Book List: North Korea

Article by corby

North Korea's recent test of what may or may not have been a hydrogen bomb has added a little extra spice to the kimchi of international politics. It would be easy to laugh at this propaganda state (as in The Interview, for example) if it weren’t so heartbreaking and so dangerous. Whereas war in the Middle East is spreading millions of refugees across the eastern Mediterranean and beyond, the victims of the North Korean military dictatorship are hermetically sealed off in a political and historical black hole. The outside world knows a limited amount about the country from satellites, spies, and seismographs, but the most intimate portraits come from those few refugees who have managed to escape. This week, we bring together three different angles on the enigmatic “hermit kingdom”—a recent history, an award-winning novel, and two mind-blowing memoirs. All on our shelves now


The Invitation-Only Zone: The True Story of North Korea's Abduction Project Cover Image
ISBN: 9780374175849
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Farrar, Straus and Giroux - January 12th, 2016

If you’ve never read about the surreal North Korean abduction campaign, this book is for you. It’s a page-turner about various unsuspecting Japanese citizens who were disappeared in the 1970s/80s, plucked from their daily routines by teams of military commandos, put in sacks, and shipped off to live in cloistered communities in North Korea. Why? It’s complicated—but suffice it to say that the training of North Korean spies is involved. Boynton has published reporting in The New Yorker and New York Times (among other places), and this is a nonfiction thriller with the pace and excitement of a novel, but which will also teach you a lot about the troubled history of Korean-Japanese relations.


The Orphan Master's Son Cover Image
ISBN: 9780812982626
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Random House Trade - August 7th, 2012

Johnson won the National Book Award in 2015 for his story collection Fortune Smiles, and this 2013 novel—which won the Pulitzer Prize—is a contemporary American classic and one of the best dystopian novels of all time. It’s protagonist Jun Do is a man of many faces—a commando, a radio operator, a diplomat (who travels to Texas, of all places), an impersonator—and the plot follows his Odyssean twists and turns up through the climactic confrontation with the Americans at the novel’s conclusion. Johnson was able to travel to North Korea during his research period for the book, and although it’s fiction, the book has been praised by journalists who’ve worked extensively in North Korea for its attention to the grim realities of life. Complex, bizarre, and compelling, the novel is a must-read.


Under the Same Sky: From Starvation in North Korea to Salvation in America Cover Image
By Joseph Kim, Stephan Talty (Contribution by)
ISBN: 9780544373174
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Houghton Mifflin - June 2nd, 2015

This memoir is one of the best things we’ve read so far this year.  Yes, admittedly, part of the success of the book depends on our inevitable fascination with the surreal and macabre aspects of North Korean society; e.g. the section where the narrator and his sister try to figure out whether the soup they were served at a restaurant along the railroad tracks contained human meat (thousands, perhaps millions, of people died of starvation in North Korea in the 1990s, and the rumors about what people did for food are haunting). But what really makes this memoir compelling is Kim’s keen memory, sharp intelligence, and his way of crafting prose with a spare, light touch. You will feel incredibly close to this sensitive young man, which makes following his desperate journey—losing his family, escaping to China, and eventually ending up as a college student in New York—all the more riveting.

Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea's Elite Cover Image
ISBN: 9780307720665
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Broadway Books - October 13th, 2015

A truly unique memoir. Kim is a journalist who was born in the South but has traveled often to the North reporting for the New York Times, Harper's, and the New York Review of Books.  In 2011, she was hired to teach English to a small cadre of elite North Korean university students attending the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (all the other universities were closed at the time, with the students sent off to do manual labor for the state). She was struck by their unquestioning devotion to the state, but what makes this memoir engrossing are the fleeting glimpses into their individual personalities and private lives. The effect is heartbreaking because we sense just how much is suppressed in order not to run afoul of the ever-present surveillance state. A lucid, heartbreaking look at a part of North Korean society we rarely see.

Article Type Terms: