The best books to understand the DPRK

Stephen Gowans Author Of Patriots, Traitors and Empires: The Story of Korea's Struggle for Freedom
By Stephen Gowans

Who am I?

I became interested in North Korea in 2002 when the George W. Bush administration declared the country to be part of an Axis of Evil, along with Iraq and Iran. Bush had lied about Iraq, to justify a war against that country, and I wondered what evidence, if any, his administration had that North Korea was either evil or part of an axis. The answer was none. Bush was able to propagate one North Korean myth after another because the public knew very little about the country. I wished to give people some background so they could make sense of what they were reading and hearing about North Korea in the news and social media.

I wrote...

Patriots, Traitors and Empires: The Story of Korea's Struggle for Freedom

By Stephen Gowans,

Book cover of Patriots, Traitors and Empires: The Story of Korea's Struggle for Freedom

What is my book about?

Patriots, Traitors, and Empires is an account of modern Korean history, written from the point of view of those who fought to free their country from the domination of foreign empires. It traces the history of Korea’s struggle for freedom from opposition to Japanese colonialism starting in 1905 to North Korea’s current efforts to deter the threat of invasion by the United States.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Korea's Place in the Sun: A Modern History

Why did I love this book?

Cumings’ books on Korea—there are a number of them—could fill every spot on a list of the five best books to understand the DPRK. Cumings is the leading Western expert on Korean modern history, and Korea’s Place in the Sun is the best place to start. I love every one of Cumings’ books, and this one especially. He is a superb writer and doesn’t pander to established opinions.

By Bruce Cumings,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Korea's Place in the Sun as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Korea has endured a "fractured, shattered twentieth century," and this updated edition brings Bruce Cumings's leading history of the modern era into the present. The small country, overshadowed in the imperial era, crammed against great powers during the Cold War, and divided and decimated by the Korean War, has recently seen the first real hints of reunification. But positive movements forward are tempered by frustrating steps backward. In the late 1990s South Korea survived its most severe economic crisis since the Korean War, forcing a successful restructuring of its political economy. Suffering through floods, droughts, and a famine that cost…

Book cover of Immovable Object: North Korea's 70 Years at War with American Power

Why did I love this book?

I love A.B. Abrams as a writer because he can look at a subject and see what others have failed to see. I read his book only after completing my own, and I’m sorry I missed it. Immovable Object tells a fascinating story, recounted in few other places, of how North Korea has not only helped other peoples fight for national liberation but has achieved what no other post-colonial country has ever accomplished: the ability to stay the hand of an aggressive US empire by developing a credible retaliatory nuclear threat.

By A.B. Abrams,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Immovable Object as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

North Korea and the United States have been officially at war for over 70 years, one of the longest lasting and most unbalanced conflicts in world history, in which a small East Asian state has held its own against a Western superpower for over three generations. With the Western world increasingly pivoting its attention towards Northeast Asia, and the region likely to play a more central role in the global economy, North Korea's importance as a strategically located country, potential economic powerhouse and major opponent of Western regional hegemony will only grow over the coming decades. This work is the…

Book cover of A Capitalist in North Korea: My Seven Years in the Hermit Kingdom

Why did I love this book?

Abt, an entrepreneur who lived in North Korea for seven years, challenges the myths and misconceptions about the DPRK that flourish in the West, not only among people who are inclined to believe the East Asian state is a hell on earth, but also among those who are apt to overlook its failings. I really liked this book. It is clearly written and the pace is brisk and engaging.

By Felix Abt,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Capitalist in North Korea as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Business in North Korea: a paradoxical and fascinating situation is interpreted by a true insider.

In 2002, the Swiss power company ABB appointed Felix Abt its country director for North Korea. The Swiss Entrepreneur lived and worked in North Korea for seven years, one of the few foreign businessmen there. After the experience, Abt felt compelled to write A Capitalist in North Korea to describe the multifaceted society he encountered.

North Korea, at the time, was heavily sanctioned by the UN which made it extremely difficult to do business. Yet he discovered that it was a place where plastic surgery…

Book cover of In North Korea: First Eyewitness Report

Why did I love this book?

Strong was a US journalist who reported on Communist movements for 40 years, beginning in the 1920s. In 1949 she travelled to Korea to report on the birth of the new North Korean state. I love this book because it offers an on-the-ground view of why the state was created and what its founders were trying to accomplish—invaluable for understanding the country today.

By Anna Louise Strong,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Written by world traveler Anna Louise Strong (1885 1970), a reporter dedicated to social justice issues. A leftist radical, she covered I.W.W. trials and labor strikes in the Pacific Northwest before becoming a socialist . She was the Moscow correspondent for the American Friends Service Committee and International News Service, and traveled extensively throughout Russia, Asia and Eastern Europe. She was the first reporter to gain access to North Korea after WWII. In North Korea was published by Soviet Russia Today (1949), and she considers such topic as government and elections, industry, agriculture and impact of Soviet troops.

Book cover of The Specter of Communism: The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1917-1953

Why did I love this book?

Leffler’s book is about much more than North Korea, but it covers world events that are critical to understanding the communist Korean state, its birth, and its conflict with the United States. I drew heavily on Leffler’s work in my own book to place North Korea within the context of surrounding geopolitical developments.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in North Korea, Korea, and the Soviet Union?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about North Korea, Korea, and the Soviet Union.

North Korea Explore 38 books about North Korea
Korea Explore 34 books about Korea
The Soviet Union Explore 307 books about the Soviet Union