Journalism in the Public Interest

A MuckReads Guide to North Korea

As tensions simmer over North Korea’s latest nuclear threats, we take a look at some of the best reading on Kim Jong Un, the prospects for a nuclear conflict and life in the DPRK.

South Korean soldiers stand guard at the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone dividing North and South Korea, Feb. 27, 2013. (JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)

As tensions simmer over North Korea’s latest nuclear threats, we take a look at some of the best reading on Kim Jong Un, the prospects for a nuclear conflict and life in the DPRK. What did we miss? Tweet your recommended reading with #MuckReads or leave us a note in the comments below.

Meet Kim Jong Un, Time, February 2012
When Kim Jong Il died in December 2011, there was little known about his successor Kim Jong Un. “The only sure thing for now is that Kim Jong Un is the least-known and understood leader ever of a nuclear-armed nation,” wrote Bill Powell. Powell explores the life of Kim’s third son, from his childhood spent playing pickup basketball to his schooling in Switzerland, and his eventual ascension of power.

‘More Dangerous Than You Think’, Foreign Policy, March 2013
Academics Victor Cha and David Kang review North Korea’s latest provocations, including its recent launch of a satellite into orbit, to challenge the assumption that Pyongyang can continually be deterred. As for Kim Jong Un, the authors argue “more important than asking whether [he] is insane is determining whether he is cautious or a risk-taker.”

Alone in the Dark, The New Yorker, September 2003
When the first American ship arrived in Korea in 1866, the Koreans and the Americans fought a four-day battle in which the victorious Koreans ultimately hacked the ship’s crew to death. The New Yorker’s Philip Gourevitch traces the strange history of North and South Korea since then, from the Kim family’s rise to the South Korean president’s visit to North Korea in 2000.

What are North Korea’s Intentions? (graphic), The National Post, February 2013
Canadian newspaper the National Post lays out the missiles and other weapons in North Korea’s arsenal, and maps their potential reach.

A running list of North Korea's near-daily threats (updated), Foreign Policy, March 2013
In the past several weeks, every day seems to bring a new threat from North Korean leaders. Foreign Policy is keeping their list updated, to stay on top of escalating verbal attacks from Kim Jong Un’s regime.  

North Korea, South Korea and the U.S. (PDF), CRS, February 2013
This Congressional Research Service report details Washington and South Korea’s “strategic patience” approach to dealing with North Korea and the ongoing transition of U.S. forces in South Korea, where about 28,500 troops are currently deployed.

North Koreans See Few Gains Below Top Tier, The New York Times, October 2012
More Mercedes-Benzes can be seen on the streets of Pyongyang since the rise of Kim Jong Un. But four ordinary North Koreans interviewed by the Times said that their lives have not improved. The price of rice has doubled, beggars haunt the country’s train stations and religious freedom is non-existent. “If the government finds out I am reading the Bible, I’m dead,” one North Korean woman said.

North Korea’s Public Relations Man is a Spaniard With a Tough Job, Christian Science Monitor, March 2013
Meet North Korea’s PR man: a Spaniard who says it has long been his dream to join the “North Korean revolution.” He claims they are in a “propaganda battle with the West” and that 95 percent of the news about North Korea is false. The only true news about the Asian nation, he says, comes from the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

North Korea’s Digital Underground, The Atlantic, April 2011
A look at a handful of independent media organizations that smuggle news into a country completely isolated from Internet and broadcast media — save for government-controlled radios programmed to broadcast state news.

Nothing Left, The New Yorker, July 2010
The stories of refugees who fled to China, and a summary of recent economic woes, including a disastrous currency devaluation (“Prices for rice and corn tripled in a single day...A cup of coffee at the hotel could cost anywhere from eleven to thirty-two dollars.”) Barbara Demick has been interviewing refugees from North Korea for more than a decade.You can read an excerpt of her 2009 book, Nothing to Envy, here.

Escape from Camp 14, Blaine Harden, March 2012
Foreign correspondent Blaine Harden chronicles the prison camps of North Korea in this story of Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person born into the North Korean gulag known to escape. Raised within the camp system, Shin discovered and revealed his family’s escape plans to his captors at age 13. His mother and brother were tortured and killed. Harden details Shin’s subsequent escape into South Korea and eventually the United States. The Guardian reviews the book here.  

Inside North Korea
For a glimpse inside “the hermit kingdom,” see this photo essayin the Boston Globe, and Vice Media’s, three-part video guide to North Korea. Whether or not it captures what life is really like is unclear; guides accompany all visitors and organize their tours.

"Papa" Maury Clark

April 2, 2013, 4:44 p.m.

Regarding Kim Jong Un, I am doing my best to understand the logic(?) in his thinking, and am in need of a reality check:
1. Is he rationally expecting that we will cower under his threats?
2. Can somebody give me a realistic appraisal of the odds that he will initiate an attack or threat that would REQUIRE response?
3. God forbid that he initiates s pre-emptive nuclear strike, then what?
Papa Maury Clark

It’s almost like North Korea is scared of a country that constantly attacks other countries, killing hundreds of thousands to millions with wars, sanctions, and economic blockades. Only when REQUIRED, though, right Papa?

It’s truly impressive how little we Americans learned from the lies of the Iraq War, even just days after the ten year anniversary. Oh well. Maybe Papa Maury can fill us all in on the logic(?) of the Iraq invasion again while we wait for North Korea to attack LA.

Papa Maury Clark

April 3, 2013, 12:20 a.m.

Well Dave, you are an interesting person. I asked three direct questions specific to North Korea, and you responded with an off-topic polemic diatribe. I do hope that you did not mean to include me with your “we” in your second paragraph. I, in fact, ask questions to gain insight and knowledge. Other than self-criticism, what agenda were you addressing with your response?

“Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea” by Barbara Demick is in my top five!

Papa Maury Clark

April 3, 2013, 12:19 p.m.

Thank you Jonah, I have also been referred to the February-March issue of Foreign Policy magazine.

1. Since I do not think it is rational for N. Korea or any small poor nation with limited resources and reach to make military threats vs. anyone, I wonder if the truth is that it’s not really about the U.S. at all, but some internal matter in N. Korea that is behind all this belligerent rhetoric.
2. Odds

Sorry - was cut off in the middle…
2. Odds are hard to calculate because hard data is scarce.  On the one hand, previous threats have turned out to be mostly an exercise in hot air and chest beating.  On the other hand, if the internal desperation level gets high enough (and it quite likely is high) they might see actually starting a real attack as a necessity. Alas for them, it might well end up being the nation-level equivalent of suicide-by-cop if they do start something.
3. I would prefer that the whole world turn into Frodo, and seek out the permanent and peaceful end to weapons of mass destruction, especially nukes.  That said, should N. Korea become the 2nd nation on this planet to use one or more nukes on a human population, I do not give good odds on their survival. Their arsenal of such weapons is very limited, their tech expertise far from state-of-the-art, and even so there would be little reason not to retaliate with a much more mature, deadly, and plentiful nuclear technology in such a way as to render whatever nuclear threat they have nil.

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