Issues

A Literary Look Behind the Iron Curtain: Best North Korea Books

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Tensions between North Korea and the United States have long been at a steady simmer, but have been on a precipitous rise following a North Korean missile test in early February. The oft-embattled and secluded country has again been the subject of troubling headlines in the U.S. and around the world since. North Korea has continued to test its weapons program despite international sanctions and rebukes from the U.S. and allies in the region. The Trump administration has staked a hard, if somewhat confused, line on North Korea’s missile tests and the dangers it poses. North Korea has unsurprisingly responded with alarming and expected blusterIt is a situation that has drawn the world’s attention and may prove to be the first major foreign policy trial of the Trump presidency – one that Trump hasn’t shied away from.

Despite its antagonistic prevalence in world affairs, North Korea remains a secretive, isolated, and volatile country. Like many totalitarian regimes, The Kim dynasty firmly controls the flow of information both to and from North Korean citizens relying on a combination of censorship, propaganda, and the cult of personality established by Kim Il Sung when he came into power in 1948. Thankfully, for those seeking some context for seemingly continuous crises involving North Korea, there are a number of books illuminating the history of North Korea, the Kim dynasty, and life inside the enigmatic country. These books will hopefully provide insight into North Korea and how we arrived at this point.

  • The cover of the book The Korean War

    The Korean War

    A History

    The Korean War is perhaps the most misunderstood and ignored conflict in U.S. history, and it is vitally important to understanding the current and continuing situation in North Korea. With The Korean War, historian Bruce Cumings provides a definitive examination of the war and its lasting impact on the region.

     
  • The cover of the book The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot

    The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot

    A True Story About the Birth of Tyranny in North Korea

    This book from bestselling author Blaine Harden chronicles the rise of Kim Il Sung in North Korea and the theft of a Soviet MiG-15 by a Korean pilot near the end of the Korean War. Through this dual narrative, Harden outlines how the Korean War was a propaganda gift to Kim Il Sung and provided the narrative necessary to cement both his position as leader of North Korea but also the anti-American sentiment that continues to the present.

     
  • The cover of the book Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader

    Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader

    Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the bizarre relationships within the Kim dynasty and the powerful hold the family has on North Korea. The book is a deep dive into the cult of personality and the stream of propaganda that defines the day-to-day lives of North Koreans.

     
  • The cover of the book The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future

    The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future

    The Impossible State is a key text for understanding the current, tenuous situation with North Korea. Victor Cha served as director of Asian affairs for the National Security Council from 2004 to 2007 and provides a comprehensive account of the relationships between North Korea, South Korea, and the U.S. and the complex geopolitical factors at work.

     
  • The cover of the book The Aquariums of Pyongyang

    The Aquariums of Pyongyang

    The use of brutal prison camps for political prisoners in North Korea is well documented despite the denials from Pyongyang. The Aquariums of Pyongyang documents the story of Kang Chol-hwan who at the age of nine was sent to a labor camp with his entire family after his grandfather was charged with treason. The book chronicles the terrifying conditions of the camps as well as the family’s eventual release and Kang’s defection to South Korea.

     
  • The cover of the book Dear Leader: My Escape from North Korea

    Dear Leader: My Escape from North Korea

    Dear Leader provides remarkable insight into the inner workings of North Korean government. Jang Jin-sung was North Korea’s State Poet Laureate and enjoyed access to the upper echelons of North Korea’s elite including Kim Jong-Il. But the possession of a forbidden magazine forced Jang Jin-sung to flee the country. Dear Leader recounts his time in Kim Jong-Il’s inner circle and his desperate flight from the country.

     
  • The cover of the book In Order to Live

    In Order to Live

    A North Korean Girl's Journey to Freedom

    With In Order to Live, Yeonmi Park recounts her escape from North Korea as a child with her mother – and the devastating cost of that escape – with brutal clarity. Her story provides powerful insight into the hardships and streams of misinformation that make up the daily lives of many North Koreans.

     
  • The cover of the book Valleys of Death

    Valleys of Death

    A Memoir of the Korean War

    In this memoir, Cold War-era Colonel Bill Richardson provides a powerfully personal account of the war that shaped relations between the U.S. and North Korea. The impact of the Korean War continues to reverberate throughout the region and Richardson provides a harrowing on-the-ground account of one of its fiercest battles.

     
  • The cover of the book The World Is Bigger Now

    The World Is Bigger Now

    An American Journalist's Release from Captivity in North Korea . . . A Remarkable Story of Faith, Family, and Forgiveness

    The World Is Bigger Now perfectly illustrates the stranglehold North Korea wields on information within the country. Euna Lee and her Current TV colleague Laura Ling were working on a documentary about defecting North Koreans when they were apprehended by North Korean soldiers and held for five months undergoing harsh interrogations and torture before their eventual release. This is her story.

     
  • The cover of the book The Orphan Master's Son

    The Orphan Master's Son

    A Novel

    This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from Adam Johnson centers on Pak Jun Do, a North Korean man who becomes a professional kidnapper for Pyongyang. It is an expertly crafted and taut adventure through the intricacies of North Korean society driven by casual violence and desperation.

     
  • The cover of the book How I Became a North Korean

    How I Became a North Korean

    A Novel

    Through three seemingly disparate characters, Krys Lee’s novel provides remarkable insight into the struggles North Korean defectors face after they’ve escaped the country’s tyranny. It is a chronicle of not only the dangers of North Korea, but also the human rights abuses defectors are often subject to after fleeing the country.

     
  • The cover of the book North Korea Confidential: Private Markets, Fashion Trends, Prison Camps, Dissenters and Defectors

    North Korea Confidential: Private Markets, Fashion Trends, Prison Camps, Dissenters and Defectors

    Drawing on interviews with defectors and citizens in North Korea, journalists Daniel Tudor and James Pearson have pieced together a fascinating account of life in modern North Korea. It is an insightful view into a culture that continues to evolve against the strangling watch of one of world’s most elusive totalitarian regimes.

     
  • The cover of the book Nothing to Envy

    Nothing to Envy

    Ordinary Lives in North Korea

    In this National Book Award finalist, Barbara Demick chronicles the daily struggles of six North Korean citizens for a definitive view into the reclusive society. Covering a period of fifteen years that saw a devastating famine, the death of Kim Il-sung, and the rise of Kim Jong-il, Nothing to Envy is a startling look at life in an Orwellian state.

     
  • The cover of the book Powerplay: The Origins of the American Alliance System in Asia

    Powerplay: The Origins of the American Alliance System in Asia

    One key to understanding the relationship between North Korea and the U.S. is the system of alliances America built in the region following World War II. Victor Cha takes a deep look at the origins of those alliances, their impact throughout the Cold War, and their influence today.

     
  • The cover of the book The Cleanest Race

    The Cleanest Race

    How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters

    In this fascinating book, B.R. Myers makes the compelling argument that North Korea is less a communist state and more akin to the monarchy of Imperialist Japan prior to World War II. His book is an intriguing look at the ultra-nationalist rhetoric, dynastic succession, and cult of personality centered on the late Kim Il-sung – and conferred to his son and grandson – that drive North Korean society.