Posted by: Nicholas Davis | September 27, 2012

A North Korea Reading List

I tend to read in themes. Which some would call obsessive, but I view as efficient. If you’re enjoying one pastoral novel from the 19th century, why not experience a good sample, say another five or six, to see if you’re drawn to the subject matter, the style or merely the characteristics of that first book’s plot and characters?

Having been turned onto books about North Korea by a book review in The Economist, I’ve managed to consume (a few only partially) a number of different books and accounts of the country over the past couple of weeks. And I’m definitely fascinated by the subject. Here is my reading list in case you are interested in sampling from my sample. It also serves as the bibliography to my previous post worrying about North Korea-driven geopolitical risk.


  • The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future by Victor Cha. A wide ranging and excellent overview of North Korea, including extracts from many defector accounts, insights into the human rights situation, first hand descriptions of diplomatic events during and since the 2nd Bush administration and really interesting analysis of DPRK’s politics and economics. The first book I read on this topic and the most comprehensive I’ve come across so far. Some of the quotes from humanitarian reports are the most disturbing I have ever read.
  • The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag by Chol-hwan Kang and Pierre Rigoulot. Very interesting first hand account of a North Korean gulag as told by a defector from a Japanese-Korean family who effectively grew up in a hard labour camp. George W Bush was a fan of the book and invited Kang to the White House. It covers mostly the 1970s and 1980s as Kang left DPRK in the 1992.
  • Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West by Blaine Harden. I haven’t quite finished this. It’s the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, an escapee from a political camp in central North Korea in which he was born and raised, about his life. It’s not as gripping or well-written as the Aquariums of Pyongyang and confirms a lot of the attitudes and actions children and adults experience in North Korean concentration camps.
  • Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick. Beautifully written and very well executed coverage of the lives of six North Koreans all of whom were from the city of Chongjin. It covers the 1990s, and is particularly insightful when one wonders how people coped with the famine that stretched from 1994 to the end of the decade, killing North Koreans in the millions. It also is wonderful contextual companion to Victor Cha’s discussion of the role of market activities in relieving pressure on state-run distribution systems while simultaneously raising the populations expectations, causing a shift in power by encouraging entrepreneurial behaviour and allowing a trickle of information that is potentially dangerous to the regime’s control.
  • Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty by Bradley K. Martin.  I haven’t finished this one, though I’ve read more than half of the book with lots of jumping around. In 800-odd pages it covers the lives of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, drawing on official accounts (ie propaganda), stories from defectors (including transcripts of interviews, which is a fresh way of presenting perspectives after reading previous, edited accounts) and other biographic material (such as files from the Soviet Union released after its collapse). The most interesting pieces I’ve read include Chapter 12, which looks at how socioeconomic status dictates gang behaviour and relationships amongst young men in the country, and Chapter 25, in which one high ranking defector argues that the regime would be very willing to push the nuclear button.
  • The Hidden People of North Korea: Everyday Life in the Hermit Kingdom by Ralph Hassig and Kongdan Oh. This one I have only flipped through, but it seems to provide a rather broad overview of North Korea based on defector accounts, discussions with North Korean officials, interviews with those living close to the northern North Korean border and other reports and documents coming out of the country.
  • The Reluctant Communist: My Desertion, Court-Martial, and Forty-Year Imprisonment in North Korea by Charles Robert Jenkins. An interesting, relatively quick read on what it was like for a US  Korean War deserter to live for forty years in North Korea. It particularly highlights the inventiveness and, frankly, wealth of handy man skills one needs to get by in the country. One of the most interesting elements here is that he married one of the Japanese abductees, Hitomi Soga.
  • The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters by B.R. Myers. An excellent, very insightful book on North Korean ideology. As with Martin’s book above, it draw sheavily on the stories, teachings and art of the regime as a way of understanding the country. But while Martin tends to take these at face value and look for interesting biographical insights or indications of the leaders’ personalities in these sources, Myersapplies a more sociological analysis to drill down a number of layers beneath the propoganda, developing thereby his claim that the worldview of North Korea is “an implacably xenophobic, race-based worldview derived largely from fascist Japanese myth”. Myers argues that to focus on the official “juche” ideas of self-reliance is to mistake it for anything coherent and meaningful, and therefore to miss the far more powerful race-related narrative that lies beneath it. Fascinating.

Other interesting material:



  1. […] let me admit a few biases at play. For rather random reasons I’ve been reading a lot about the country over the past few weeks – so recency and availability biases are having a strong effect. […]

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