10 illuminating books about North Korea

April 5, 2013
Cleanest Race

Over the past several weeks, North Korea and the United States have been posturing in a sinister military checkers match. The U.S. has deployed nuclear submarines and B-2 bombers to South Korea, and news surfaced that the Pentagon will send a mobile land-based missile defense system to Guam. North Korea is a little-known country, isolated, secretive and volatile. But the literature covering it is rich. Here are 10 books — fiction and nonfiction — that shine light on it:

The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters, by B.R. Myers. North Korea shouldn’t be considered a communist regime, argues Myers, a professor of international relations at Dongseo University in South Korea. Rather, the regime is more akin to the fascist monarchy of Imperial Japan preceding World War II. Japan occupied the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945. North Korea, like Imperial Japan, has a racist, ultra-nationalist ideology, a dynastic succession and a cult of personality that portrays the supreme leader as a god-like but maternal figure with a beaming, warm smile.

Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, by Herbert Bix. Myers’s book is best accompanied by Herbert Bix’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of the Emperor Hirohito, who oversaw Japan’s aggressive military expansion and reckless thrust into World War II.  The similarities between Hirohito and the Kim family, especially the propaganda campaign, are striking. Hirohito was a meek leader who did little to oppose military expansion. Has the Kim family succumbed to beguiling generals who might be the prime movers for the North’s persistent aggression?

Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden. As many as 200,000 people fester in North Korea’s extensive network of concentration camps. One of them was Shin Dong-hyuk. He was born and grew up in a gulag. Punished for the sins of his parents, who were also imprisoned, his was a childhood full of hunger, abuse and torture. Both his mother and brother were executed after he informed on them. In 2005, he made a daring escape from the gulag and traveled hundreds of miles north to China, a remarkable feat since he had never head of money, did not own a map and knew nothing of the surrounding countryside. Blaine Harden, a former Tokyo bureau chief for The Post, tells Shin’s harrowing story.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick. Much of the literature on North Korea focuses on the Kim family and the tumultuous relationship between North and South. Not so in Demick’s book. A former Seoul bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, she focuses on six average North Koreans as they struggle to survive a brutal famine that lasted from 1996 to 1999. Each had his or her faith in the Kim family severely rattled.

The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future, by Victor Cha. Cha was the director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council from 2004 to 2007. “The Impossible State” offers a comprehensive account of the geopolitics between North, South and the United States from a key insider. It offers a sweeping analysis of the North’s nuclear capability.

Under the Loving Care
Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, by Bradley K. Martin. A longtime reporter who has focused on Asia, Martin offers a sweeping historical account of the Kim regime. The book describes the rise of Kim Il-sung after World War II, his close relationship with the Soviet Union and later the severe mismanagement of his son, Kim Jong-il. The broadest take away: U.S. policy against the North doesn’t work, the regime won’t easily fall, and a second Korean war is entirely possible. Unlike other books, Martin manages to paint Kim Jong-il in very human terms, a brutal tyrant with a charming and generous side.

The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History, by Don Oberdorfer. This 1997 book by a long-time Washington Post foreign correspondent who served as the paper’s Northeast Asia bureau chief, examines the tumultuous relationship between the two Koreas and the United States’s diplomatic role since the Korean War.

Architectural and Cultural Guide Pyongyang, by Philipp Meuser. This two-volume guide, edited by German architect Philipp Meuser, is less a travelogue and more a testament to how the ruling regime uses architecture to depict the subservience of the people to the state. Take the statues of Kim Il-sung: Gargantuan, they dwarf the people. Meuser also examines architecture as a motif of the system’s failure. Meuser calls Pyongyang “the world’s best preserved open-air museum of socialist architecture.

Orphan-Masters-Son-cover
The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson. The hero of this novel is Pak Jun Do, the son of a man who leads a work camp for orphans. Before long, the state recognizes Jun Do’s courage and transforms him into a tunnel fighter. He later becomes a sea-going kidnapper who nabs unsuspecting Japanese and brings them to Pyongyang. All the while, he seeks his mother, a Japanese singer who was kidnapped and brought to Pyongyang for the pleasure of  the regime.

The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, by Chol-hwan Kang. In 1977, Chol-hwan Kang’s grandfather was charged with treason, and his entire family was sentenced to a labor camp. Kang was 9 at the time. For the next 10 years he performed manual labor, hauling logs and burying corpses. The family was eventually released, and Kang defected.

Email: smitht@washpost.com

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