Back in September of 2011, I became aware of a book that was to be released in January of 2012 called The Orphan Master’s Son, which was set in North Korea. Knowing as little about the closed community of North Korea as I did, I was intrigued. I received an early copy in November, but never quite got around to reading it. Then Kim Jong-Il, supreme leader of North Korea since 1994, died in mid-December. Suddenly, North Korea become a focus of increased interest for many people, myself included. Adam Johnson’s depiction for The Daily Beast of his time visiting North Korea only increased my curiosity.
Before long, other new releases based on the situation in North Korea came to my attention. I found myself wondering whether there were always this many books about North Korea in a year and these authors were simply getting increased visibility due to Kim Jong-Il’s death, or whether this was either a coincidence or the result of some books being rushed out to take advantage of the timing. Regardless of the reason these books landed on my shelves, I decided that I wanted to look at them not only individually, but as a group of work that could shed additional light on North Korea.
Although the two fiction titles were the first to find themselves on my shelves, I decided to start with the nonfiction to gain a better background of the world of North Korea. My first read was actually the only one not originally released in 2012, Barbara Demick’s Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, which tells the story of North Korea’s ‘Arduous March,’ the famine of the 1990s, through the eyes of six North Koreans who defected to South Korea. Demick’s book was the perfect choice with which to begin this journey, as it gives a very good background on the political situation within the country, as well as explaining the far-reaching consequences of the famine, all of which served as useful information for the other three books I read.
Next came Blaine Harden’s Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West and my one non-book consideration on this subject, the documentary Crossing the Line. These two provided an interesting juxtaposition, with Escape from Camp 14 focusing on the story of a man who not only escape from North Korea, but escaped from one of the most restrictive parts of the country – so restrictive that he wasn’t even aware of his own country’s political situation – and Crossing the Line being the story of James Drsenok, one of the four American soldiers who defected across the DMZ to North Korea in the 1960s. For both I found the background from Demick’s book helpful to gain a deeper understanding, but they also stood on their own well enough that having read Nothing to Envy wasn’t strictly necessary; in fact, Harden references Demick’s book several times. There are times in Crossing the Line, however, that Dresnok references events that I might not have fully understood without having first read Demick’s book.
The two novels, All Woman and Springtime and The Orphan Master’s Son also benefited from the background I gained from Nothing to Envy, but both Brandon W. Jones and Adam Johnson did a very admirable job conveying the realities in which their characters lived without a need for prior knowledge or relying on info dumps. Interestingly, both stories deal with orphans – or purported orphans, since Jun Do claims to be not an orphan at all, but the son of the orphan master – but their paths take very different directions, with the girls from All Woman and Springtime essentially kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery, and Jun Do initially rising through the ranks of North Korean society. Both are strongly influenced by the power of the official narrative in North Korea, it is how Jun Do manipulates his rise, and how Il-sun and Gi are manipulated into sexual servitude.
All four books, as well as the documentary, are well worth experiencing on their own, but combined together they are even more than the sum of their parts. They come at life in North Korea from so many directions that the reader cannot help to begin to get a grasp on this closed and repressive society.
It seems I am not the only one newly obsessed by life in North Korea. Shelf Awareness contributing editor Robert Gray discussed in Friday’s Shelf Awareness for Readers his “rerouting” into the realms of literature dealing with North Korea after he finished The Orphan Master’s Son. He and I read and reveled in some of the same books, but he has some additional recommendations that sound fabulous as well, so be sure to check them out as you make your own North Korean reading list, I know I will be.