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North Korea's Human Side: A Reading List

In August 2009, I visited North Korea for five days with a Koryo Tours group; it was an incredible experience and probably the most intense week of my round-the-world trip. I didn't travel to North Korea because of the threats they make, or because of Team America: World Police, or even because of the incredible show that is the Mass Games (though all of those things were important). I traveled to North Korea to find out what people are like under such different circumstances, and see a little of how they live day-to-day. I hope to write more about that myself one day, but, for now, here's some good reading on the twenty-five million people living their lives in this tiny corner of the world.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea is one of the most recent books to come out of the narratives of North Korean refugees who have made it to the South through a modern-day Underground Railroad operating in China. Much of this genre consists of single-person narratives, translated from Korean; this one is written by Barbara Demick, a Western journalist resident in South Korea.

She interviewed a number of refugees, including a one-time teenage couple who were reunited in the South (!), to create a compelling narrative of North Korea's societal collapse and famine in the 1990s. It's a remarkable story of what people will do in extremis; at times, it's hard to believe that this actually happened, just miles from countries that were experiencing unprecedented times of plenty. Demick has taken a lot of care to explain Korean history and culture to Western readers who may not be entirely familiar with it, without becoming overly pedagogical or condescending. This is required reading not only on North Korea, but also on Korean society in general.

Still, it's been pointed out that this book, like most refugee narratives, is not representative of most North Koreans. Proximity to China allows many Koreans from the extreme northeast of the country to escape; however, this is a remote area, far from the political and economic center in Pyongyang. As this next author, B.R. Myers, says, "[y]ou could compare it to, say, a situation if you imagine all the people who left the United States were from Montana who had lived maybe three or four years in Canada before you got to them."

The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters is B.R. Myers' recent book on this topic. His goal is to cut through all of the propaganda that the regime directs at us (if you go to a bookshop in Pyongyang, you'll find more works in English, French, Spanish, Russian, and Mandarin than in Korean) and get at what exactly it is that has sustained the regime all the way through to the present day. Again, I think that there's much to be learned about both sides of the DMZ here; Korea started off with the same cultural history in 1950, and that has shaped the societies of both nations in very different ways.

There's a long interview and podcast with Myers available at 3 Quarks Daily that discusses his ideas in depth. After reading that interview, I think that he's probably come closer to understanding the cult-like underpinnings of DPRK society than anyone else.

At this point, you might be wondering how, exactly, the North Korean economy holds together, when all we ever hear about his how closed the nation is. But, of course, that's not true. There's lots of quiet trade going on with not only "rogue" nations, but also close US allies like Thailand. It's worth noting that there was an unscheduled flight departing for Bangkok the same day that I flew back to Beijing from Pyongyang. This last book tries to explain what exactly it is that keeps the North Korean system functioning from day to day.

Unfortunately, I haven't read The Hidden People of North Korea: Everyday Life in the Hermit Kingdom, but it looks like an impressive piece of research.

There's quite a few other books that don't seem to have been translated from Korean or Japanese, that I'm planning to compile in another list. I also own quite a few of the regime's English-language propaganda books, including Kim Jong-Il's thoughts on directing films.

Even though my focus is on the 1990s and later, I'm sure that I've missed a lot here -- let me know of any others that should be on this list!