I’m fascinated by the hermit kingdom, North Korea. It’s the world’s most oppressive government, has run its country literally into starvation and ruin and horribly abuses its citizens. And yet it persists as this somewhat stable if entirely isolated country. Also it has nuclear weapons, that commands some attention. So I’ve read a few things about North Korea in the past year, here’s some recommendations.
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick. A completely fantastic book by an LA Times journalist who has devoted years to North Korea reporting. She tells the stories of six defectors from North Korea, ordinary citizens from the large industrial town Chongjin. It’s a long, heartbreaking read of life in the DPRK around 1980 – 2000. She does a fantastic job capturing what life is like in a totalitarian society, how people really believe in their Dear Leader and the absolute superiority of North Korean communism. At least until the mid-90s when a multi-year famine caused by government mismanagement killed a million or so people and severely starved the rest. Very upsetting to read despite the author’s compassion and skill at nuanced writing; I only made it through because I knew it would end with people escaping North Korea. (Although even that escape is a mixed blessing).
The In Focus photojournalism blog: Inside North Korea • Kim Jong Il, 1942-2011 • North Korea Mourns Kim Jong Il • Glimpses of Humanity in Choreographed North Korea • North Korea Prepares for a Milestone Year. Pretty much all images coming out of North Korea are heavily censored, but even so there’s a lot of amazing photojournalism done by visitors. Alan Taylor’s well edited photo collections tell amazing stories.
The Orphan Master’s Son: A Novel by Adam Johnson. Not so much about North Korea as a book set in North Korea. And with a lot of literary liberties, the author is too clever by half. Still there’s something excellent in the alienation of the story and the characters against the backdrop of North Korean totalitarianism, it was a good read.
Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle. A lovely graphic novel, a French Canadian’s memories of a two month stay in Pyongyang. It’s a bit of a light-hearted treatment considering how awful the place is, but it’s nicely drawn and I appreciated the author’s personal story of his relationship to such a strange place.
An extra set of links.. North Korean Economy Watch, an analysis blog. Korean Central News Agency of DPRK, the official government press outlet. Daily NK, critical news published by defectors and other dissidents. Mourning King Jong-il, a propaganda video; from what I read in Demick’s book these expressions of grief are genuine if coerced. I have more North Korea links, too.
It’s hard to understands how North Korea persists, how Kim Il-Sung’s family maintains control to a third generation and how the country still manages to barely function despite years of complete economic collapse. A key part of it is the utter isolation of the place, convincing most of its citizens that life in North Korea is the best in the world. But that façade is failing between the mass starvation, the rise of communication with China (both illegal trade and cell phones), and the increasing influence of black market DVDs and radios.