Why 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.


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

By Anna Fifield,

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

Why 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. 


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in North Korea, the economy, and politics?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about North Korea, the economy, and politics.

North Korea Explore 25 books about North Korea
The Economy Explore 102 books about the economy
Politics Explore 308 books about politics

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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.