Amazon lists more than 7,000 books about North Korea. That number is probably exaggerated, since many of those books are likely to have no meaningful relation to that country. Even so, a lot has been written about the country. In recent years, I’ve read what I believe to be nine of the most revealing books on the topic. I’m listing them here. They’re arranged alphabetically by the authors’ last names. The headline of the review that follows each title is linked to my review.
Hidden Moon (Inspector O #2) by James Church – A novel about fear and loathing in North Korea by James Church
James Church is reportedly the pseudonym for a Western intelligence officer with extensive experience in Asia. He has written a total of five novels featuring North Korean policeman Inspector O. I’ve read three, of which Hidden Moon is the best. Read the review.
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick – The stories told in “Nothing to Envy” make clear why politics matters
This is a brilliant study of the day-to-day realities experienced by individual people who are caught up in the unique political environment called “North Korea.” For example, she relates the story of the elementary schoolteacher whose class shrank from 50 to 15 in the depth of the North Korean famine in 1997-1999 because the children had first lost the energy to walk to school—and then simply died. Read the review.
A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator’s Rise to Power by Paul Fischer – Kim Jong Il’s North Korea from the inside out
The amazing experiences of two famous South Koreans who were kidnapped at the behest of a young Kim Jong-Il and held captive for nearly a decade to build the North Korean film industry. Read the review.
The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un by Anna Fifield—A revealing, up-to-date biography of Kim Jong Un
Since North Korea generally and Kim Jong Un in particular have been prominent in the news in recent years, you probably know a fair amount about the man. You may even have read about the radio installed in every household “that can never be turned off and can never be tuned to a different station.” But it’s unlikely you’re aware of the massive changes Kim has engineered during the seven years he’s been in power. This is one of the most revealing books about North Korea that I’ve come across. Read the review.
The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot: The True Story of the Tyrant Who Created North Korea and the Young Lieutenant Who Stole His Way to Freedom by Blaine Harden – Blaine Harden: how North Korea came to be what it is today
The Great Leader of the title is, of course, Kim Il Sung, a client of Stalin’s Russia, and the Fighter Pilot was the youngest pilot in the North Korean air force when he defected in 1953 shortly after the armistice that concluded the Korean War. Read the review.
Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West by Blaine Harden – A survivor’s eye-opening tale of life in the North Korean gulag
A chronicle of the life of Shin Dong-hyuk, one of only three people ever known to have escaped from a North Korean labor camp and made it to the West. Shin was born in the camp, his mother “assigned” to his father by guards to bear children. Both were prisoners. After the book’s publication Shin admitted that parts of his well-known tale were inaccurate and apologized. However, the essence of his story appears well-founded. (There are numerous other books that purport to tell the story of North Korean defectors.) Read the review.
King of Spies: The Dark Reign of an American Spymaster by Blaine Harden—The shameful reality of America’s role in the Korean War
This is the disturbing story of one of the most unlikely spymasters in American history. His name was Donald Nichols. At the age of 19, Nichols was a master sergeant in the US Army who was a seventh-grade dropout from a dirt-poor and abusive family. He was working in the motor pool on a base when World War II ended. Instead of returning home to the States, he enrolled in a training program for the Army’s Counter Intelligence Corps. Soon, he was in Korea. “He became a spymaster with his own base, his own secret army, and his own rules,” Harden notes. And Nichols became virtually untouchable by his superiors when he stumbled into a close friendship with the President of South Korea, Syngman Rhee. Read the review.
A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea by Masaji Ishikawa—Escape from North Korea: a first-person account
This remarkable Japanese man suffered as a virtual prisoner in North Korea for thirty-six years. In the midst of the great famine there in 1996, he finally managed to make his way back home to a cheerless welcome. Read the review.
The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson – An unsparing tale of life in the living hell of North Korea
Stanford University English professor Adam Johnson won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for this extraordinary novel about a man who was born and grew up inside the North Korean gulag. Read the review.
The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States: A Novel by Jeffrey Lewis Ph.D. – When North Korean nukes fell on the United States
In a page-turning novel, an academic expert on nuclear proliferation and geopolitics makes the case that a North Korean nuclear attack on the US is plausible. He lays out the miscommunication, misunderstanding, and miscalculation that cause the rogue nation to unleash 54 nuclear weapons on South Korea, Japan, and the United States.
North Korea Confidential: Private Markets, Fashion Trends, Prison Camps, Dissenters and Defectors by Daniel Tudor and James Pearson – North Korea is not (quite) the country you thought it was
Tudor and Pearson draw on extensive research to demonstrate that the impression we Westerners get from the news media is highly misleading. The North Korean people are not slogan-chanting automatons enslaved to adulation for Kim Jong Un (their “Dear Leader,” or “Great Leader,” or whatever else he might be calling himself). Kim Jong Un is not a lunatic; his father or grandfather weren’t, either. Nor is he the sole, undisputed leader of the nation. Read the review.
For further reading
In an essay in the New York Times Book Review (January 1, 2018), Nicholas Kristof wrote about “What to Read if You Want to Know More About North Korea.” His recommendations include five nonfiction books I haven’t read as well as The Orphan Master’s Son. Check out the Kristof article if you want to dig even deeper.
If these books about North Korea interest you, you might also care to take a look at 12 insightful books about China reviewed on this site and Top 20 popular books for understanding American history.
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