Editor’s Picks: Four Books on North Korea

A shortlist of books to get on your North Korea reading list.


Book review
Pyongyang:  A Journey in North Korea, by Guy Delisle
The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson
The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves, and Why It Matters,
by B.R. Myers
Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite,
by Suki Kim

This summer, expats living in South Korea who sojourned back to their home countries, as I did, undoubtedly found themselves the stars of the cocktail party, pub, or backyard barbecue. Omigod, aren’t you worried about North Korea? Is there an evacuation plan? What do South Koreans think? Isn’t that Kim Jong-un crazy? Isn’t Trump crazier? After the missile tests, Trump’s “fire and fury” comment, and N.K.’s threat to take out Guam, CNN’s non-stop hysteria lent us the cachet of war correspondents at the Tet Offensive. I and several friends did our best to shrug and affect a suave nonchalance as we sized things up for our panicky friends and relatives.

It’s become a cliché to say that the South Koreans aren’t really that worried, and yeah, that pretty much matches the reality here where I live, about fifty miles south of Seoul: same “sea of fire” rhetoric, different day. Still, the thought of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un dancing on the knife’s edge of nuclear brinksmanship inspires a real dread that somebody will miscalculate and the city-busting will begin. My personal doomsday sportsbook (no-futures bets), puts the odds at about 15%, up from maybe two or three percent during the Obama years.

North Korea is something I’ve kind of obsessed over since I got here. It’s astounding that this hellscape of depravity and deprivation exists only a couple of hours’ drive away. Thinking about it satisfies both an intellectual curiosity—how do you thoroughly wreck an entire country of 25 million people?—as well as a deep-seated, reptilian-brain need for something evil to truly hate. I’ve been to the DMZ twice to enjoy the paranoia-porn of watching North Korean guards peering at me through binoculars. I got goosebumps going to that conference room with constipated-looking South Korean guards, where the other side of the table is actually North Korea! As for actually going to that hermetically-sealed Hermit Kingdom, that seems to be off the table now for Americans other than Dennis Rodman.

Truthfully, I’ve never really desired much to go. I don’t want one penny of my hard currency grasped by Kim Jong-un’s grubby sausage fingers, nor do I want to be detained for not bowing deeply enough at some Kim Il-sung monument, face a sham trial and twenty years of hard labor, and return to the U.S. in a coma like Otto Warmbier, or worse, force Jimmy Carter to come to Pyongyang and save my ass. Thus, I’ve had to scratch my North Korea itch surreptitiously, though literature.

Here is the shortlist of books I’d recommend to fill in much of what you’d like to know about the place that could be pulling the world into a death orgy that, as Trump put it, “the world has never seen.”

Pyongyang:  A Journey in North Korea 
Guy Delisle (2004)

This book offers a neat solution to a common problem faced by visitors to North Korea. What do you do when your “minders” rigidly control what you can and can’t take photos of (with the emphasis mostly on the “can’t”)? Well, why not draw what you see? Pyongyang is a graphic novel—a comic, in other words. Canadian cartoonist Guy Delisle illustrates and narrates the two months he spent in N.K.’s capitol supervising some outsourced animation work. Delisle’s story follows an emotional arc common among Western visitors to Pyongyang—a jaw-dropping sense of strangeness and absurdity that inevitably gives way to a deep sadness at how brutalized and fearful the lives of average North Koreans are (especially considering that anyone who lives in Pyongyang automatically qualifies as “the elite”).

Drawn in simple black and white with a gently comic, exaggerated style, Delisle shows us the “official” version of Pyongyang with its nearly empty avenues, giant, numbing tributes to the “Great Leader” and “Dear Leader,” and performances of soulless dexterity and precision by robotic children. However, he also gives us an interesting and comical behind-the-scenes look at a North Korean cartoon sweatshop. How do you explain to a North Korean illustrator who has never been exposed to any foreign culture how to animate the arm and hand gesture the French make when exclaiming Ooh la la! without it looking like the guy is jerking off? I have no idea, and Guy Delisle didn’t either, resorting to just making the poor guy redraw the cells over and over again until it approached something slightly less masturbatory.

Delisle’s introspection and analysis isn’t remarkably insightful, but he has a good eye for the little moments of absurdity, irony, compassion, and beauty that pop up in all human encounters, even the coldest and most paranoid. Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea isn’t on the level of Joe Sacco’s brilliant graphic journalism (check out Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde), but it’s a solid addition to this burgeoning genre.

The Orphan Master’s Son 
Adam Johnson (2012)

In recent years, when people have asked me for fiction recommendations, I usually have instantly replied, “Orphan Master’s Son. You gotta read it!” It won the 2012 Pulitzer for fiction, and I would say it’s the best American novel since David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996) or Don Delillo’s Underworld (1997).

Unlike those two massive door-stoppers, Orphan Master checks in at a relatively svelte 450 pages, but it’s still the work of an author going for broke and almost always succeeding. The story follows a low-level North Korean security operative through Japanese kidnapping expeditions, nightmarish prison mines, Pyongyang torture chambers, a diplomatic mission to Texas and ultimately the inner sanctum of Kim Jong-il himself. Johnson made a key realization: no matter how insane you might imagine life in North Korea to be, the reality is probably even more insane. So, even though the novel was meticulously researched, Johnson gives himself license to invent, embellish, and imagine, turning the novel into a phantasmagoria of brutal absurdity. As the novel moves into its totally bonkers final act, Johnson dares to only half-ironically invoke Casablanca and turn the whole affair into a romantic thriller. I bought in completely almost right away – such is Johnson’s authority, imagination, and empathy – following this madman picaresque anywhere and everywhere it went.

Note: In Johnson’s outstanding recent short story collection Fortune Smiles, the title story serves as a sort of epilogue to Orphan Master, following two bitter North Korean defectors as they try to adjust to life in modern Seoul—using their government stipends to gorge on Lotteria bulgogi burger sets and calling South Korean teenagers a bunch of pussies for being too dumb to jump from a sinking ferry. Highly recommended.

The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves, and Why It Matters
B.R. Myers (2010)

B. R. Myers, who currently teaches international studies at Busan’s Dong Seo University, has become a true go-to guy on North Korea issues, often popping up in The New York Times or The Atlantic. The Cleanest Race is a scholarly yet accessible look at North Korean propaganda from the inside. That is, Myers examines propaganda produced not for the outside world (like those masterpieces of insane bluster pumped out by the official DPRK news bureau), but for their own “citizens.”

To get a book of political analysis on the best-seller lists, you’ve got to have a certifiable Big Idea—one that’s fairly simple yet explains a lot, and it doesn’t hurt if it’s certifiably “counter-intuitive.” Myers has one, and it’s this: North Korea’s political system has nothing to do, really, with communism. Rather, it has established an ideological underpinning of race-based nationalism that has more in common with Imperial Japan than anything espoused by Marx, Lenin, or Mao.

Myers posits that the 1990s famine made it clear to most average North Koreans that their country was not, in fact, a workers’ paradise, nor was South Korea a capitalist wasteland of exploitation and misery. Thus, the regime turned towards the idea that Koreans (including their brethren in the South) were a pure, innocent, almost child-like race, and that Kim & Co. were the only ones strong enough to defend that purity and goodness from the evil, rampaging American beast. It didn’t matter that the South was more prosperous by several orders of magnitude—they were sullied and spoiled by their intermixture (in all the senses of the word) with America. Myers also argues that the North Korean “Juche” ideology of self-reliance is all but meaningless—a “sham doctrine” that nobody in the North really understands or cares about.

Myers lays out his theories and evidence in a crisp, engaging style, and the book itself is an attractive package, with several full-color glossy reproductions of the propaganda he discusses. And he doesn’t hide from the implications these ideas have for the future: any society that bases itself on racial purity will be loath to engage with an enemy with whom mere contact means contamination. For people who believe that “engagement” and “cultural exchange” can help to change North Korea, this book will shatter any such hope.

Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite 
Suki Kim (2014)

I reviewed this book at length a few years back, and the intervening years certainly haven’t dulled this fascinating memoir of Suki Kim’s year spent teaching English composition to elite students (that is, the sons of the political elite) at the Pyongyang Institute for Science and Technology, a privately funded university with mostly foreign faculty, including many Americans. In the book, Kim shows PUST to be a spectacularly misguided venture for a number of reasons, the least of which being it being run by evangelical Christians in a country where preaching the Good Book can have dire consequences. Predictably, PUST has been in the news this year with two of its American faculty detained for “hostile acts.” I’m glad Suki Kim managed to get out and tell her story. After all, teaching kids to write logically and to back up their ideas with evidence is subversion of the highest order in a system where all critical thinking is crushed and facts are what the “Dear Leader” says they are.