We all have our weird interests in life, and I’m of course no different. Over the years I’ve noticed there is one place in the world where when I see an article or a news story about it, I stop whatever I am doing to absorb it. It’s not one of the countries I lived in, or even one of the countries I dream of living in. No, it’s a place that both baffles and horrifies: North Korea. For whatever reason, I’m obsessed with reading and learning about North Korea. To the point where I once researched if it would be possible for me to get an advanced degree studying the hermit kingdom.
And so over the years, I’ve learned a lot about the country. I’ve watched the Vice episode and many more shows about the country. I read with fascination reports about a fire in the ever popular Koryo hotel, and wondered if that meant North Korea would at last have to open the (in)famous Ryugyong hotel, a 105 story hotel in the center of Pyongyang, that’s been under construction since 1987. Nope, that’s not a typo. Article headlines like “Did North Korea Kidnap an American Hiker in China” grab your attention. The fake Twitter accounts KimJongNumberUn and DPRK_News are both amusing and, if you follow North Korea enough, deceptive enough to almost seem like something North Korea would really publish.
And so one can’t help but be fascinated by this country. How does it function? What is life like in it? And of course, one way to get some glimpse into those answers is through books. So what are my five favorite books about North Korea?
1. The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
This is actually one of the best books I’ve read in the last few years. A Pulitzer Price winner for fiction, and named one of the best books of the year by the New Yorker, Washington Post, and seemingly everyone else in the world, it’s a compelling fictional account of a North Korean orphan who becomes a professional kidnapper for North Korea. It’s thrilling, it immerses you into what you could imagine that part of life in North Korea being like, and at the end of the day, absurd as it all sounds ANYWHERE else in the world, it’s shockingly, believable.
2. Without You, There Is No Us: My Time With the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim
Imagine a reporter covers North Korea as a journalist, and then returns years later under the guise as a teacher at an elite school run by Christian missionaries under the approval of the North Korean government. Tempting to believe this is another fictional account of the country, this is actual a riveting tale of life for the North Korea we often don’t talk about: The elites. Suki Kim writes an incredible book that gives a glimpse into the life of children of the countries elite, while also giving the reader a chance to imagine what it would be like to volunteer in North Korea.
3. Only Beautiful Please: A British Diplomat in North Korea by John Everard
The United States has no diplomatic relations with North Korea, but The United Kingdom does. And this book provides a first hand account of a diplomat who had the unique opportunity to not just live in Pyongyang for two years, but to also travel through parts of the country usually unseen by foreigners.
4. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
The stories of defectors from North Korea are gripping, and Demick follows the lives and tales of six ordinary North Koreans who defected. It’s true accounts, but Demick is the type of journalist who has a style of writing that wraps you up into her every word, and you have to remind yourself it’s not fiction, it’s reality.
5. Escape From Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey From North Korea to Freedom in the West by Blaine Harden
Only one person is known to have been born in a North Korean prison camp, escaped, and lived to tell about it. The story of Shin Dong-hyuk, a young man who “came to age in the highest security prison in the highest security state” will simply captivate you. If you believe in the power of storytelling to educate and raise awareness, this book deserves to be read.
And that’s it. There’s of course a lot more literature on the Hermit Kingdom, but these are the five books that have most stayed with me. If you’re curious to learn more about the world’s most mysterious country, dive in!