To the outside world North Korea is a mystery. Media portrayals trot out old clichés of the country as a Bondesque axis of evil that might have hydrogen bombs, while internet memes fixate on what Kim Jong-un is looking at. As for foreigners who visit, they're usually paraded around the theme park that is Pyongyang and rarely see anything else. Where do you go then if you want to understand the DPRK and its 25 million citizens?
The answer is literature. The catalogue of North Korea-centred writing is burgeoning right now and many books in the catalogue are very good. With this in mind, here's a selection of six of the best.
Nothing To Envy: Real Lives in North Korea, Barbara Demick
Nothing To Envy is for North Korea what Wild Swans is for China - an excellent overview of the country's recent past and a great place to begin your reading Odyssey.
A book that had me from page one with its map of North Korea in the dark, quickly followed by its touching tale of star crossed lovers, Nothing to Envy is informative, emotive and very well researched. Written by then Los Angeles Times journalist Barbara Demick, the book gets its name from the popular song in North Korea that goes: "We have nothing to envy in the world". Over the course of the book Demick contests this.
She interviewed around 100 defectors as research, with the stories of six defectors making the final cut. All of them are from the north-eastern city of Chongjin, a city much more reflective of the experience of everyday North Koreans compared to its showcase capital. In fact, judging by Demick's descriptions, Chongjin is about as similar to Pyongyang as District Thirteen is to the Capitol in Hunger Games. It's a place full of poverty and desperation, completely subservient to the capital, but with glimmers of humanity.
North Korean defector narratives are by their nature gloomy and no more so than the chilling memoir Escape from Camp 14. It figures: Shin Dong-hyuk holds the title of the only known person to be born into a North Korean concentration camp and to have escaped it. Boy does he have a tale to tell. The vivid descriptions of life there - recounted by journalist and author Blaine Harden - range from bizarre anecdotes of school lessons in the camp to the horrific moment his mother and brother are killed in front of him. This, combined with his masterful escape, turned the book into an instant bestseller and made him a key witness before the United Nations.
But a note of caution: North Korean testimonies are known for their inaccuracies. Authors might distort information to appeal to a Western audience hungry for 'bad North Korea stories', or simply forget exactly what happened. Shin Dong-hyuk's has come under fire for just that and he has admitted to several changes of time and place in his narrative. That said, the central facts remain uncontested, making it well worth a read.
There's no shortage of first-hand accounts from defectors from North Korea, but what makes this book stand out are two key distinctions: Firstly, if Hyeonseo Lee is to be believed, she didn't actually mean to defect, so her narrative departs from the typical 'love country-hate country-leave country' format. Secondly, she defects very early on in the book, meaning this is less about North Korea and more a book about being a North Korean refugee. That shouldn't put you off. Lee's years on the run provide the book with page-turning energy. By the end you feel Lee could be better called the Girl With Seven Lives as she evades capture countless times.
Lee comes across as a likable narrator, albeit overly trusting at times, and through her story we are given insight into what it must be like to be one of those who are hidden in society. She sheds her identity like a snake sheds skin and her sense of confusion and loss is palpable. With daily stories on people fleeing Syria right now and their journey thereafter, it's a timely read that transcends time and space.
Dear Leader, Jang Jin-sung
You wouldn't expect a warts and all account of life at the political top coming out of North Korea and yet that's exactly what you get with Dear Leader. Jang Jin-sung was a senior propagandist for the late Kim Jong-Il. In this utterly bizarre role, he had to assume a South Korean identity and create fake South Korean literature that waxes lyrical about the North. It was a role that involved him meeting Kim himself, where he discovers the Dear Leader can't speak proper Korean, is escorted places by his dog, wears high heels and doesn't look people right in the eye. The descriptions are alarmingly similar to a Seth Rogen sketch.
So what is life like for those in the Pyongyang elite? Until his dramatic fall from grace, which fills over half of the book, Jang's life was pretty good. His family lacked neither money nor power and he writes of having too much food to eat and not enough time to pick up his food rations. In a nation where plenty starve to death, these descriptions will leave you with a bad taste in your mouth. Given Jang's background, he's a reasonably sympathetic protagonist and his book has value for those trying to get to grips with the government's inner mechanics.
Unlike the above entries, the people we meet in Kim's book are staying put. Specifically they're staying at Pyongyan University of Science and Technology, which is where American-Korean journalist-come-English teacher Suki Kim meets them. She spent six months at the university in 2011.
While this comes as no surprise, it's still farcical that those who she teaches at a tech uni aren't actually aware that the intranet they're using is not the World Wide Web. What is a surprise though is that Kim lets them in on this secret and is even allowed to introduce Google to a few of them. Where will this new-found knowledge lead?
Anecdotes such as these provide a rare glimpse into what North Korean youth culture might look like, if a culture exists at all.
Add Kim's own personal trajectory to the story and the result is an interesting and intimate portrait of contemporary North Korea.
The Orphan Master's Son, Adam Johnson
At the end of the selection is a book of a different kind. It's Adam Johnston's Pultizer Prize-winning masterpiece of magical realism.
The book follows Jun Do, purposely chosen to sound like John Doe to reiterate how faceless and nameless the country's citizens are to us. Jun, soldier/kidnapper/spy, navigates his way through the murkiest bits of government bureaucracy where nothing is as it seems. In the most bizarre section, Jun assumes the identity of a leading official, which conveniently means he gets to play husband to the man's beautiful movie star wife.
Johnson's mastery of storytelling and his penchant for the absurd creates a truly absorbing read. By the book's end Jun Do is no longer a John Doe. Instead, he is a multifaceted individual, who the reader is invested in.
NB: Watch out for the chapter on lobotomies. The descriptions will stay with you for a while.Suggest a correction