7 Essential Reads About Life In North Korea

I have a confession to make: I'm an eensy bit obsessed with books and documentaries about North Korea. Defector memoirs have become their own subgenre over the last decade or so, and if you're looking for books to read about North Korea, they're a great place to start.

Both halves of the Korean peninsula have been through much political turmoil over the last few decades, stretching back to the early 20th century, when Japan occupied the then-unified country. Following Japan's defeat in World War II, the U.S. and the Soviet Union split control of the Korean peninsula along the 38th parallel, much as they divided Germany in the West. Unlike Germany, the two Koreas have not yet reunified, and some wonder if tong-il will ever come.

North and South Korea have evolved ideologically with their Allied supporters. North Korea — formally known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK — follows Juche, a political philosophy developed by Kim Il-sung: the country's first and only President, and the grandfather of its current leader, Workers' Party of Korea Chairman Kim Jong-un. In South Korea — the Republic of Korea, or ROK — the political system will look quite familiar to anyone from a democratic state, as power is checked and balanced between three branches of government. In short, the ROK produces killer pop music and has just ousted a democratically-elected president, while the DPRK suffers food shortages and launches failed test missiles.

My obsession with North Korea started way back in middle school, when I read Animal Farm for the first time and became enthralled with dystopian fiction. Remember being a teenager and thinking that everything horrifying was cool or edgy? That's what the DPRK was to me at the time: a source of unlimited horrors tucked safely on the other side of the world.

Even though reading about North Korea no longer gives me the kind of bone-chilling, authoritarian terror I originally loved, I continue to read about the Hermit Kingdom, simply because I believe it's important to understand that there are still places where people are beaten, jailed, and enslaved for generations when a relative commits treason against the state — a crime that comes in many shapes and forms, from verbal dissent to outright protest.

Check out the seven books about North Korea on my list below, and share your most illuminating DPRK reads with me on Twitter!


'The Accusation' by Bandi

This pseudonymously published short-story collection has garnered comparisons to the works of Ivan Denisovich author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The Accusation consists of seven stories that satirize life in the DPRK under the Kim regime.

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'Nothing to Envy' by Barbara Demick

If you've ever wondered what young North Koreans do for fun, or how families survived the late-20th century famine that struck the country, Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy is the book you need to read.

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'Without You, There Is No Us' by Suki Kim

In 2011, Korean-American journalist Suki Kim embedded herself in a missionary teaching group based in China, and traveled to the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, where she taught the young sons of high-ranking members in the Workers' Party of Korea.

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'Every Falling Star' by Sungju Lee and Susan McClelland

Sungju Lee's father was once a ranking officer in the North Korean military, but his doubts about the legitimacy of the Kim regime soon found his entire family banished to the north, where the author learned that a life outside Pyongyang was not the same as a life lived close to the Dear Leader.

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'Escape from Camp 14' by Blaine Harden

Shin Dong-hyuk spent the first quarter century of his life in the gulag where he was born, unaware that there was a world outside Camp 14. To date, he is the only person known to have escaped a North Korean prison camp. This is his story.

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'Dear Leader' by Jiang Jin-sung

Once upon a time, Jiang Jin-sung was a state-sanctioned poet in North Korea, responsible for producing propaganda. After a forbidden magazine went missing, Jiang found himself on the other side of Kim Jong-il's favor, and was forced to flee for his life — first to China, and then to South Korea.

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'In Order to Live' by Yeonmi Park and Maryanne Vollers

When she was 13 years old, Yeonmi Park and her mother began a two-year journey to flee the DPRK for South Korea. Those two years were filled with all manner of atrocities, including human trafficking. The refugee-turned-activist tells her story in In Order to Live.

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