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A few years ago I found the first book in this list, My Holiday in North Korea, at Barnes and Noble and I had to get it. First, because it was on that perfect, thick glossy paper. Second, because it just sounded good. Later I found myself watching anything I could find about North Korea on Netflix, which wasn’t much, and now I’m back on a search for the best books about North Korea to read over the summer.
After scouring the web, I compiled this list of 27 books about North Korea. They are mostly about life in North Korea, escaping North Korea, or traveling to North Korea. You won’t be finding a whole lot of history books on this list, but these are all things I want to read myself.
Wendy goes on a 10 day holiday to North Korea and this is her collection of stories and photographs from the trip. This is more of a tongue-in-cheek account of travel in North Korea, so if you want something less serious, this is a great choice. After initial amusement and bewilderment, she is soon frustrated and a little paranoid once she sees the country they’re willing to show.
This follows the lives of six North Koreans over 15 years into their new lives in China and South Korea. It takes us to a place most of us have never seen before and shares what it’s like living under the most totalitarian regime around today. We are taken deep into the country where the government doesn’t see as we follow these six people falling in love, raising families, nurturing ambitions, struggling to survive, and realizing that their government betrayed them.
At just 13 years old, Yeonmi Park fled North Korea with her mother and two years later made it to South Korea after a harrowing journey. She realizes that to be completely free, she needs to face her past, as ugly as it is. She was sold with her mother into slave marriages by Chinese brokers and her sister disappeared in China earlier. She went public with her story in hopes of finding her sister.
This is the story of a former State Poet Laureate and his escape from North Korea to freedom. He lived a privileged life with food provisions, a travel pass, access to strictly censored information, and audiences with Kim Jong-il himself. That all changes when he needs to flee for his life after a forbidden magazine he lent to a friend goes missing. This exposé shares the inner workings of the North Korean totalitarian state like no other.
This takes us through the life of modern-day North Korea. A broad variety of sources, including members of the Pyongyang ruling family, defectors from different times and regions, diplomats, NGO’s, and cross-border traders from China, brings a startling new insight to North Korean society.
Growing up on the Chinese border, Hyeonseo Lee had an idea of what life was like outside of North Korea so at 17 she decided to escape and was reunited with her family 12 years later. With word of her escape spreading, she couldn’t return to North Korea, but after twelve years and two lives adapting and surviving in China, she returns to the border to spirit her mother and brother away to South Korea on one of the most arduous, costly, and dangerous journeys around.
Andrei Lankov, a native of the former Soviet Union, was an exchange student in North Korea in the 1980’s. He studied it during his entire career and used his fluency in Korean to establish personal contacts and a rich understanding of North Korea. In this, you will learn, based on vast expertise, how average North Koreans live, how their leaders rule, and how both survive.
The former Director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council brings us this North Korean tell-all. It includes personal anecdotes from his time in Pyongyang and tenure as a White House adviser. As opposed to focusing on the personality of the Kim Dynasty, this has more focus on the regimes’ ideology, the economy, liberalization, and the regime’s on and off affair with China.
Somewhere between memoir and investigative journalism is Without You, There Is No Us. During the last six months of Kim Jong-il’s reign, Suki Kim was teaching English to the sons of North Korea’s ruling class. It’s 2011 and all universities in North Korea have been shut down, except Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) where Suki is teaching. She struggles to teach her young students under the watchful eye of the regime but begins to hint at a world other than their own after a few weeks. In exchange, she receives glimpses into their lives: thoughts on how to impress girls and disappointment that soccer games are only televised when North Korea wins, but when Kim Jong-il dies, the students are devastated and she wonders if the differences can ever be bridged.
This eye-opening work of fiction includes seven stories that give voice to the people living under this bizarre and horrifying dictatorship. It is set during the leadership of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il and shares the perspective of a wide variety of backgrounds from the elite in Pyongyang to a former Communist war hero and a husband and father that sneaks onto a train to visit his critically ill mother. It’s an inspiring tale and testament that a rich internal life can continue in such inhumane conditions.
North Korea has between 150,000 and 200,000 people held in its political prison camps which have existed twice as long as Stalin’s Soviet gulags and twelve times as long as the Nazi concentration camps. Very few who are born and raised in the camps escape, but Shin Donghyuk did. He knew nothing of civilized existence, saw his mother as a competitor for food, and witnessed the execution of his own family. This is the story of his life, escape, and survival.
Don’t Go There: From Chernobyl to North Korea—one man’s quest to lose himself and find everyone else in the world’s strangest places
Adam Fletcher decides he needs to do something different after being tear-gassed in Istanbul, so instead of a regular holiday to Italy, he and his girlfriend Annett decide to go to China as a bit of a challenge. This tradition continues and they travel through more unusual and dangerous destinations.
Masaji Ishikawa, half-Korean, half-Japanese, always felt like a man without a country and this deepened when his family moved from Japan to North Korea when he was 13. His father, a Korean national, was lured over with promises of abundant work, education for his children, and a higher station in society when in reality, they unwittingly became members of the lowest caste. This is his story of 36 years living in North Korea and his struggle repatriating in Japan after a narrow escape.
Despite field trips to public executions, daily self-criticism sessions, and hunger as the country-wide famine escalated, Eunsun Kim loved her country as a child. By the time she was eleven, her father and grandparents died of starvation and she was on her way there herself. This is when her mother decided to flee North Korea with Eunsun and her sister, not knowing the journey would take nine whole years. In those years, they were homeless, survived a North Korean labor camp, fell into the hands of Chinese human traffickers and crossed the Mongolian deserts on foot.
John Sweeney, an award-winning BBC journalist, traveled undercover to North Korea posing as a university professor to gain access to the world’s most secret state. With interviews from defectors and other key witnesses, Sweeney pulls back the curtain and provides a rare insight into life in North Korea today, looking at the country’s troubled past and addressing important questions about it’s future.
Joy Yoon and her husband spent more than ten years as humanitarian NOG workers in North Korea. This is her story where she shares observations and insights, hoping to help readers re-evaluate the so-called “Hermit Kingdom.”
Kang Chol-Hwan was the first survivor to escape a North Korean concentration camp. This is his story documenting the extreme conditions in the camps and his personal insights on life in North Korea. He was sent to the camp at nine years old and spent ten years witnessing public executions, enduring forced labor, and surviving near-starvation rations. He escaped in 1992 to South Korea and now advocates for human rights in North Korea.
Instead of learning about the people of North Korea, we learn about the leaders of North Korea in this one. This book offers in-depth portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, the country’s leading novelist, philosopher, historian, educator, designer, architect, general, farmer, and ping pong trainer. Radios are tuned to the state frequency. Newspapers print Kim speeches and propaganda. And instead of Christmas, Kim’s birthday is celebrated and he presents each child a present just like Santa. This covers the history of the country bringing us up to date on the tensions of the current day.
Felix Abt worked for a Swiss-Swedish power company, ABB, in North Korea for seven years, one of the few foreign businessmen there. While business was very difficult to do there thanks to being heavily sanctioned by the UN, Abt found plastic surgery and South Korean TV dramas wildly popular. He was closely monitored and even accused of spying, yet he learned North Koreans are hopeful for a more open future.
At school, Dae was always told North Korea was the best country on Earth and its leaders were like gods, yet his family only ate porridge made from grass. All of a sudden, Dae’s family is ripped apart and he finds himself on his own. He knows he needs to get out of North Korea to find help.
A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator’s Rise to Power
Before becoming the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-il ran the Ministry for Propaganda and its film studios, acting as screenwriter and producer of every movie made. He was underwhelmed with the talent available to him and ordered the kidnapping of Shoi Eun-Hee, South Korea’s most famous actress, and her husband, Shin Sang-ok, the country’s most famous filmmaker. This is the story of their kidnapping, imprisonment, persuasion, and escape.
After traveling and studying in North Korea, Travis Jeppesen paints a multifaceted portrait of the country and its idosyncratic capital city. Pyongyang is a show city where everything is staged for foreigners, but in this, we get to meet an array of fascinating characters including a government minister with a side hustle in black market Western products and young people enamored with American pop culture.
This is an epic novel featuring Pak Jun Do through icy water, dark tunnels, and eerie spy chambers in North Korea. His lost mother was a singer “stolen” to Pyongyang and his father is an influential leader who runs Long Tomorrows, a work camp for orphans. Pak gets his first taste of power when he gets to decide which orphans eat first and which will be lent out for manual labor. Soon, he is recognized for his loyalty and instincts and he comes to the attention of state superiors where he starts on a road with no return. He becomes a professional kidnapper who had to keep his Korean overlords pleased to stay alive.
Kim Yong is a former military official who spent six years in a gulag before surviving an escape. He was a lieutenant colonel in the North Korean army with unprecedented privilege, encountering corruption at all levels. Soon, accusations of treason stripped him of his position and the distinction between those who prosper and those who suffer under Kim Jong-il became very clear. He was condemned to Camp 14, the most notorious labor camp, where he worked 2,400 feet underground. After years of planning, with the help of old friends, he escaped to the United States through China, Mongolia, and South Korea.
This book shares the story of the lives that North Koreans have created in the face of oppression, manipulation, tyranny, and brutality. We begin by learning about the political system and how it permeates daily lives from personal status badges to food distribution. Later, we learn about the daily lives under a totalitarian dictatorship from defectors. Finally, we learn about the changes over the last decade that will most likely lead to the collapse of North Korean Stalinism.
This is another great read if you want to learn about everyday North Korean life. Ralph Hassig and Kongdan Oh draw on decades of experience to share in vivid detail how the government shapes every aspect of its citizen’s lives. The authors urge us to understand how North Koreans live with their only role allowed to support Kim Jong-il and to flood the country with information so its people can make decisions based on truth over propaganda.
At 18, Hyok Kang escaped North Korea. Now he is sharing what life was like in school under a rigid Communist constitution and with his family and community. It’s a moving portrayal of life filled with public executions and devoid of food, resulting in the death of friends and loved ones, showing his resilience and spirited survival. This is the story of his life and escape through China, Vietnam, and Cambodia to South Korea.
Have you read any of these? Which ones? Do you want to? What do you think about traveling to North Korea?