A music group performs on a path amid fields to greet the farmers at Hwanggumpyong Island, near the North Korean town of Sinuiju and the Chinese border city of Dandong June 6, 2012.
Jacky Chen / Reuters

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (a.k.a. the DPRK, a.k.a. North Korea) is probably the hardest place in the world today for outsiders to understand. Three critical factors limit the West's ability to make sense of this often surprising -- and intentionally alarming -- state. First, the North Korean system, being at once both a Marxist-Leninist dictatorship and a hereditary Asian dynasty, operates in a universe whose metaphysical coordinates are intuitively alien to children of the Enlightenment and inhabitants of the open society. Second, astonishingly little hard data on the DPRK is available to analysts wishing to draw independent conclusions about it. And third, more than any other country in the modern era (or perhaps in history), it routinely relies upon officially sponsored "strategic deception" to mislead potential adversaries about its strengths, vulnerabilities, intentions, and strategies. The surprise attack in June 1950 that launched the Korean War may be the most famous instance of its strategic deception, but as the ongoing nuclear crisis attests, that same art remains alive and well today in Pyongyang. As might be expected under such circumstances, the literature on this deliberately mysterious country tends to be polarized and politicized, with the ratio of opinion to fact often distressingly high. Fortunately, there is a corpus of careful work on North Korea that the curious and concerned can turn to.

Communism in Korea, Volumes I and II. By Robert A. Scalapino and Chong-Sik Lee. University of California Press, 1972.
North Korea Through the Looking Glass. By Kongdan Oh and Ralph C. Hassig. Brookings Institution Press, 2000.
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Though written nearly 40 years ago, Communism in Korea -- the monumental 1,500-page treatise on the Korean communist movement and the state it would end up building in the northern half of the Korean peninsula -- remains the gold standard for all serious students of North Korean affairs. Co-authored by Robert Scalapino and Chong-Sik Lee, this remarkable study appeared long before the current North Korean nuclear drama, the terrible famine of the 1990s, or the collapse of Soviet communism -- even before the rise of North Korea's "dear leader," Kim Jong Il. (Back in those days, it looked as if the mantle of power in Pyongyang might eventually pass from the late North Korean President Kim Il Sung, the "great leader," to his younger brother, Kim Yong Ju.) But the shape of things to come was startlingly familiar. Juche, the admixture of Marxist abstractions and narrow racialism that serves as the DPRK's official ideology, was in full force, and an inescapable cult of personality had reached heights that might have made Stalin jealous. Already, in the early 1970s, Scalapino and Lee would deem North Korea "probably the most highly militarized society in the world today" -- as it continues to be. The authors, furthermore, demonstrate that these and other distinctive, seemingly peculiar features of Korean communism have a logic to them -- and that the DPRK system is more deeply rooted in historical tradition, and grounded in pragmatism, than is often understood. (These roots, in fact, may help explain why North Korean communism has managed to survive when Soviet and Eastern European communism collapsed.) For an update on the North Korean system as it operates in the Kim Jong Il era, readers will be well served by the succinct and thoughtful North Korea Through the Looking Glass, by Scalapino's onetime student, Kongdan Oh, and her husband, Ralph C. Hassig.

North Korea: A Strange Socialist Fortress. By Hy-Sang Lee. Praeger Publishers, 2001.
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For fully two decades, North Korea watchers have been waiting -- and hoping -- for meaningful economic reforms in the DPRK. But nothing worthy of the name has yet emerged, despite the country's dire economic straits (and the precedents set by other Asian communist states such as China and Vietnam). Hy-Sang Lee's careful study of North Korea's political economy helps to explain the paradox. Lee argues that a key to North Korean economic policymaking is the regime's continuing quest for unconditional reunification with -- or, more properly, over -- South Korea. Writes Lee: "It may seem laughable that a bankrupt entity seeks to gobble up its thriving rival: It is tragic but not laughable." The author warns that North Korea's leaders can neither embrace far-reaching economic reforms nor relinquish the country's WMD programs unless they first give up the goal of reunifying the Korean peninsula on their own terms.

Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform. By Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland. Columbia University Press, 2007.
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Hundreds of thousands of people -- perhaps as many as a million -- perished from famine in the DPRK in the 1990s. The North Korean famine is a singular catastrophe; no other literate and urbanized society in history has ever suffered famine during peacetime. This rigorous study by Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland provides an unflinching analytical autopsy of the tragedy. Economic factors -- the heavily subsidized DPRK economy's nosedive after the end of Soviet-bloc aid and trade -- may have set the stage for the famine. But it was a series of political decisions by Pyongyang that turned the country's economic crisis into a human disaster. (Massive flows of humanitarian assistance from abroad were a two-edged sword: on the one hand, they ultimately helped bring death rates back down; on the other, they fed and sustained a regime whose priorities and impulses had triggered the famine in the first place.) Haggard and Noland argue that the economic environment in North Korea has been significantly changed by the famine (the forage-or-die experience has left markets with more space than in the old days) but note that famine could still return, given the regime's continuing resistance to the reforms necessary to prevent it.

North of the DMZ: Essays on Daily Life in North Korea. By Andrei Lankov. McFarland & Company, 2007.
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The Aquariums of Pyongyang. By Kang Chol-Hwan and Pierre Rigoulot. Basic Books, 2001.  
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For the mass of ordinary people who must endure under the DPRK's "socialism with Korean characteristics," what is daily life actually like? Some informed answers can be had from Leningrad-born Andrei Lankov, the keenest observer of North Korean affairs writing in English today. North of the DMZ contains more than 100 short essays about diverse facets of the quotidian in North Korea: schooling, gossip and leisure, work, romance, and more. "Even under the most repressive of social and political conditions," observes Lankov, "the vast majority of people still attempt to live normal lives and generally succeed at it." And what of those who do not? The DPRK is a police state that enforces domestic terror as an everyday means of governance. Estimates vary, but it is thought that as many as 200,000 victims languish in North Korea's terrible political prison camps at any given time. The reader may turn to North Korean defector Kang Chol-Hwan's memoir of his ten-year sentence in the dreaded Yodok camp for a sense of just what the DPRK's gulag is like. Be forewarned -- this is harrowing, unforgettable reading.

Over the Line: North Korea's Negotiating Strategy. By Chuck Downs. AEI Press, 1999.
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As diplomats who have had the pleasure can attest, North Korea's international negotiations tend to be high-tension, bared-fang affairs. But there is a distinctive rhythm, a special and predictable cadence, to the DPRK's seemingly erratic and unpredictable behavior at the negotiating table: these are in fact time-honored North Korean tactics, designed to extract maximum concessions from the other side. There are several fine books on North Korean negotiating behavior, but Chuck Downs' is the most detailed and clinical treatment available. Though written more than a decade ago, his book provides valuable insight into Pyongyang's tactical gyrations today, including in the ongoing international nuclear drama. This book should be required reading for every U.S. diplomat who has to deal with North Korean officials.

  • NICHOLAS EBERSTADT holds the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute and is Senior Adviser to the National Bureau of Asian Research.
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