Fiction about North Korea

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Fiction about North Korea

And Fiction by North Koreans

So, um, North Korea has been in the news a lot lately.  Now might be a good time to read some of their fiction.  However, there really isn’t a lot of it that is available to the world outside North Korea. Until recently, there hasn’t been any unauthorized work making its way out of the country, which is exceptionally chilling, given that unauthorized fiction tends to find its way out of all authoritarian regimes. (People need to tell their stories.)  However, this March saw the U.S. release of The Accusation, a book of short stories that was smuggled out of North Korea.  Hopefully, that will be a trend that will continue.  It is worth noting that the fiction written about North Korea prior to this year is pretty good as a whole.  Writing about a country that doesn’t particularly want to be understood couldn’t have been easy. 

The Accusation by Bandi  
The backstory of how this book was written, smuggled out of North Korea and published is fascinating, and The New Yorker does a good job of recounting it.

The book consists of seven short stories that depict everyday North Korean citizens trying - and failing - to live under North Korea’s stifling police state. One story (“City of Spectres”) is about a propaganda minister’s two-year-old son who has a fit every time he sees a picture of Marx (which, of course, are everywhere).  Another story tells of the unfathomable lengths a man has to go through to see his dying mother. The author, Bandi, is still living in North Korea and it’s good to know through him, that the literary imagination is still alive there.  

All Women and Springtime by Brandon W. Jones

I’m including it because a lot of people seem to like it and it deals with the lives of ordinary North Koreans.  It is the story of two girls - Gi (a secret math genius) and Il-sun.  They meet and become friends in a North Korean orphanage. They run away together but they are sold into sex slavery by Il-sun’s boyfriend.  And it gets worse from there. It’s a pretty harsh book. Jones is trying to shine a light on the problem of human trafficking, and that’s admirable, but it might be too much for some readers. I don’t really have a strong opinion either way. Alice Walker liked it (her blurb "One of the most absorbing, chilling, beautifully written and important novels I’ve read in many years" is on the cover); Roxane Gay didn’t.  So there is that if you want a strong opinion from smart people to make up your mind.  

How I Became a North Korean by Krys Lee
How I Became a North Korean tells the story of three refugees - two North Koreans and one American who ran away from home - whose paths cross in China as they try to make their way to South Korea and freedom. Yongju was from a prominent North Korean family until Kim Jong-Il shot his father. Jangmi is pregnant with a powerful man’s child and needs to escape North Korea to give her child a better life.  Danny runs from a humiliating rejection in California, seeks solace with his mother in China, then runs away from her and joins Yongju on his journey. 
Author Krys Lee has spent more than 10 years working with and advocating for North Korean refugees, so she knows exactly how perilous it is to escape.  She also makes it very clear why someone would take that chance.  

A Corpse in the Koryo by James Church 

The Corpse in the Koryo is the first book in James Church’s Inspector O mystery series. (There are six so far.)  Inspector O is a North Korean state police officer who has to maneuver around government obfuscation and corruption to solve crimes and bring the guilty to justice, all while keeping his job and his life. The author, James Church, was a “former Western intelligence officer with decades of experience in Asia” (according to the book flap).  Judging from the detail in his books, he seems to know what he is talking about. 

Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson
There is something very odd about the fact that the best-known novel about North Korea was written by an American (who, to be fair, did visit North Korea once and obviously did a ton of research).  It won the Pulitzer Prize, it’s a book club favorite, and, unfortunately, barring more books like The Accusation, The Orphan Master’s Son is going to be the novel that people most associate with North Korea. That is a shame since the Great North Korean Novel should probably be written by a North Korean. However, that doesn’t mean that The Orphan Master’s Son isn’t a fantastic, well-researched book.  It’s a stunning, gut-wrenching book about love, redemption, and sacrifice.  It’s also hard to explain.  At bottom, it’s about the life of Pak Jun Do, a North Korean orphan. That doesn’t take into account all the stylistic choices that make this book so engaging (the propaganda interludes, the shifts between first and third person, the cameo by Kim Jong Il, I could go on.)  Just trust me on this one.  The beginning is a little slow, but this book is absolutely worth your time.