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Ask a North Korean: Defectors Talk about Their Lives Inside the World’s Most Secretive Nation by Daniel Tudor [in Booklist]

For Western readers, most North Korea-focused titles cover two categories, writes Daniel Tudor, former Korea correspondent for The Economist: politics and “testimony-style books written by defectors who tell horror stories.” What’s missing are “the real daily experiences of the vast majority of the North Koreans” due to “a remarkable shortage of North Korean voices.” Proliferating defections, however, have enabled the success of the website, NK News, and its “Ask a North Korean” column, from which this book is drawn.

Covering such topics as “Media and Promotion,” “The Outside World,” “Religion and Spirituality,” even “Love, Sex, Relationships,” a panel of defectors answers questions about the quotidian (jobs, taxes, cars), the expected (secret service, censorship, reunification), and the surprising (funerals, the military’s “pretty-boy privates,” skinny jeans).

Numerous reasons point to why this book should be successful: historical/sociopolitical interest, current headlines, even schadenfreude-laden curiosity. Presentation, however, proves clumsy, encumbered by Tudor’s constant intrusions in every chapter, every question, that go beyond providing context and ultimately dampen the very North Koreans he purportedly champions; his repeated insistence that “North Koreans are human” has an unnecessarily exoticizing effect. Faults aside, these voices deserve attention, compassion, and respect.

Review: modified from “Nonfiction,” Booklist, February 1, 2018

Readers: Adult

Published: 2018


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