When I was a teenager, I became fascinated with North Korea after spending an evening looking at Google Maps. (It was the early days of street view, and North Korea, obviously, had no street view options.) Not knowing much about this secretive country, I decided to dive into articles, documentaries, and—of course—books. In the years since, North Korea has become ever more visible and important in international politics, and while little is still known about life inside the country’s borders, there are personal accounts and deeply researched novels that give a bit of insight. If you’re also transfixed by life inside this enigmatic country, I highly recommend these six harrowing novels and memoirs.
This memoir shows North Korea from a rarely seen angle. Jang Jin-sung served as North Korea’s State Poet Laureate, living a privileged life in Pyongyang and enjoying audiences with Kim Jong-il. When a forbidden magazine he lent to a friend goes missing, though, he’s forced to flee for his life. This is a story from a former member of North Korea’s elite, describing the inner workings of the North Korean government and its propaganda strategies.
THE STORY THEY COULDN'T HACK: In this international bestseller, a high-ranking counterintelligence agent describes his life as a former poet laureate to Kim Jong-il and his breathtaking escape to freedom.
As North Korea’s State Poet Laureate, Jang Jin-sung led a charmed life. With food provisions (even as the country suffered through its great famine), a travel pass, access to strictly censored information, and audiences with Kim Jong-il himself, his life in Pyongyang seemed safe and secure. But this privileged existence was about to be shattered. When a strictly forbidden magazine he lent to a friend goes missing, Jang Jin-sung must flee for his life.
Never before has a member of the elite described the inner workings of this totalitarian state and its propaganda machine. An astonishing exposé told through the heart-stopping story of Jang Jin-sung’s escape to South Korea, Dear Leader is an “impossibly dramatic story…one of the best depictions yet of North Korea’s nightmare” (Publishers Weekly).
Jenna’s twin sister was kidnapped from a South Korean beach by North Korean operatives. Twelve years later, she sets out on a daring mission into the heart of North Korea to find her. In this novel, Jenna’s story is intertwined with two others, including a woman who discovers an international aid balloon and uses it to start trading in North Korea’s black market and a North Korean official who discovers he is the son of a traitor. All three stories provide a unique and intense illustration of the otherwise secretive regime.
Award-winning journalist Barbara Demick spent fifteen years following the lives of six North Koreans. In this account, you see them fall in love, raise families, nurture ambitions, and struggle for survival, all while living in a nation where police informants are rewarded and a remark can send a person to the gulag for life. This book is an eye-opening look at totalitarianism and its effects on average citizens.
Born to the master of a work camp for orphans, as a boy Pak Jun Do proves himself to be a loyal citizen of North Korea, leading him to rise in the country’s ranks. After being pushed to his limits as a professional kidnapper for the state, though, Jun Do takes on the dangerous role of rival to Kim Jong Il in an attempt to save the woman he loves. This story is a gripping, heartbreaking, and sweeping look at the cruelties of this secretive nation.
Winner in 2013, this timely novel examines North Korea from the inside, providing one of the most substantial looks at an otherwise mysterious and often alarming nation. Jun Do, the main character, moves throughout North Korean society, from the brutal camps to the high society of Pyongyang, giving American readers a look at a society otherwise hidden away.
Shin Dong-hyuk was one of few people to be born in a North Korean political prison who managed to escape and survive. In this powerful account, acclaimed journalist Blaine Harden tells Dong-hyuk’s story, taking readers into the atrocities of North Korea’s prison camps where Dong-hyuk competed with his mother for food, was raised as a snitch, and witnessed the execution of his entire family.
Another memoir that examines the lives of North Korea’s elite. In 2011, Suki Kim went undercover as a teacher and missionary at the remaining open university in the country. There, she taught English to 270 of North Korea’s most privileged sons inside a walled compound. In her six months at the university, she became unnerved by how easily her students lied and by their unquestioning obedience to the regime, while also witnessing their youthful curiosity and trying to secretly introduce them to forbidden ideas such as traveling freely and electoral democracy.