North Korea Confidential: Private Markets, Fashion Trends, Prison Camps, Dissenters and Defectors by Daniel Tudor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Just the facts here, ma’am. Despite its slim size, author Daniel Tudor manages to pack in a lot of details about contemporary life in North Korea as the regime under dictator Kim Jong Un begins to reveal itself from the shadows of his father. Which isn’t to say that this new dictator is better than the previous one (the Kim is dead, long live the Kim, as they say), but it’s an updated look at the world, similar to how Barbara Demick’s seminal work “Nothing to Envy” showed life under Kim Il Sung.
Tudor’s book is considerably more academic than Demick’s, with more of a look from a top-down overview perspective rather than an individually focused narrative.
One thing that troubled me through the first half of the book was a sense of neutrality towards the regime, as though Tudor didn’t want to take a stance on the issue of North Korean human rights violations. Fortunately, that feeling was more a creation by the structure of the book, since the early chapters are more focused on the lives of average citizens. Tudor has plenty to say about the regime when it comes to discussing the political camps and the high-level purge of officials when Kim Jong Un succeeded his father.
This book is good for the academically interested or as a follow-up if you want to further your knowledge after reading a gripping defection memoir. It’s not going to go after your heartstrings in the same way, but that’s not its goal. This look at the lives of North Koreans in the modern day is, above all else, a reminder that these are real people we’re reading about, real lives we’re discussing from the ivory towers on our distant shores, and not cartoon characters in any sense, no matter how much mass media likes to say otherwise whenever North Korea declares it has discovered unicorns or cured hangovers.
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The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story by Hyeonseo Lee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I haven’t picked up a North Korean defector memoir in a while, so I was pleased to see this one getting high marks and a heap of praise from my fiancee before I started. Even though this is my 10th or 11th defection account, it continues to fascinate me how each one, despite having a few similar milestones (crossing the border into China, trying to blend in, and eventually making it to permanent sanctuary) still manage to be as unique and intricate as the people experiencing them.
Hyeonseo’s story is markedly different from the many other accounts of people pushed to such desperation that defection was the only remaining option. One could almost call her an accidental defector, in that she made it to China originally just to see it for a few days before returning home. But once she was there, circumstances made it so that there was no going back and from then on, she had to negotiate the fallout of that decision.
There are three aspects of this book in particular that make it supremely compelling; the first is that Hyeonseo makes no secret that she came from a life of relative privilege compared to many other defectors. (Privilege, of course, being a relative term compared to Western lifestyles). Second, most of the story is focused on what happens to her after crossing the border; her attempts to integrate into China and eventually, her attempts to bring her family across the border as well. It’s fascinating to see what it’s like for those on the other side, who worry and wait and negotiate and risk so much to help those trying to cross.
Finally, Hyeonseo’s writing style is superb. Her story is told with a taut, gripping pace and has enough cliffhanger chapters and twists of fate that you (and I hate using this phrase, but it really is the most applicable) “can’t put this book down.” There’s an energy and pace to this story that crackles like a great thriller novel, but the fact that this isn’t a story, that this all happened to a real person makes it that much more compelling.
I’ve read a lot of North Korea defector memoirs and I’ll doubtless read many more until this humanitarian crisis is resolved (hopefully within my lifetime). Each one is remarkable in its way, but there are a few that stand out as books that I feel everyone should read. I’m happy to say that “the Girl with Seven Names” deserves a place in those ranks. You should read this book.
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