To my surprise, there are quite a lot of books on North Korea. I wanted to find out more about the regime that is trying its best to keep its inside workings a secret. To get a better understanding of the current situation, I recommend the following books: The Real North Korea (Lankov), Without You There Is No Us (Kim), and Nothing to Envy (Demick). Each book sheds a different light on the lives of the common people living north of the 38th parallel.
The Real North Korea tells an elaborate story of how the regime came to be. Lankov explains how Korea ended up being split up in two different countries. He explains how the diplomatic relationships and tensions during the Cold War led to a ‘civil’ war in Korea. Starting from there he goes on to describe all the major political and economic reforms that took place afterward.
Reading this book, I realized that the measures this country takes to gain political power not only over its own citizens but in the worldwide sphere of influence are more absurd than we can imagine.
For instance, North Korea has abducted Japanese citizens in the seventies and eighties. The author suggests that the purpose might have been to create new spies, that speak both Korean and Japanese. Another strange example is that different North Korean diplomats have been caught smuggling drugs.
Lankov describes the inner workings of the regime, how those serving the regime can be bribed, and how capitalism has taken over some of the markets. He calls some of the actions, carried out by the elite, Orwellian. The government actively removes people from history, as if they never existed in the first place. Once someone is dubbed a traitor and is executed, their name will be taken off any existing document.
At the end of the book, the author speculates what would happen if the two Koreas were to be united right now. An important point made is that the North Korean people need to be protected in this case. They will face many challenges and dangers. For example, most people will not have the right qualifications to carry out their professions, compared to South Korean standards. A North Korean doctor cannot do the same work in South Korea. Another phenomenon to look out for is Ponzi-schemes, to which the North Koreans might fall victim to.
In Without You, There Is No Us, Suki Kim describes her experiences teaching English to sons of the elite. This book is intriguing because it tells the story of someone who’s experienced North Korea at firsthand. Kim gets to interact with North Koreans who are part of the elite. What stood out to me was the fact that the author catches her students lying about ‘trivial’ things, multiple times. They lie about where or how they spent their summers, they lie about having had access to the internet, or that they had contact with their families (which they most likely didn’t). Kim’s story is fascinating because she is also on a journey of ‘self-discovery’ while in North Korea. She was born in South Korea, moved to the USA in her teens, and spent some time in North Korea. In the book, she talks about not knowing where she belongs and having family in North Korea. During the Korean War, her uncle got separated from the family, he probably ended up North of the 38th parallel.
Lastly, Demick wrote a riveting book on the lives of North Korean defectors. The lives of these defectors are beautifully told in, Nothing To Envy. You will get to read how the inner workings of the regime (which Lankov elaborately explains in his book) affects the individual North Koreans. Demick discusses the major events we also read or heard about in the western world, such as the famine or the deaths of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jung-Il. You will learn about the great lengths these people went to survive during the famine and how familiar they got with death around them. How once devoted individuals eventually stop believing in the authorities and make their plans to escape. And what happens to defectors after they crossed the Tumen river in search of a better life.