North Korea in light of Otto Warmbier


I admit, I’ve had a bit of an unhealthy obsession with North Korea for years. I would tell everyone that I would want to go there, talk about how they offer 5 day tours (which yes, you would be stuck on a hotel in the middle of a river in Pyongyang – worth it) and how it was my definition of the scariest country on earth. Which, okay, makes it weird that I wanted to go. When this whole thing with Otto Warmbier happened though, that somewhat naive idea went straight out the window. The news about his death after 17 months in North Korean custody and more than a year in a coma was released yesterday, and while it’s no more than I expected, it’s still heartbreaking. Given the escalating tensions between the two countries, it’ll be interesting (and potentially horrifying) to see what happens in response.

For those of you, however, who are interested in understanding a bit more about the society, either because of said escalating tensions or just because of Otto Warmbier, here are some great places to start:

  1. Okay so boring nonfiction to start: John Merrill’s “Korea: The Peninsular Origins of the War.” Excellent history about the splitting of the Korean peninsula into North and South and basically how we got here in the first place. Moving on.
  2. Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson. Fantastic fiction book about the fictional son who was in the dregs of society and rises up to be an important minister. In the meantime, the novel illuminates some of the interesting idiosyncrasies of North Korea: the capturing of Japanese citizens by boat, attempted defections, the gulag system. Honestly, one of the best.
  3. The accusation, by Bandi. Just released in English this year, the first fiction novel to ever come out of North Korea. I’ll just leave it there, but boy is it interesting.
  4. Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden: Fantastic book about an escape from the Gulag System (in which, tbh, the whole Stalinist principle of “not visiting the sins of the father on the child” is NOT a thing)
  5. The girl with Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee – another book in the similar vein, told from a female perspective.

Rest in Peace, Otto.

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