North Korea is called the Hermit Kingdom for a reason. Juche, the ideology upon which Kim Sung-il founded the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, is broadly translated as "self-reliance," an ideal of independence, pride, and the ability to solve one's own problems. Juche has guided North Korea's policy in matters of the economy, self-defense, and foreign relations, intentionally encouraging isolation from the international community since its 1948 inception. For decades, everything being relative, this worked; North Korea's industrial farming-based economy surged while their southern counterparts' lagged. But when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, so did North Korea's supply of cheap oil, sending the country into a downward, inward spiral from which it has yet to recover. Since the prime directive of any regime is regime-preservation, the Kim dynasty has turned ever more paranoid and secretive. A desperate militarism deals with its perceived external threats, while draconian tactics suppress any problems at home. Here we are.
This is a long way of saying that we don't know much about what goes on inside North Korea, and the literature reflects this. There are very few prescriptive titles - at least that aren't polemics - because there aren't any prescriptions. (See Mark Bowden's piece in The Atlantic for a short list of bad options.) Books often fall into three categories: speculation about the daily lives of North Koreans, thrilling escape narratives, and strangely, portrayals of the DPRK as a kind of absurdist experiment: a collection of totalitarian clowns with goofy hairdos playing army. It's easy to do and not always inappropriate, but also dangerously reductive with what we think we know about the capabilities of a Taepodong-2 missile - the prose equivalent of nervous laughter.
Still, let's give this a shot. Here are a handful of books trying to make sense North Korea's people, history, and culture.
The Escape Narrative
Estimates of the number of defectors who have fled North Korea since 1953 range from 100,000 to 300,000. Needless to say, escape isn't easy. If you make it, you'll almost certainly never see your family again, and they may even pay harsh penalties for your actions. If you don't, the costs will be personally catastrophic. (And one can't help but wonder what number to assign to that group.) Here are a few first-person accounts from those who risked everything for freedom:
- Dear Leader: My Escape from North Korea by Jang Jin-sung
- Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West by Blaine Harden
- A Thousand Miles to Freedom: My Escape from North Korea by Eunsun Kim with Sébastien Falletti
- In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl's Journey to Freedom by Yeonmi Park with Maryanne Vollers
- The Girl with Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee with David John
- Stars Between the Sun and Moon: One Woman's Life in North Korea and Escape to Freedom by Lucia Jang and Susan McClelland
You might also like:
- The Dear Director: Essential North Korean Cinema
- A Primer on the Existence and Seeming Nuttiness of North Korea, by Blaine Harden
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