As it does ever so often, the DPRK – or North Korea, as it is better known – has once again highjacked the global media’s headlines with its recent announcement that it would launch a satellite in mid-April, widely seen as cover for a missile test, thus triggering the international community’s opprobrium. And as usual when it finds itself in the headlines, North Korea is the subject of countless time-honoured clichés that even the most casual reader is now familiar with: “the world’s most secretive regime”, “the last Stalinist dictatorship”, “the most isolated country”, just to name a few. While these characterizations are not necessarily inaccurate, they tend to offer ready-made images that not only hold little explanatory power but also risk emphasizing North Korea’s idiosyncrasies over more meaningful descriptions.
Where does one who wishes to really understand North Korea start? As all North Korea researchers can assert, the DPRK is decidedly not the easiest target for study. Kim Jong-Il allegedly once said “We must envelop our environment in a dense fog to prevent our enemies from learning anything about us”. Indeed, if there is one thing the leaders in Pyongyang have been generally successful at, it is with closing the curtains on the decision-making process and government functioning.
Yet, despite the difficulties experienced by all Pyongyang watchers, some authors have written commendable works that go beyond the often stale or one-sided accounts of North Korea’s polity and society. I hereafter humbly offer a reader’s list for North Korea that covers its history, its society, its foreign relations as well as its worldview. Obviously, this is by no means a complete list, and some prominent North Korea scholars and seminal works have been left off. But I believe it should be a good start for neophytes willing to take on the daunting task of trying to understand North Korea.
Kim Il Sung, The North Korean Leader, Dae-Sook Suh
This acclaimed work by the veteran South Korean scholar Dae-Sook Suh examines the life of North Korea’s national hero and founder Kim Il Sung. This historical study offers readers a highly detailed account (it contains more names than one can remember in a lifetime) of Kim Il Sung’s rise to power at only 33 and of how he subsequently managed, through purges and political cunning, to become the uncontested and feared leader of the nation. The impact of Kim Il Sung on North Korea’s history and national psyche cannot be underestimated, and Suh has produced an important piece of scholarship for anyone wishing to understand the northern half of the peninsula.
The Two Koreas and the Great Powers, Samuel S. Kim
A prominent scholar of East Asian relations, Kim has produced in The Two Koreas a must-read book for those interested in the great power games and the regional dynamics that affect the Korean peninsula. His work systematically details North and South Korea’s complex relations with each of the region’s great powers, namely China, Russia, Japan and the United States. Neatly divided and thoroughly researched, this study takes readers through the historical dealings of both Koreas with their neighbours and also deals with the North’s nuclear program.
The Two Koreas, A Contemporary History, Don Oberdorfer
One cannot understand the political quagmire on the Korean peninsula without understanding the complex contemporary history of the peninsula. Insightful and entertaining, Oberdorfer offers readers a thorough account of the events that unfolded on the Korean peninsula since the 1970s. A long-time journalist for the Washington Post, Oberdorfer largely draws upon his own experiences in the region as well as numerous interviews with actors who shaped contemporary Korean history. Oberdorfer’s decision to overlook the first two decades after the peninsula’s division is questionable, but The Two Koreas remains nonetheless a useful and highly readable examination of its turbulent recent history.
The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why it Matters, B. R. Myers
Too often, books about North Korea ignore an essential question: “How do the North Koreans view themselves and the world”? The Cleanest Race tackles this question admirably well. Myers tediously went through hundreds of North Korean books, songs, films, newspaper articles and TV reports, a task that very few North Korea researchers have taken upon themselves. What comes out of his investigation is a regime that Myers describes as highly paranoid, xenophobic and, interestingly enough, firmly located on the extreme right of the political spectrum rather than on the extreme left. One might not agree with his conclusions, but The Cleanest Race remains an important book and an entertaining read for anyone interested in the mindset that animates the North Korean people and their leaders.
North Korea Through the Looking Glass, Ralph Hassig and Kongdan Oh
I have not, to this day, read a more fascinating account of North Korean citizens’ daily lives. According to the authors, “no other country on earth puts in as much energy and time in disseminating ideology”, and their book exposes the various ways in which the North Korean regime’s propaganda machine impacts the people’s lives. North Korea Through the Looking Glass contains vivid descriptions and explores how ordinary North Koreans muddle through a “propaganda-rich, information-poor environment”. The authors’ follow-up book entitled The Hidden People of North Korea is also highly recommended.
Benoit Hardy-Chartrand obtained his Master’s degree in International Relations at Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) and is currently a research fellow at the Raoul-Dandurand Chair of Strategic and Diplomatic Studies http://www.dandurand.uqam.ca/chercheurs/64-chercheurs/706-hardy-chartrand-benoit.html