It feels strange to talk about just how much North Korea fascinates me and for a few years now, I’ve been seeking out documentaries and the best books about North Korea to educate myself more. As a country that exists almost completely separately from the rest of the 21st century world, it’s unbelievable to think that the images and videos we see from their state press are taking place in the present day. And behind those images are approximately 24.5 million citizens whose everyday lives we know absolutely nothing about. This is where my favourite books come in.
The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Kang Chol-hwan and Pierre Rigoulot
Kang Chol-hwan was the first person to escape a North Korean prison camp and defect in order to tell his story. While he was once from one of the more privileged family in the country (being of Japanese descent, they could afford luxuries that many North Koreans couldn’t dream of), his entire immediate family was sent to a work camp after his grandfather was imprisoned. It’s interesting to read the beginning of the book as the others I have come across don’t cover much about a ‘middle class’ life in North Korea – unsurprisingly, it seems to be rare!
Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden
This was the first book about North Korea that I came across and it felt akin to reading about what life must have been like in a World War II concentration camp – except this was modern day. Shin Dong-hyuk is the first known person born in a North Korean camp to escape and while I found his story fascinating to read, it was disappointing to see that he retracted chunks of his story earlier this year. However, in spite of this unreliable narration, the sense of how different his childhood was to other children growing up in the country was incredibly interesting. He experienced very little of the indoctrination that other North Koreans go through (as it was intended that he would live his entire life there without being released) and to this day, finds it hard to trust and regulate his emotions.
Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
Probably my favourite of the three, Nothing to Envy covers the stories of six individuals and their families from the Chongjin region. It’s interesting to see how things have been changing in recent years, especially the rise of the black markets which have been crucial in the survival of those who don’t live in Pyonyang. One of the quotes that particularly stood out for me was this, from the story of Dr. Kim who considered herself a loyalist to the regime until she escaped:
“She still wanted to believe that her country was the best place in the world. The beliefs she had cherished for a lifetime would be vindicated. But now she couldn’t deny what was staring her plainly in the face: dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea”
For me, the most stark contrasts come in how the North Korean government portray the country through the state media, as though the world is completely blind to the reality behind the smiles and parades for the cameras. The official website of the regime talks about how it “practically guarantees the people genuine political freedom and rights”. In direct juxtaposition to this is its rating by Freedom House: 7/7, the worst possible rating meaning ‘not at all free’.
Leave your thoughts or recommendations for me below, I’d love to read more!