What to Read When You Need to Know about Korea


This week saw a lot of “fire and fury” from two impotent leaders playing at war with words. But there are also other words that exist between the two countries—stories shared, histories remembered. Here are just some of the good books about Korea (both North and South) and by Koreans that we have read and enjoyed.


Without You There is No Us by Suki Kim
A haunting account of teaching English to the sons of North Korea’s ruling class during the last six months of Kim Jong-il’s reign. Without You, There Is No Us offers a moving and incalculably rare glimpse of life in the world’s most unknowable country, and at the privileged young men Suki calls “soldiers and slaves.”


Woke Up Lonely by Fiona Maazel
Thurlow Dan is the founder of the Helix, a cult that promises to cure loneliness in twenty-first century America. The Helix has become a national phenomenon—and attracted the attention of governments worldwide. With fiery, exuberant prose, Maazel takes us on a ride through North Korea’s guarded interior, a city of vice beneath Cincinnati, and a commune housed in a Virginia factory, while Thurlow, his wife, and their daughter search for a way to be a family again.


The Vegetarian by Han Kang
Before the nightmares began, Yeong-hye and her husband lived an ordinary, controlled life. But the dreams—invasive images of blood and brutality—torture her, driving Yeong-hye to purge her mind and renounce eating meat altogether. It’s a small act of independence, but it interrupts her marriage and sets into motion an increasingly grotesque chain of events at home. The Vegetarian is a darkly allegorical, Kafka-esque tale of power, obsession, and one woman’s struggle to break free from the violence both without and within her.


The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
Part breathless thriller, part story of innocence lost, part story of romantic love, The Orphan Master’s Son is also a riveting portrait of a world heretofore hidden from view: a North Korea rife with hunger, corruption, and casual cruelty but also camaraderie, stolen moments of beauty, and love.


Native Speaker by Chang Rae Lee
Henry Park has spent his entire life trying to become a true American—a native speaker. But even as the essence of his adopted country continues to elude him, his Korean heritage seems to drift further and further away. Native Speaker is a story of cultural alienation. It is about fathers and sons, about the desire to connect with the world rather than stand apart from it, about loyalty and betrayal, about the alien in all of us and who we finally are.


The Hundred-Year Flood by Matthew Salesses
This beautiful and dreamlike debut follows twenty-two-year-old Tee as he escapes to Prague in the wake of his uncle’s suicide and the aftermath of 9/11. Tee tries to convince himself that living in a new place will mean a new identity and a chance to shed the parallels between him and his adopted father. In the shadow of a looming flood that comes every one-hundred years, Tee contemplates his own place in life as both mixed and adopted and as an American in a strange land full of heroes, myths, and ghosts.


The Impossible Fairy Tale by Han Yujoo
A chilling, wildly original novel from a major new voice from South Korea. The Impossible Fairy Tale is a fresh and terrifying exploration of the ethics of art making and of the stinging consequences of neglect.


Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin
The stunning, deeply moving story of a family’s search for their mother, who goes missing one afternoon amid the crowds of the Seoul Station subway. Told through the piercing voices and urgent perspectives of a daughter, son, husband, and mother, Please Look After Mom is at once an authentic picture of contemporary life in Korea and a universal story of family love


Dear Leader by Jang Jin-sung
In this international bestseller, a high-ranking counterintelligence agent describes his life as a former poet laureate to Kim Jong-il and his breathtaking escape to freedom. Never before has a member of the elite described the inner workings of this totalitarian state and its propaganda machine.


Recitation by Suah Bae, translated by Deborah Smith
The meeting between a group of emigrants and a mysterious, wandering actress in an empty train station sets the stage for Bae Suah’s fragmentary yet lyrical meditation on language, travel, and memory. As the actress recounts the fascinating story of her stateless existence, an unreliable narrator and the interruptions of her audience challenge traditional notions of storytelling and identity.


Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden
North Korea is isolated and hungry, bankrupt and belligerent. It is also armed with nuclear weapons. Between 150,000 and 200,000 people are being held in its political prison camps, which have existed twice as long as Stalin’s Soviet gulags and twelve times as long as the Nazi concentration camps. Very few born and raised in these camps have escaped. But Shin Donghyuk did. In Escape from Camp 14, acclaimed journalist Blaine Harden tells the story of Shin Dong-hyuk and through the lens of Shin’s life unlocks the secrets of the world’s most repressive totalitarian state.


Your Republic is Calling You by Young-ha Kim
Spanning the course of one day, Your Republic Is Calling You is an emotionally taut, psychologically astute, haunting novel that reveals the depth of one particularly gripping family secret and the way in which we sometimes never really know the people we love. Confronting moral questions on small and large scales, it mines the political and cultural transformations that have transformed South Korea since the 1980s.


Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream by Kim Hyesoon, translated by Don Mee Choi
“Her poems are not ironic. They are direct, deliberately grotesque, theatrical, unsettling, excessive, visceral and somatic. This is feminist surrealism loaded with shifting, playful linguistics that both defile and defy traditional roles for women.” –Pam Brown