The Best Books For Understanding North Korea

The Books I Picked & Why

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

By Barbara Demick

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.


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The Orphan Master's Son

By Adam Johnson

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.


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Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea

By Guy Delisle, Helge Dascher

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.


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

By B.R. Myers

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.


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Korea's Place in the Sun: A Modern History

By Bruce Cumings

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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