A few years ago I became obsessed with North Korea, the lives of ordinary citizens who current live under the Kim dynasty, and especially those who have managed to escape and make their way to South Korea (through a circuitous route of multiple international borders) or the West. I try to read any and every book I can find about the DPRK, here are a few of my latest haul. To date, the book that gave me the best understanding of life in the DPRK is Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick.
In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom, by Yeonmi Park (5 stars). I have read a number of books about North Korean refugees escaping the DPRK and making their way through China (or elsewhere) to lives of freedom. However, this book may have given me the best reasoning for WHY someone would take the risks to escape, the horrifying experiences of being an illegal in China (who have contracts with DPRK to send back any refugees, which means they’ll go to a prison or labor camp, or be executed), and the reasons for then trying to escape from China into a DPRK refugee-friendly country and then to South Korea. Park also writes a pretty extensive section about her time in South Korea, how difficult it was to catch up to her peers in school, but also to understand how to use the internet, credit cards, cell phones, and even flushing toilets. This book helped me understand so much more about the why behind political refugees who flee their country for a better life, and the difficulties and hardships trying to live in their new homes. Park settled in South Korea, in a country that immediately granted her a passport, where she (mostly) spoke the language, South Korea gives all DPRK refugees money and training classes and provides education opportunities, yet she still struggled to assimilate to this new world. I can’t imagine refugees who are trying to learn a new language and do not have full citizenship in their new country on top of the difficulties of trying to start over, I haven’t stopped thinking about their situation worldwide. Excellent read.
The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot: The True Story of the Tyrant Who Created North Korea, and The Young Lieutenant Who Stole His Way to Freedom, by Blaine Harden (4 stars). This is part-bio of Kim Il-Sung, part history of the Korean War, and part-bio of No Kum-Sok, a young Korean fighter pilot who defected with an intact Soviet MiG in 1953, something American intelligence had been trying to get their hands on for years. I think Harden did a great job of going back and forth between the two characters and their histories and backgrounds, as well as the time they were contemporaries, with No Kum-Sok fighting in Kim Il-Sung’s desperate air force.
Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the capture of the spy ship Pueblo, by Jack Cheevers (4 stars). The USS Pueblo, a spy ship during the Cold War, was attacked by North Koreans and confiscated from international waters in February 1968. The ship was woefully unprepared for the fallout of a possible capture; also, the Navy was completely unprepared for an international waters attack and capture and it took almost a year to get the crew–82 soldiers and 1 corpse–home. This is the story of Captain Pete Bucher, his time with the Navy, and the details of his experience as a detainee in a North Korean prison (it rivals anything you would read in Unbroken). I got emotional several times as I learned about the physical and psychological torture that the Americans endured at the hands of their North Korean interrogators. Technically, because the US and Korea were not at war at the time, the soldiers were not classified as POWs, they were…? It’s still murky, actually. The United States was fighting in Vietnam and losing both the actual battles and the publicity war in worldwide newspapers, both LBJ and Nixon struggled to figure out how to a) bring these men home, and b) what to do with them at that point. Gaaah. Such a well-written book! Highly recommended.
A Thousand Miles to Freedom: My Escape from North Korea, by Eunsun Kim (3 stars). I feel I need to break this book into two separate ratings; discounting Kim’s story because she is not a great or compelling writer feels disingenuous, however her writing is the only way I can relate to her story, and it didn’t quite do it for me, it seems she pulls punches to protect people–which I can absolutely understand–but it was pretty obvious she was doing so, and that made me want to know the rest of the story. Most of Kim’s story revolves around the nine years she spent as an illegal in China, sometimes happily living and working, other times living in constant fear of her cruel “stepfather” (the Chinese man who purchased her mother as a sex slave, a woefully undertold story) or being found out by Chinese authorities and sent back to North Korea.
The World is Bigger Now: An American Journalist’s Release from Captivity in North Korea, by Euna Lee (3 stars, okay, actually probably 2). Lee and her colleague were doing a documentary story on DPRK defectors who escaped into China, and in the course of their documenting they actually *wandered into North Korean territory* *with video cameras*, and are then SUPER shocked at being caught and dragged off to interrogation, a trial, and a strict prison sentence. The level of shock Lee exhibits throughout the book made me think she hadn’t actually done any research on how the DPRK treats people who disobey their laws (tiny infraction = life in prison camp). This book is not written very well, nor edited very well, and I was hoping for more information on how, exactly, Lee and her fellow journalist were finally allowed to leave DPRK, there was very little information in this book about it, but the short story is Bill Clinton came to pick them up in a shiny jet. (!!!) Now, this was after he’d left office as President, but STILL, it takes some doing to get that level of a political ally to show un halfway around the world. There was zero indication on how those conversations happened or that agreement and travel arrangement took place. I understand that Lee wouldn’t have been in on those negotiations as a prisoner, but it seemed so jarring to say “oh, and then we were led into this hotel conference room and Bill Clinton was there, in the DPRK, and then we knew we would be able to go home.” Um…what?! THERE IS SO MUCH MORE TO THIS STORY! I think I need to read the companion book by Laura and Lisa Ling (Laura was the captor, Lisa was–I believe–the driving force on raising enough awareness and political clout to get the former President of the United States to go to North Korea and bring her sister home). So, that book has been added to my hold list.
For additional reads about North Korea, you can check out my Goodreads shelf.