Review: How I Became a North Korean, Krys Lee

As I’ve possibly mentioned once or twice (or thrice maybe?) on this blog, I find the country of North Korea morbidly fascinating. Even in an election season where the impossible-to-believe comes true on what seems like a daily basis (not in a good way), North Korea remains an unknowably impossible sort of country to have in the modern world. So I obviously was always going to read How I Became a North Korean.

How I Became a North Korean

This debut novel by Krys Lee, who has worked with defectors from North Korea herself, follows three characters on a long and strange journey to find a reality that they can accept. Yongju is the son of privilege in North Korea, forced to flee after the Dear Leader kills his father in cold blood; while a pregnant Jangmi allows herself to be sold into marriage in China in the hopes that her new husband will believe the baby is his. The non-North Korean of the group is Danny, a Korean American teenager in search of meaning.

How I Became a North Korean is a weird fever dream of a book for a weird fever dream of a country. If some of the plot twists seem unlikely, it can’t even compare to the unlikelihood that a country like North Korea could exist, this rarefied environment in which the country’s leader acts with utter impunity against his own people, and of which so little is reliably known that we can’t even assess what needs to change.

(Except, you know, everything.)

Krys Lee is writing about something I haven’t encountered before, which is the difficulties that North Koreans face after crossing out of their own country. Though rescue organizations do exist, Lee has had some experience with predatory Christian agencies less interested in helping refugees than gaining more donation money from visitors. This experience informs the bulk of the book, as North Korean refugees find not safety but a new kind of captivity when they leave their country.

Also appreciated: our dude narrator has feelings about our lady narrator, but he doesn’t make his feelings her problem. He is kind and supportive of her and I appreciate it. Also:

I was alarmed and amazed that she had somehow freed herself. She hadn’t been broken after all, only hoarding her strength.

Have you read/reviewed this one? Let me know and I’ll add a link!

  • I read this one awhile back, but didn’t review it. Like you, I have a weird fascination with North Korea. How can it exist?! But, this book wasn’t my favorite on that topic…just felt a weird distance from the characters the entire time.

    • That’s fair. I didn’t hugely connect to those characters either, but the writing and setting were both so strong that it carried the book for me.

  • Kailana

    First I have even heard of this book. I am not sure if I really ever read books about North Korea. Not that I have anything against them or anything, just not something that I make a habit of.

    • Hahha, you know, I didn’t intend to make a habit of reading about North Korea. It kind of just befell me! I read one book about it and found it to be so bonkers that I needed to read more. If you’re going to read one, I recommend My Holiday in North Korea. Lots of weirdness, very readable and accessible.

  • Stefanie@SoManyBooks

    North Korea is definitely a weird place. I am surprised that Trump likes Putin so much and not Kim Jong-Un when he and Kim seem to both reside on their own private realities.

    • I believe he has also praised Kim Jong-Un, actually? It wasn’t on quite the same level as the thing with Putin — like, he said that Kim Jong-Un was a lunatic but that you have to give him credit for taking over the country after his father died. I, um, do not give Kim Jong-Un credit for that as it was litrally just handed to him, but whatever.

  • Kim Aippersbach

    The author has certainly had an interesting life. Very cool that she has actually been on the ground helping escapees. Very uncool about the “predatory Christians.” Ewwww.

    Books like this I always hesitate to read, because I’m afraid of being faced with the nasty realities of my world. I should probably get over that.

  • I’ve been adding books about North Korea to my list (because, like you, I think they would be fascinating), but I haven’t read any yet. If you had to recommend one fiction and one nonfiction, what would they be?

  • Alley

    I feel like most of my knowledge of North Korea comes from pop culture so I could do with a more realistic portrayal.