The best books for understanding North Korea

Who am I?

I became fascinated by North Korea during a six-month fellowship in Tokyo in 2008. Japan was still dealing with the aftermath of the return of some of its abducted citizens in 2002. It turned out that North Korea had been abducting people—South Koreans, Japanese, and others—since the 1970s. I began interviewing some of the returnees and embarked on an eight-year journey that took me back to Japan and South Korea many times. Throughout my research and reporting, I became convinced that the truth of the abductions, much like the truth of the region, lay between Korea and Japan. I was drawn to books that tried to come to terms with the uncomfortable relationship between two cultures whose similarities are trumped by their mutual animosity.

I wrote...

The Invitation-Only Zone: The True Story of North Korea's Abduction Project

By Robert S. Boynton,

Book cover of The Invitation-Only Zone: The True Story of North Korea's Abduction Project

What is my book about?

During the 1970s and early 80s, dozens of Japanese civilians were kidnapped by North Korean commandos and forced to live in 'Invitation-Only Zones', high-security detention centers in the outskirts of Pyongyang. The objective was to brainwash the abductees with the regime's ideology, and train them to spy on the state's behalf. For years, the Japanese and North Korean authorities brushed off these disappearances, but in 2002 Kim Jong Il admitted to kidnapping thirteen citizens, returning five of them - the remaining eight were declared dead.

In The Invitation-Only Zone, Boynton, an investigative journalist, speaks with the abductees, nationalists and diplomats, and crab fishermen, to try and untangle both the kidnappings and the intensely complicated relations between North Korea and Japan. The result is a fierce and fascinating exploration of North Korea's mysterious machinations, and the vexed politics of Northeast Asia.

The Books I Picked & Why

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Nothing to Envy

By Barbara Demick,

Book cover of Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

Why this book?

Nothing to Envy follows the lives of six North Koreans, over fifteen years, as they come to the realization that their government has betrayed them. Based on interviews, the book meticulously recreates the struggles these North Koreans endured. She focuses on the story of Mi Ran and Jung San, two teenagers in love. But despite their devotion to each other, each keeps his or her plans to escape from North Korea a secret from the other. By the time they meet again in South Korea, it is too late. Every story Demick tells is emotional and humane. A masterpiece of reporting.

The Orphan Master's Son

By Adam Johnson,

Book cover of The Orphan Master's Son

Why this book?

Adam Johnson visited North Korea once as a tourist. Based on his keen observations during those weeks, he spins a fantastic tale about Pak Jun Do, an orphaned boy who uses treachery and deception to rise to a high position in the North Korean regime. Pak is part of a crew that kidnaps a little girl from Japan, and later marries North Korea’s most famous actress. The genius of the book is that Johnson imbues the characters with believable personalities, even as he moves them through a nightmarish reality most would find completely unbelievable. The book is so good that one need not have any interest in, or knowledge of, North Korea to enjoy it.


By Guy Delisle, Helge Dascher (translator),

Book cover of Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea

Why this book?

French cartoonist Guy Delisle was invited to Pyongyang to work for a French film animation company. Armed with a copy of George Orwell’s 1984, Delisle explores North Korea, with his ever present minder, and conveys his thoughts in the form of a graphic novel. While one may have read descriptions of the bleakness of North Korea, one has (literally) never seen them like this. By using the form of a graphic novel, Delisle takes us inside the cartoonish reality of North Korea as only a cartoon can.

The Cleanest Race

By B.R. Myers,

Book cover of The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters

Why this book?

North Korea is too often dismissed because it is filled with people who seem to believe the strangest, most outlandish things about themselves, their country, and their leaders. Myers analyzes North Korean history and propaganda to argue that many of those strange ideas are produced for foreign consumption, to put North Korea’s enemies off the scent. Rather, Myers shows that the country’s identity is in part a reaction to its experience with Japanese imperialism, and conceives of the North Korean race as the purist people on earth. Rather than the combination of Stalinist politics and Confucian ethics, Myers finds a right wing, militaristic nationalist country that has contempt for the outside world.

Korea's Place in the Sun

By Bruce Cumings,

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

Why this book?

University of Chicago professor Bruce Cumings is the preeminent expert on modern Korean history. He is also a gifted writer, and this book is the best one-volume history of Korea one can find. Cumings explains both the extraordinary progress Korea has made in 150 years, and the terrible damage that 35 years of Japanese colonialism did to the country. He demonstrates the ways that North and South Korea mirror each other, and is fairer to the North than most Western historians.

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