More and more books are being written on North Korea. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer of these books are good, and many of the truly excellent books on North Korea are falling out of print and increasingly difficult to find. If you are a Christian interested in North Korea, I recommend procuring a copy of each of the following before they fall out of circulation completely. They form a library of essential resources for Christians to understand (and understand how to effectively impact) North Korea.
I hasten to note that just because a book is not on this list doesn’t mean I think it is bad. But I hasten to note as well that if a book is not on this list, I usually have a particular reason why. My list, for example, omits many of the recent testimonial books written by North Korean defectors. That may seem odd, given my passionate insistence that we should listen to North Koreans themselves share about North Korea. But reading a North Korean defector testimonial book is something quite different entirely than engaging in casual conversation with North Korean defectors. Casual conversation with North Korean defectors is helpful. Most testimonial books are not, and I have shared my thoughts about why here.
My book also omits most popular literature on North Korea because most popular literature on North Korea is simply neither accurate nor helpful. So this is certainly not a list of the most enjoyable books on North Korea, or the most easily readable books on North Korea. But extra effort on complex subjects in variably pays dividends. That’s certainly true when it comes to North Korea.
Because a few of these books are actually quite expensive, I’ve ranked the books in the order I find them helpful. I believe they are all essential and each offers unique information not found anywhere else. But if you can only afford a few, start with the books at the end of the list (I’ve ranked them from #11 to #1) and work your way backwards. You may be amused to find that I rank my own book on North Korea second, but only second. Even more amusingly, the book I consider to be the best book on North Korea isn’t about North Korea at all. But I’ll leave you to find that out by reading the list.
Just one final note of explanation: Why differentiate a list of the best books on North Korea for Christians as opposed to the best books on North Korea overall? Why would the list be different? The answer is, there are many things about North Korea that only Christians can fully understand. Many North Korea analysts resolutely deny that claim; however, many North Korean Christians would (and do) support it. My goal here is not to prove the claim, but just to explain it. Unusually, however, most of the books on this list are not Christian. But Christians will bring to these books insights based on their Christian faith that non-Christians are more likely to miss.
Now, on to the list:
11. Kim Il-song’s North Korea by Helen-Louise Hunter. A declassified CIA study on North Korea from 1999, this book is often overlooked because of its age. But just because a history book is newer doesn’t necessarily make it better. This book is an easy but detailed read that is my preferred recommendation to Christians interested in a general history on North Korea because it gives proper emphasis to the cult of Kim Il Sung in every aspect of North Korean life, enabling Christians to sense the parallels between the Christian faith and North Korea’s state religion. Because it was written as a case study for the CIA, it is not susceptible to accusations of Christian bias overemphasizing Kim Il Sungism as a religion. Few history books or media reports “get” Kim Il-Sungism. This book does. Yes, it was written even early in Kim Jong Il’s rule and much has transpired since then. But most history books lose the forest for the trees. If you want to read the best North Korean history, read this one.
10. Kim Il Sung and Korea’s Struggle: An Unconventional Firsthand History
by Won Tai Sohn M.D. This book is hard to find, expensive, and the author writes in praise of Kim Il Sung from a Christian perspective, based on his father’s warm friendship with Kim Il Sung and the author’s own childhood encounters with him. Of course, I disagree categorically with the author’s perspective. That being the case, the book is essential because it contains a number of stories about Kim Il Sung and the Christian faith that can’t be found in any other source. Also, it helps explain something that puzzles most outsiders, namely, why many North Korean defectors (and, oddly, Billy and Franklin Graham) continue to remember Kim Il Sung fondly, even after they escape from North Korea.
9. The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters by B.R. Myers. North Korean analysts are roughly divided between people who think that B.R. Myers is brilliant and those who think he is crazy. If you share his ideas and analysis of North Korea with ordinary North Korean defectors, however, they will nod and agree easily, as if you have said something very obvious. Myers highlights the importance of racial purity in North Korean life and ideology, and it’s easy for Christians to suss out the religious dimensions and impact of that when they read this book. Myers has written a newer book, but this original statement of his basic idea is better, in my view.
8. The Capitalist Unconscious: From Korean Unification to Transnational Korea Hardcover by Hyun Ok Park. This book is dry as toast, demanding of the reader’s attention and careful concentration, really expensive, and almost entirely focused on economics and thus void of any direct mention of religion. However, it is essentially reading for Christians and has in my view not received the attention it deserved since its publication last year. In admittedly painful academic prose, it masterfully refutes the idea that unification is a future event. More importantly from Christians, it’s the book I use to try to help well-meaning believers understand why activities like teaching at North Korean government sanctioned institutions or building coffee shops in Pyongyang as a means of reaching North Korea for the gospel (or, sadly, the gospel of capitalism) is a truly outdated and marginal idea. If you want to do business as mission, don’t do it with the North Korean government; do it with the literally millions of North Koreans from North Korea to China to South Korea who are already operating a robust transnational economy.
7. North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics by Heonik Kwon, Byung-Ho Chung. Most Christians skim past this title without stopping because it contains the word “politics.” But read the title more closely and you’ll see that the book is about going beyond politics, which the authors note is rarely done. North Korea is almost always viewed, analyzed, reported on, and understood through a political lens. This is a book about North Korea’s founding myths and their impact on daily North Korean life. Wake up, Christians–this is the kind of stuff you should be reading about North Korea, not the political/military jumble that spews out of the Internet daily.
6. Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee–A Look Inside North Korea by Jang Jin-sung. This is the one book by a North Korean defector on my list, and I recommend it even though I think that in his interviews and writings these days Mr. Jang absolutizes his own perspective a little too much and a little too often. That is, instead of seeing that he knows and understands one part of North Korean life (that of the North Korean elite), Mr. Jang often thinks of his North Korea as the whole of North Korea. But with that caveat in mind, I think this is an essential read that will help you bridge between what you see reported in the popular media of North Korea and the actual lives of the North Korean elite. Most importantly for Christians, it contains a deservedly unflattering portrait of the Christians Mr. Jang encountered as he sought help along his defection route. Most Christian books on North Korea say only good things about the work of Christians in aiding North Koreans. This book (not a Christian book) has a much more honest and truthful portrayal that squares fully with my experience as a Christian who is saddened by a lot of what Christians do and don’t do in their interactions with North Koreans seeking help.
5. Human Remolding in North Korea: A Social History of Education by Hyung-Chun Kim with Dong-kyu Kim. Expensive book, boring title, bland cover–it’s no wonder why you’ve never heard of this book before. But that’s extremely unfortunate since it is the only book to explain in detail how the religion of Kim Il Sungism is woven into every level of the North Korean education system, from kindergarten to PhD program to factory. Anyone with any interest in working with North Koreans should read this book before working with North Koreans. It helps explain why North Koreans don’t simply leave the country and say, “Phew! I’m glad I can stop pretending to worship the Kim family and start acting normally!” It’s not a light read, but I wish everyone read this book before they came to us for mission trips, interviews, or employment.
4. North Korea: Toward a Better Understanding by Sonia Ryang. “How does a North Korean find worth in another human being?” begins Sonia Ryang in the oddly-titled “Biopolitics or the Logic of Sovereign Love–Love’s Whereabouts in North Korea,” one of a group of essays in this book written by multiple worthy authors (especially Charles Armstrong and Hyun-Ok Park, whose book is noted at #10 in this list, above). We send Bibles by balloon into North Korea. If I was going to send anything by balloon to Christians in South Korea and America regarding North Koreans, I would send copies of this one essay. The rest of the book is good, too, but that one essay is easily more than worth the price.
3. Illusive Utopia: Theater, Film, and Everyday Performance in North Korea by Suk-Young Kim. Yes, I know that this is an expensive book. Yes, I know that it is the doctoral thesis of a professor of theater and dance at a secular university. But, simply put, it is the best book on North Korea that no one has ever read or heard of. Why this woman is not more famous and universally acknowledged for her amazing insights about how North Korea is essentially a giant film set and North Korean history a film script directed, written, and produced by Kim Jong Il astonishes me. Christians reading this book (which is illustrated with beautiful artwork that is extremely helpful for Christians to see) will immediately think, “Ah! Now I understand what I have never before understood from news stories on North Korea! I see how all of this relates to Christianity!” And it’s not even a Christian book. Most importantly to me, no one who reads this book will ever go on a tour to North Korea and think, “What I am seeing is in any way real or accurate.” I would drop this book from balloons in South Korea and the US too except it is way too heavy. But, oh, the insights.
2. These are the Generations by Eric Foley. Nearly, all of what Christians have heard about how North Korean underground Christians worship, pray, sing, evangelize, and disciple is simply wrong. It owes more to what is successful in fundraising than what is actually happening among Christians in North Korea. I am listed as the author of the book, but I am in actuality the scribe for Mr. and Mrs. Bae, a third generation underground North Korean Christian family. I like the book not because it is a spectacular story but because it is a very representative one: It is truly an accurate picture of what life is like for underground Christians in North Korea. (In case you’re curious, my own favorite part of the book is when Mrs. Bae and the her two children make their mad midnight swim/scramble across the border. Mrs. Bae sees the Christmas lights in the Chinese houses dotting the border and remembers that it is in fact Christmas. She takes one second to look back, in the manner of Lot’s wife. Seeing the absolute impenetrable darkness of the country she has lived in her whole life which she has now left, she experientially grasps something about North Korea that absolutely defies description unless you see it for yourself.)
1. New God, New Nation: Protestants and Self-Reconstruction Nationalism in Korea, 1896-1937 by Kenneth M. Wells. Lord permitting, I am a few weeks away from the great honor of meeting and talking about Korean Christian history over dinner with Dr. Wells. Next to my wife, this is the person whose thinking on North Korea has shaped my own more than anyone else. God called me to North Korea ministry; I never fully understood why or what I was supposed to do until I read this book. I read it with tears in my eyes because it was in this book that I first learned about the Korean Christian martyrs whose names and stories have been largely lost to history. Yes, it is an academic book. Yes, it is very hard to find. Yes, there are other books and articles by Dr. Wells which are available via the Internet (including his absolutely brilliant new history of Korea). But this book is special. It is not explicitly about North Korea, and yet I learned more about North Korea from it than from all ten of the above books put together, including my own. This book talks about North Korea before there was a North Korea. Reading it was to me like getting to finally reach down and pick up a handful of rich, loamy soil after I had been trimming the plants in the garden for years. Ah, that is where North Korea comes from. Ah, that was the church that once was in Korea. Ah, that is the martyr’s spirit that needs to be returned to the Korean church once again.