Things to Read - North Korea

I'm not sure why I decided to start reading about North Korea. Perhaps my stay at home life had me longing for "real world" subjects, like a self-taught history class. Or perhaps this Atlantic article on life in a North Korean gulag piqued my interest, especially the following sentences "[o]utsiders have a wrong understanding of the camp. It is not just the soldiers who beat us. It is the prisoners themselves who are not kind to each other. There is no sense of community." Wow. Heavy stuff.

Whatever the reason, I'm so glad I decided to pick up a copy of Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, as this was probably the best book I've read this year. Five stars. Like the Hunger Games meets 1984, though real. Nothing to Envy is so gripping and the stories so well told that I found it almost impossible to remember that this was not a work of fiction. Each person profiled vibrates with life - the aging mother who truly believed in communism, until she watched her husband and son starve to death; the illicit couple who secretly meet at night (the absence of electricity makes such liaisons possible) and defect separately from each other (will they still love each other when they reunite in South Korea?), the doctor with no medicine, the schoolteacher trying to teach starving children, etc. And the continual quest of everyone to ward off hunger. Depressing, fascinating, surreal. I don't even know what to say. Fortunately everyone who manages to tell their stories obviously both survives and makes it to South Korea, which keeps the book full of somewhat "happy endings."

After Nothing to Envy, my curiosity about North Korea continued to grow. So I bought Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West. This biography of a North Korean defector named Shin Dong-hyuk made for some terribly depressing reading. Don-hyuk was born in a gulag and throughout his childhood he had no access to concepts like love, charity, or family. The guards constantly reminded gulag children that the sins of their parents caused their imprisonment and that the only way to improve their own lot in life was to work hard and inform on their parents (both Dong-hyuk's mother and brother were publicly executed after Dong-hyuk notified a guard of their intention to flee the camp). Dong-hyuk watched a teacher beat a 6 year old to girl to death for stealing a few kernels of corn. Sadly, Dong-hyuk's situation was "normal" for the gulag - "twelve to fifteen hours workdays are mandatory until prisoners die, usually of malnutrition-related illnesses, before they turn fifty." The prisoners' continual need to ward of starvation leaves them little room for kindness or friendship of any kind.

Dong-hyuk managed to escape the camp by climbing over the body of a dead prisoner who had charged the electric fence. From there he made his way to South Korea and eventually the United States. Though "free" Dong-hyuk can't seem to find happiness in any situation. According to him, "because I am surrounded by good people, I try to do what good people do. But it is very difficult. It does not flow from me naturally."

After Camp 14 I decided to take a break from North Korea for awhile (I needed something uplifting), but eventually I'd also like to check out The Orphan Master's Son - a fictional account of life behind the country's communist walls.


*If you're interested in North Korea and you live in the DC Area, Blaine Harden, the author of Escape from Camp 14, is in town next Wednesday (June 20th) to discuss the book. Click here for the details. The writer of The Orphan Master's Son is also in town tonight (June 14th). Click here for the info.

*Government approved pictures from behind North Korea's "iron curtain."


*This reading list looks fantastic (link courtesy of A Day That Is Dessert).


  1. I second this post! Nothing to Envy was the best book I've read in a long time (thank you, Darcy, for the recommendation). I will have to check out the others.

  2. Hey Darcy,

    Thanks for the list of books on N.Korea. I sometime long for real world books too :) I will have to read Nothing to Envy.
    But if you are in the mood to watch a great movie set at the DMZ, JSA (Joint Security Action, I think) is a movie showcasing the relationships between N and S Soldiers.
    BTW, I love reading your blog, very inspiring!



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...