If a building falls in North Korea, does anyone hear it? Last month, a 23-story apartment block collapsed in central Pyongyang, and the international community knew nothing about it for five days until, in an unprecedented move, Kim Jong-un’s regime publicly apologized for the incident.
How much do we really know about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea?
While some commentators highlighted the incident as a rare example of North Korean transparency, it’s also a clear example of how little the world knows about life in the Hermit Kingdom. Hundreds may have died in the collapse — a blow to the country’s elite, who are the only ones permitted to live in central Pyongyang — but the information only got out when the regime said so.
So how much do we really know about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea? The following books offer a glimpse into everyday life in the world’s most repressive state.
1. “Nothing to Envy”
Author: Barbara Demnick
A former Seoul correspondent for the L.A. Times, Demnick explores the lives of six ordinary North Koreans as they struggle to survive the devastating North Korean famine that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. All of Demnick’s interviewees are defectors, ranging from a brilliant student who risked imprisonment by watching illegal South Korean TV to women deeply loyal to the Kims who eventually became disillusioned by the complete disintegration of their day-to-day lives.
2. “The Orphan Master’s Son”
Author: Adam Johnson
Although written by an American author who only visited North Korea once, this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is achingly detailed in its description of Jun Do, a North Korean everyman raised in an orphanage, who enlisted in the military and was sent to kidnap Japanese citizens by the North Korean state before falling out of favor with Kim Jong-il’s regime. “The Orphan Master’s Son deserves a place up there with dystopian classics such as 1984 and Brave New World,” says Barbara Demnick.
3. “Aquariums of Pyongyang”
Author: Kang Chol-hwan and Pierre Rigoulot
Kang Chol-hwan was born to a wealthy family, which spent many years in Japan before returning to the young and supposedly idyllic state of North Korea. Kang describes a jarringly happy childhood in Pyongyang, which ended abruptly when, at age 9, he was sent to the Yodok concentration camp along with his father, uncle, sister and grandmother, supposedly to expiate the political crimes of his paternal grandfather. The family was released after 10 years, and Kang later escaped to China and then South Korea, where he has become a key voice for North Korean citizens. His memoir of camp life caught the attention of President George W. Bush, who invited Kang to visit the White House in 2005.
4. “Escape From Camp 14”
Author: Shin Dong-hyuk and Blaine Harden
The horrors of the above three books somehow pale in comparison to the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, who was born in a gulag for North Korea’s “unredeemables” and lived there until his early 20s, when he became the only known escapee from one of the country’s “total control zone” camps. In conversation with Blaine Harden, formerly of the Washington Post , Shin shared the brutal truth about his life in Camp 14, including his decision to inform on his mother and brother who were attempting to escape; this led to their public execution.
While Shin’s story emphasizes the depths to which humanity can descend, his honesty is a tribute to human strength and perseverance. Shin, also the subject of a documentary, has testified before the U.N. on the regime’s human rights abuses. As one member of the U.N. commission put it, Shin is the “single strongest voice” on North Korean prison camps.
The longevity of the Kim family regime has frequently been tied to a near-absolute information blackout. Not only do North Koreans know nothing of the world outside, most Westerners know nothing of life inside the prison-like nation. While political change is not likely any time soon, literature can cast light into even the darkest of places.
Why you should care
Because these writers describe everyday life under the Kim family in horrifying, poignant detail.