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.

The books I picked & why

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Korea's Place in the Sun: A Modern History

By Bruce Cumings,

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

Why 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.


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

By A.B. Abrams,

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

Why 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.

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

By Felix Abt,

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

Why 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.


In North Korea: First Eyewitness Report

By Anna Louise Strong,

Book cover of In North Korea: First Eyewitness Report

Why 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.


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

By Melvyn P. Leffler,

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

Why 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?

5,215 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 25 books about North Korea
Korea Explore 28 books about Korea
The Soviet Union Explore 207 books about the Soviet Union

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like A Team of Their Own: How an International Sisterhood Made Olympic History, The Last Stand of Fox Company: A True Story of U.S. Marines in Combat, and Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea if you like this list.