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The three-generation Kim Dynasty has made North Korea one of the most reviled—and ridiculed—nations in the world. Memes depicting Kim Jong-un laughing about the fact that he’s “no longer the craziest leader” keep popping up on social feeds, even while reports of the sequestered country’s growing nuclear power get buried under what is deemed more immediate news. Beyond the finger-pointing, threats, and not-so-funny humor are the hidden people of a devastated country whose stories are agonizingly, slowly coming to light. The regime will fall one day. Until then, insightful books provide our best opportunities for encouraging education and understanding. Here’s a selection of fiction and nonfiction titles, linked to their Booklist reviews, that allow us to look in.
The Accusation, by Bandi
Initially published in South Korea in 2014, The Accusation makes international history as the first literary work smuggled out of repressive North Korea. Bandi—whose pseudonym is derived from “firefly,” an obvious nod to the insect’s ability to cast light amidst vast darkness—remains a prominent North Korean writer. Written between 1989-1995, a common theme reverberates through these seven illuminating stories: that survival, already threatened by starvation, betrayal, brutality, can hinge on the most absurdly trivial details.
The Boy Who Escaped Paradise, by J.M. Lee
Lee’s silent protagonist sits in a New York City cell, accused of murder and terrorism, his more notable possessions including four fake passports and 19 pages of mathematical formulas written in an unidentifiable language. The nurse in charge interrupts the aggressive FBI interrogation to care for his gunshot wound. Under her ministrations over the next seven days, the suspect will prove how “[n]umbers reveal our secrets,” divulging a quest that originates in North Korea and lands in North America, with stopovers in China, Macau, South Korea, and Mexico, as the protagonist moves through a prison camp, casinos, hotel rooms, action flicks, and international markets—all to fulfill a childhood promise of everlasting care (and love).
The Ginseng Hunter, by Jeff Talarigo
A middle-aged Chinese man—the eponymous ginseng hunter—lives alone on his family farm on the Tumen River, which marks the border between rural China and devastated North Korea. The silence of his initial visit with the latest “Miss Wong” at the village brothel slowly melts as they discover they share the Korean language, as well as stories of escape from the brutal regime across the river.
How I Became a North Korean, by Krys Lee
After the brutal murder of his father and his wrenching separation from his mother and sister, Yongju faces yet more deprivation despite his privileged upbringing as the only son of one of North Korea’s power elite. Meanwhile, Danny, a misfit immigrant teen in southern California, abandons his father to join his mother in China, while Jangmi, desperate to protect her unborn child, escapes her North Korean village and becomes the purchased wife of a damaged Chinese man with a spoiled daughter. Through an unlikely combination of adversity and serendipity, the three young people will converge in a house of God—as victims of abuse and beneficiaries of benevolence. Drawing on her personal experiences working with North Korean refugees, Lee crafts an extraordinary narrative that combines contemporary testimony with literary achievement.
The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson
In name and stature, Pak Jun Do is not so dissimilar from the anonymous John Doe. His many-stage metamorphosis from a motherless young boy burdened with a North Korean martyr’s name to his reinvention decades later as another dead man becomes a labyrinthine quest for self-knowledge—and some semblance of redemption. Johnson’s 2013 Pulitzer Prizewinner is unshakable testimony to the power of storytelling.
Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, by Kang Chol-Hwan and Pierre Rigoulot
Originally published in French in 2000 and quickly followed by English and Korean translations, Aquariums has achieved modern classic status as the first-ever memoir about the horrors of surviving and escaping the brutal labor camps of barren North Korea. Kang, imprisoned at age nine with his family, was released at age 19. Upon escaping to South Korea, he became a newspaper journalist who eventually founded a North Korea human rights-focused NGO.
Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee—A Look Inside North Korea, by Jang Jin-Sung
While most nonfiction books about North Korea have focused on the extreme deprivation and unbearable suffering of the common citizen, Dear Leader is one of few that exposes the highest echelons of the North Korean regime. Jang Jin-Sung wasn’t starving, nor was he sent to a labor camp; his family was comparatively safe. As a lauded Poet Laureate, he was one of the “Admitted,” a small circle of the country’s most elite as recognized personally by the Great Leader Kim Jong-il. What finally caused Jang’s downfall was something he shared with a trusted friend: a book—an illegal, foreign book—that gets lost, then found by the wrong people. Facing unfathomable punishment, the two friends flee to the Chinese border, beginning a terrifying odyssey that finally ends in freedom. . . at least for one.
A book without parallel, Escape from Camp 14 is a riveting nightmare that bears witness to the worst inhumanity, an unbearable tragedy magnified by the fact that the horror continues. Journalist Blaine Harden, former Washington Post bureau chief for East Asia, Eastern Europe, and Africa, presents the odyssey of North Korean Shin Dong-Hyuk, the only known North Korean who was born in a prison camp; his prisoner parents were arbitrarily paired by guards to breed a slave. He not only escaped, but survived.
Only the truth could be this shockingly unbelievable. Long before PSY became an international headliner with “Gangnam Style,” director Shin Sang-Ok and his leading lady Choi Eun-Hee reigned as Korea’s first megastars. In a South Korea devastated by war, Shin and Choi together built Korean cinema to international acclaim—that is, until a clichéd fade from the limelight. North of the DMZ, Kim Jong-Il, not yet the Supreme Leader, fed his obsession for films. He hatched a ludicrous plan to get North Korea onto the international cinematic stage. . . and somehow made it work. First he grabbed Choi. Then he took Shin. Reunited as Kim’s ‘guests,’ they had little choice but to help make Dear Leader’s celluloid dreams come true.
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick
Barbara Demick spent five years as the Seoul bureau chief for The Los Angeles Times, where she had unprecedented access to North Korean defectors. Her interviews, which began in 2001, eventually became Nothing to Envy, a mind-boggling, heartbreaking, surreal, and humanizing portrait of six North Koreans and their lives on either side of the infamous DMZ. Interwoven with the personal stories is the grueling history of North Korea from its post-Korean War state as a paragon of Communism to the totalitarian regime still in power even with the capitalistic transformations of its former Communist neighbors and supporters.
Novelist and journalist Kim details the six months she spent teaching English at the all-male Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, in which the ultimate message is about hope. That Kim, a South Korean-born, U.S.-educated, New York-based writer could enter this dictatorial regime, that she bears witness to noteworthy change among her young students, that this book is available throughout the free world, provides definitive promise that transitions are happening above the 38th parallel.