Nonfiction November is being hosted by Doing Dewey, Emerald City Book Review, Sarah’s Book Shelves, Hibernator’s Library and Julz Reads this year. Make sure to check out the home page for the event this week and each of the host’s blogs for the themed linkups they are running. It’s a great way to discover new book blogs and get great nonfiction book recommendations.
The theme for Week 4 is Be The Expert/Ask The Expert/Become The Expert – and I decided to recommend books about North Korea since it’s a topic on which I’ve read pretty widely. I’m no ‘expert’ on it, but I think I’ve probably delved into the topic more than the average reader, and all the memoirs and historical nonfiction titles I’ve read about North Korea have been harrowing but also incredibly unforgettable reads that I would recommend to anyone.
North Korea is one of the most cruel dictatorships left in the world today – a country in which ordinary citizens continue to starve to death or be unfairly imprisoned in new versions of concentration camps due to trumped-up charges against them or their family members. After wars in the 1940s and 1950s which involved American and Russian forces instituting temporary protectorates over South and North Korea respectively, the two countries have grown apart diametrically in politics, culture, economic status and the freedoms enjoyed by their citizens. The North Korea dictatorship is now essentially conducting a partially passive and partially active genocide of its own people by allowing corrupt officials to benefit from the little resources and aid available within the country while the rest of the population starves to death, and imprisoning hundreds of thousands of its citizens in labor camps where the survival ratio is impossibly low.
Most of the knowledge we have of the inner workings of North Korea comes either from the few foreign journalists who have been allowed very restricted access into the country, or from North Korean refugees who have made the treacherous journey to escape from the dictatorship into China, eventually finding their way safely to South Korea. It’s impossible to say how many others tried to escape and failed, to be recaptured and typically executed summarily for having attempted to regain their freedom – their stories will never be told. We owe it to them and to the others still living in essential slavery in North Korea today to be informed about their plight and aware of their struggles.
Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives In North Korea by Barbara Demick
Published: December 29th 2009
Out of the books I’ve read about North Korea, I think Nothing To Envy is the one I would most recommend to someone who has little to no knowledge about the history of the dictatorship and of the state of life in North Korea. It’s a good overview to the topic because in it, award-winning journalist Barbara Demick details the lives of six different North Korean citizens through fifteen years of North Korean history fraught with significant changes.
Each of Demick’s six subjects has been able to tell the journalist his or her story after having defected from North Korea. Some of the people in Demick’s book include a doctor dealing with embarrassingly scarce medical resources, a mother attempting to feed her family though her entrepreneurship, and a boy who grows up in a state orphanage where he’s left because his father would rather abandon him than have him starve. The stories of despair and love, unity and self-sufficiency, family and individual survival are compelling, terribly sad and at the same time hugely revealing of the state of affairs in North Korea over the past two decades.
A Thousand Miles To Freedom by Eunsun Kim (with Sèbastien Falletti)
Published: July 21st 2015
Eunsun Kim’s memoir of her escape from North Korea differs from the other books on this list because Eunsun, her mother and her sister had the harrowing experience of having to escape more than once across the North Korean border into China. It took the three women an astounding nine years to successfully make the journey from North Korea, to China, and eventually to Seoul.
In addition, Eunsun’s memoir gives a glimpse of the particular difficulties endured by North Korean women when they escape without options into China. Led to flee North Korea out of sheer starvation, Eunsun’s mother was forced into a marriage of convenience with a Chinese man across the border who was physically abusive to her and her daughters. The descriptions of the starvation experienced by Eunsun’s family in North Korea are stunningly tragic, but ultimately Eunsun and her family are able to rebuild a decent and free life for themselves in South Korea.
Escape From Camp 14 by Blaine Harden
Published: March 29th 2012
Stories of North Korean refugees who have survived the labor camps (effective concentration camps) in the country are few and far between. Many who end up prisoners in these camps die due to the hard labor, starving conditions and abuse by camp guards. That is what makes Escape From Camp 14 so remarkable as well as the fact that its subject, Shin Dong-hyuk was actually born in one of these camps. He is the only known person born in one of these camps to have made it out of North Korea alive.
Never having nothing anything other than camp life, Shin Dong-huyk is raised with barely any sense of empathy for his fellow humans, including his family. In the camp, life is very much about sticking out for yourself and trusting no one. His entire view of life and humanity has to rearrange itself once Shin makes it out of North Korea. He has to learn to trust, love, reach out to others and rely on someone other than himself. If you pick up his memoir, make sure to choose the newer version with the additional forward which explains some discrepancies in Shin’s original story.
Somewhere Inside by Laura Ling And Lisa Ling
Published: May 18th 2010
In March of 2009, while on an assignment to research North Korean refugee conditions on the other side of the North Korean border in China, American journalist Laura Ling and editor Euna Lee were captured by North Korean authorities as they strayed too close to the North Korean border.
Though treated better than North Korean citizens imprisoned in labor camps, Laura was beaten during her arrest and the women experienced fear, isolation, insufficient nutrition, bitter cold conditions and improperly treated illnesses during their five months in captivity. In addition to detailing Laura and Euna’s experiences in the hands of the North Korean authorities, the book explains the efforts to which Laura’s sister Lisa and their respective families went to in order to free the women; mobilizing public opinion, dealing with an unsympathetic North Korean court system and even marshaling the support of a former U.S. President to see the two women released.
Dear Leader: My Escape From North Korea by Jang Jin-Sung
Published: May 13th 2014
I found this memoir incredibly interesting and unlike any other I have read by a Korean defector before, because its protagonist – Jang Jin- sung – is a member of the North Korean elite, and therefore had a completely different experience growing up in North Korea from the other defectors whose memoirs I have read.
Jang Jin-Sung was an educated State Poet Laureate for North Korea who worked in an office that is responsible for generating literature and news articles posed as actual South Korean writing and supportive of North Korea’s government. It was fascinating to read about this office in North Korea of whose existence and of whose purpose I had never heard of – a very interesting glimpse into the media culture and propaganda of the regime. I won’t go into further details of Jang Jin-Sung’s escape and his life afterwards as Jang Jin-Sung is an exceptionally talented writer, bringing his story to life like a spine-chilling thriller, which I think is worth experiencing for yourself.
The Aquariums Of Pyongyang by Kang Chol-Hwan And Pierre Rigoulot
Published: October 3rd 2001
The Aquariums Of Pyonyang is the story of Kang Chol-hwan, who survived for 10 years in a Korean labor camp before escaping the country after his release. Unlike the protagonist of Escape From Camp 14, Shin Dong-hyuk, arrived at the Yodok gulag at nine years old and with several members of his close-knit family. The nuances of his experience in the camp are therefore different from those of Kang Chol-hwan.
Shing Dong-hyuk was brought to the camp after nine years of a relatively comfortable upper middle class existence, and his adjustment as a child and then teenager to a life of forced labor, beatings, starvation and other hardships makes for incredibly harrowing reading. There’s the added significance that Shin Dong-hyuk’s grandparents were among those ethnic-Koreans who voluntarily returned to North Korea after having emigrated to Japan. They chose to return to their home country out of belief in the communist dream, only to be captured and imprisoned by the authorities with little to no explanation when their blind trust in the government did not appear blind enough.
Have you read any of these titles or have a different book on North Korea you would recommend? Please share in the comments!
There are a plethora of organizations that help North Koreans escape the clutches of their regime and establish free lives outside of North Korea, including Liberty In North Korea, the North Korea Freedom Coalition, Life Funds For North Korean Refugees and Helping Hands Korea. You can visit their websites to learn more about the experiences of North Korean refugees today and to donate if you feel moved to do so after reading one or more of these titles.
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