I’ve made a list of some interesting resources on one of the world’s most enigmatic and repressive states – North Korea. I first studied North Korea, or as it’s officially known the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, while I was studying at the School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London. I had a Professor there who is an expert on the country – Dr Tat Yang Kong.
Since then, my interest in the country faded, only to be reignited after I recently finished Andrew Johnson’s shocking but enthralling novel The Orphan Master’s Son, probably the best fictional read concerning the country. I wanted to know more, not from an IR perspective, as I had originally studied the country, but from a cultural perspective. This led me to a series of books and films, which I have listed below.
I have recently ordered two ‘must-read’ books on the DPRK: Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy, and Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden. I’ll update this post once I’ve read the books, and also as / when I watch any further documentaries about the country.
The Orphan Master’s Son (book) – Adam Johnson’s fictional account of the life of Pak Jun Do, a citizen of the DPRK, is the book that rekindled my interest in the country. It’s at times hilarious, horrifying and heartbreaking. While the protagonist’s life is so varied and exceptional that it clearly couldn’t be based in reality, the literary license taken allows Johnson to explore a breadth and depth of North Korean experiences, in the process creating a repressive, dystopian atmosphere that feels like it closely reflects the reality of life in the North – even if, of course, one can’t be sure. It’s beautifully written, emotionally powerful, epic and intimately personal, a page-turner – and a must-read for anyone interested in the country, or anyone who’s a fan of other dystopian classics such as 1984 or Brave New World. It says something that North Korean expert Barbara Demick describes the novel as “a spot on depiction of North Korea” in a Guardian review.
BBC Panorama North Korea Undercover (TV) – this documentary acts as a good primer on some of the issues involving the DPRK, although its thirty minute running time reflects the paucity of material gathered on the undercover trip itself. Still, there is one hilarious scene where the BBC presenter says to a guard, regarding the possibility of North Korean nukes, “In Britain we’re less afraid because we’re further away” and it gets ‘mistranslated’ by the North Korean minder as “The fact that war might break out means we have to leave fast because we’re afraid’. The documentary caused controversy at the time of its release as the filmmakers had gone to the North under the guise of LSE students – without permission from the university.
DPRK: The Land of Whispers (TV) – available on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oULO3i5Xra0&hd=1 This documentary is probably more interesting than the BBC Panorama one: it’s based on the travels of an individual filmmaker, and includes more personal anecdotes and experiences. I enjoyed it a lot.
Vice Guide to North Korea (TV) – another TV show, less journalistic than the BBC documentary, introducing viewers to the bizarre realities of the DPRK.
Aquariums of Pyongyang (book) – I read this some time ago, in fact I’m pretty sure I borrowed it from somebody while I was living in Seoul, South Korea, for a year. It’s a fascinating insight into the North as told by somebody who escaped the country.
The Red Chapel (TV) – The Red Chapel is a 2009 Danish documentary film directed by Mads Brügger. It chronicles the visit of Brügger and Danish comedians who are adopted from South Korea. It’s an off-the-wall, bizarre film that offers an interesting alternative perspective on the DPRK.