Jia by Hyejin Kim was one of the most fascinating books I ever read about North Korea. It tells a story of a little girl, whose mother came from a very prominent family, but her father did not. As a result, the whole family was sent to a Gulag in the mountains. The father disappears and the mother dies during Jia’s birth. Jia’s paternal grandparents are given jobs at the gulag, courtesy of the maternal grandparents, and take care of their two little granddaughters. After a chance meeting with a South Korean soldier, they manage to smuggle little Jia to the capital city of Pyongyang, in hopes she can find her maternal grandparents and have a chance to live a better life. She does find them but they want nothing to do with her, so she ends up staying in the orphanage. She becomes a dancer and eventually moves to a very good job at an international hotel, joining a famous dancing ensemble. She becomes a beautiful dancer herself, just like her mother, whose name is not even mentioned in the book, and she falls in love with a young soldier. But when she shares with him where she came from, and that she’s not who he thinks she is, he is shocked and plans to report her. So, in order to avoid prosecution, Jia has to escape Pyongyang and cross over to China, where she falls into the hands of women traffickers and only a lucky meeting with a kind-hearted stranger makes it possible for her to survive. This book was very different from other books I have read on North Korea, because it is about living in Pyongyang and leading a somewhat prominent life. It was a very heartbreaking read, and I recommend that you have tissues handy. (Submitted by Monika).
The Girl with Seven Names was a fascinating look at North Korea from an accidental defector who lived a more comfortable life than many on the Chinese/North Korea border. Not only did I learn a lot about North Korea, but I learned much about that part of the world in general. Lee’s book was very interesting and I highly recommend it. (Submitted by JF).
The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson was the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction and it doesn’t disappoint. This is the story of Pak Jun Do; the orphan turned kidnapper turned fishing boat signal operator turned diplomat turned commander. Enter the hidden world of North Korea where propaganda and the authority of the Dear Leader are the only things that can be counted on. I am a bit of a Korea buff so finding this wonderfully written and frighteningly real story was a real treat. I tell friends that if they want to get a sense of North Korea to read this book along with Nothing to Envy: ordinary lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick and Dear Leader: poet, spy, escapee by Jin-Sung Jang. (Submitted by Braden).
Much has been written lately about life in North Korea, but if you only want to read one book, read this one.
“Filled with details about life within an idiosyncratic and dangerous regime, this memoir reflects the hardships many North Korean women have endured — loss of a child, starvation, imprisonment, trafficking — but it is Lucia Jang’s extraordinary will to live and to protect her family that drives her past every obstacle in a stunning demonstration of love and courage.”
Best. Book. Ever. Keep the box (or two) of Kleenex near by. (Submitted by Monika)