The best books on North Korea

recommended by Hyeonseo Lee

Interview by Alec Ash

Kim Jong-un's posturing over nuclear weapons is a distraction from more pressing concerns: the extreme poverty and disenfranchisement of his people, says North Korean defector Hyeonseo Lee.  She chooses five books for understanding the hermit kingdom.

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Hyeonseo Lee

Hyeonseo Lee grew up in North Korea but escaped to China in 1997 and lived there for more than 10 years. She went to Seoul, South Korea, in 2008, and struggled to adjust to life in the bustling city. Her book The Girl with Seven Names tells the story of her escape. She has become a regular speaker on the international stage fostering human rights and awareness of the plight of North Koreans; her TED talk has been viewed over 7 million times.

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When you were seventeen you fled from North Korea and you lived in China for ten years before making it to South Korea. Why did want to share that story in your book The Girl with Seven Names?

Growing up in North Korea, I never knew about the concept of human rights. When I escaped, I didn’t know that my story could inspire so many people. An Australian man I met in Laos, whom I write about in my book, reminded me this is a story that should be told to the international community, and that we need their help. When I gave my TED talk in 2013, it helped generate a lot of attention towards human rights issues in North Korea. But it wasn’t easy to do. I can’t think just about me; I also have to think about my relatives inside North Korea, and I must be careful to protect my own identity, in order to protect theirs.

In the end, my life is not my life. I want to let people know about the suffering inside North Korea, and the defectors hiding in China and the prejudice they face in South Korea. I have lived in all three countries, and so can describe those difficulties. I wanted to tell the truth to raise awareness. My book was published late last year and I regularly receive messages on social media from readers telling me how it gave them courage and inspiration. One Chinese reader apologised to me because he used to praise his grandfather’s role in the Korean War, but now he realises that it’s because of that war that Korea is divided today.

What are some of the truths about North Korea that the rest of the world gets wrong, or doesn’t know about?

Everyone knows it’s a dictatorship that wants to be a nuclear power. They know there was a famine. But they don’t know how horribly the North Korean people continue to suffer, daily. So I say: don’t only talk about Kim Jong-un’s ridiculous hairstyle; instead, we should be caring about his victims and how they are continuously denied their human rights, and they are voiceless. So I’m doing my best, along with other defectors, to share that truth. I don’t want anyone to say: ‘I didn’t know.’

How can the international community help?

The United Nations has begun to make progress, so that’s a good start. But no matter how loud the West raises its voice, it’s important that China also acts. So how can we change the mindset and behaviour of the Chinese government? It’s very difficult. If China abandoned North Korea everything would change.

“The regime will never stop, and the situation will only become crazier.”

Recently China agreed to sanctions against North Korea, which was an amazing moment, but they need to make more of an effort to the enforce sanctions and honour their commitments. They also said they would protect North Korean refugees, but they don’t. If America and European countries put pressure on China, and abandon their relationships with North Korea, then China should work in cooperation with them.

Recently tensions have ratcheted even higher, with continued nuclear tests and provocation by the Kim Jong-un regime. Do you think the political situation is worsening?

Absolutely. The regime will never stop, and the situation will only become crazier. Kim Jong-un enjoys the spotlight while frightening the West, and neighbouring countries. He must be able to get along with others diplomatically, and negotiate for his survival, but he’s going in completely the opposite direction. I think he enjoys that North Korea is often front-page in Western media such as the BBC and CNN. It’s a performance, showing that he doesn’t care and does what he wants.

How important is it to know the history of Korea and the Korean War that split the country in two? And what did you learn of that history as a child?

We didn’t really learn about our history, and its many heroes, its many martyrs; but in North Korea Kim Il-sung and his creation myth dominates our textbooks. We learned fake history about the Kim dynasty, our so-called ‘Dear Leaders’. It’s like we were learning the Kim Il-sung bible. When I left North Korea, I very quickly discovered how ignorant I was, that I grew up learning falsehoods and other nonsense that were of no use in the outside world. I felt like an idiot.

“The more I read the more I realised I had only ever been taught fake things. ”

While I was hiding in China I couldn’t find out too much, so my awakening was slow. I was so brainwashed I didn’t even know about human rights, because the Chinese government doesn’t like to talk about that. But as soon as I arrived in South Korea, I started to learn from every news source I could find. It was mind-blowing, and the more I read the more I realised I had only ever been taught fake things. I felt angry that I had wasted so much time, angry at myself, and even more angry at the regime.

Let’s get stuck into your book choices. Your first selection is Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick, a journalist with many years’ experience reporting on North Korea and who brought that insight and research to bear in this bestselling narrative.

In her book, Demick interviewed several North Koreans who are now living in South Korea, and then told their stories so that we can really understand their experiences both inside North Korea and afterwards, once they had escaped. She includes great details that show everyday life in North Korea, including descriptions of a couple who have a secret relationship, as well as a doctor and an elementary-school teacher. They all live in Chongjin, which is North Korea’s third largest city, so it’s an area that people might not be so familiar with.

She chose Chongjin because she felt it would be more representative than the capital. How different is the life of a North Korean in Pyongyang?

There are still people living in Pyongyang who are very poor, because it’s the capital and black markets, or what we call ‘private markets’ are forbidden there. In other provinces people have more freedom, and there are many other cities. The rich one percent who live in Pyongyang are completely atypical of the rest of the population. They are so different – afforded so many other privileges – it would almost be impossible to outline the distinctions here there are so many. But they have so much more luxury, relatively. When I first visited my uncle’s house in Pyongyang, I was really shocked. I thought my family was rich, but Pyongyang was on an entirely different level. That was the first time I knew there could be a different kind of life.

Your next pick is North Korea Confidential by journalists Daniel Tudor and James Pearson, an introduction to contemporary North Korea with some surprising new insights.

This new book covers a range of topics about North Korea today. There are chapters on private commerce, leisure activities, crime and punishment, and even fashion trends. Some of the information is revelatory, especially about black market trade with China that has allowed goods and information to come into North Korea, for example foreign films and books smuggled in on USB sticks. It explains how many of these developments happened after the famine in the 1990s, when many North Korean people realised they had to depend on themselves and not the regime to survive.

While the political situation is hopeless, the book argues that those market forces are slowly changing society in North Korea, with the private markets and many people owning mobile phones, for example.

The outside world has transformed, and although the pace of change is much slower in North Korea, life is changing there, too – hugely. When I was growing up in the eighties and nineties, we didn’t have landline phones – only companies had them. But new technologies have come over the border from China, including mobile phones, which became desirable objects for North Koreans.

“Developments came after the famine, when many North Koreans realised they had to depend on themselves and not the regime to survive.”

The regime always told us we were the best country, but we didn’t even have cell phones, so that’s why they had to bring them in. Also the North Korean government needed the money from trade with China. The use of cell phones influences the way the country is changing, but it doesn’t mean there will be a revolution. There is still no internet.

The third book you’ve chosen is Kim Jong-il: North Korea’s Dear Leader by Michael Breen, a close look at the nation’s former leader.

The book gives readers unique insights into the personal life of North Korea’s second dictator. I hope it book is loaded onto the USBs that are smuggled into North Korea to give the people a sense of the true nature of their ‘Dear Leader’. In comparison with his father, Kim Jong-il was mostly disliked among the North Korean populace, but he was a cunning propagandist and political strategist who maintained power and ruled the country with an iron fist.

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Breen’s book helps us understand how he gradually rose to power, and deceived not only his own people but many in the international community as well. During a period of rapprochement between North and South Korea in the early 2000s, Kim Jong-il actually managed to convince some South Koreans that “I am not like a man with horns on the head”. After reading this book, one is likely to disagree.

How important are the stories of defectors to our understanding of North Korea? There are a handful of memoirs, including your own, and it can be hard to choose between them.

Just last year several such books were published. The publishing market has changed. In the past, foreign journalists were writing our stories but now we defectors are speaking for ourselves, which proves how the international community is giving us more attention. That frightens the regime, who think we are dangerous. It’s a trend that only started a few years ago, and it’s really encouraging, though often nerve-wracking. Now I’m hoping that real action for change will follow.

Do you feel North Korea has changed since you grew up there?

Actually I hate it when people say that. I know the country has changed in some ways, but the fundamental things never change in North Korea and we have to focus on that. The regime hasn’t changed, the dictators haven’t changed, the public executions and political imprisonments haven’t changed. People are still oppressed, denied their human rights such as freedom of movement  – in essence they are imprisoned within the country. Having a cell phone or a little bit of money from the private markets does not count as real change.

Next on your list is The Invitation-Only Zone: The True Story of North Korea’s Abduction Project by Robert S. Boynton.

This paints a frightening portrait of North Korea’s abductions of Japanese citizens and North Korea’s efforts to use them to train spies. The stories are heartbreaking, and a constant source of tension between North Korea and Japan, even today. Boynton draws on a wide variety of interviews from defectors, diplomats, abductees and even crab fishermen to explain how North Korea was able to carry out its abduction program, and the fight to bring the abductees home.

“The regime hasn’t changed, the dictators haven’t changed, the public executions and political imprisonments haven’t changed.”

The book is particularly relevant these days, as North Korea appears to have abducted some South Korean citizens in China in retaliation for the defection of some North Korean restaurant workers, which North Korea claims were “abducted” by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service.

Sometimes it can feel like the only two perspectives of the Western media about North Korea are fear or pity.

We give too much attention to the nuclear issue, which detracts from the issue of the denial of even the most basic human rights in North Korea.  The suffering of the North Korean people is more important to me than the nuclear issue, which I think is a distraction from the more pressing concerns, including swathes of the population still starving, undernourished and malnourished, and this just the tip of the iceberg. Kim Jong-un knows that if he used nuclear weapons against other countries, his regime would be obliterated. He is using the nuclear issue as a threat to protect his hold on power, and – what is more – as domestic propaganda, showing the North Korean people how great he is, and to reinforce the falsity that the outside world hates North Korea.

North Korea: State of Paranoia by Paul French is your final book selection. This book digs deeper under those headlines to explain the political, economic and military conditions that have led to this ‘paranoid peninsula’.

This is an excellent introduction to the history and politics of North Korea, including its complex relations with South Korea, Japan and the USA, and provides a good general overview  of where the regime is coming from, and what it might do next. I am always interested in the perspectives of foreigners writing about North Korea, although sometimes I feel it’s not always correct. They can only present the theory on the surface, not the inner understanding.

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We’ve talked about books about North Korea, but when you were growing up there, what did you read?

My grandfather was from the elite, and had many books by Marx and Lenin, which was uncommon at the time. But when Kim Jong-il started to gain power in the 1970s, our ‘Dear Leader’ removed most of the books and had them burned. In South Korea, I saw a movie about Nazi Germany when they were burning the books. That reminded me of what Kim Jong-il did. His regime then replaced most of the books with multi-volume Kim Il-sung memoirs.

“Swathes of the population are still starving, undernourished and malnourished”

We did have some detective and spy novels though, about North Korean spies in South Korea. There were a few foreign books, such as The Count of Monte Cristo, but often they had pages that were stuck together with glue. We wondered what could be inside. We did have some foreign films as well, but only from China and India. And it was very obvious when something had been cut, like a kissing scene.

What did you read when you got out?

When I first went to China, there weren’t many books in Korean. But I found a book about marshmallows, and I read it over and over. I had no idea what a marshmallow was, and I had never eaten one. I ate my first marshmallow in 2013, and now whenever I see a marshmallow it reminds me of that book. I also read a lot of history, and recently I’ve been reading about the re-unification of East and West Germany, to compare it to the situation in Korea.

Is there still hope for re-unification, in the way that happened in Germany?

Of course. Nobody expected the German reunification to happen when it did. Many experts have been expecting re-unification between North and South Korea for some time, yet our peninsula remains divided. Who knows? It will be very difficult, but the German example has inspired me. Sometimes I like to imagine that it is happening in my country instead, and I hope that day will come.

Interview by Alec Ash

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Hyeonseo Lee

Hyeonseo Lee grew up in North Korea but escaped to China in 1997 and lived there for more than 10 years. She went to Seoul, South Korea, in 2008, and struggled to adjust to life in the bustling city. Her book The Girl with Seven Names tells the story of her escape. She has become a regular speaker on the international stage fostering human rights and awareness of the plight of North Koreans; her TED talk has been viewed over 7 million times.