In reading Christopher Hitchens' memoir Hitch-22, my interest in North Korea was piqued in an essay about his visit there:
In a place with absolutely no private or personal life, with the incessant worship of a mediocre career-sadist as the only culture, where all citizens are the permanent property of the state, the highest form of pointlessness has been achieved.(Pointlessness being the abnegation of the individual and the exaltation of a leader-god).
To the library. The first, The Impossible State by Victor Cha (2012), is a treatise on the history of North Korea, its culture, foreign policy (Cha was the Director for Asian Affairs of the National Security Council from 2004-2007), and future. This is a highly readable book despite its weighty topic. (A breakdown of the chapters: the Cold War era; the personality cult of the Kim dynasty; five disastrous decisions made by the government that ruined a once prosperous economy; the unspeakable human rights abuses that continue to the present day; the military balances that have maintained peace since 1953; nuclearization; the relationship of North Korea to Russia, China, the US, Japan, and South Korea; the prospects, ramifications, and costs of unification of the Koreas.)
I highly recommend this book - due to its recent publication in April, it is like reading a very long, very detailed, hot-off-the-press magazine article. Excellent. Washington Post review
With historical context in place, I read Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (2009) [excerpt here] and Blaine Harden's Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West (2012) [NYT review here]. Demick's book chronicles the lives of several ordinary citizens who ultimately defected to South Korea after enduring the horrific famine of the 1990s. Escape from Camp 14 is the shocking story of the only known escapee from a gulag (or work or concentration camp) who was born in such a place, having never known life outside slavery, never known love, nurturing, or any form of humanity. The subject, Shin Dong-hyuk, says:
I am evolving from being an animal. But it is going very, very slowly. Sometimes I try to cry and laugh like other people, just to see if it feels like anything.
These books were incredibly eye-opening, particularly the cruelty inflicted upon the people- brainwashed, disease-stricken, malnourished, completely isolated from the rest of the world- by the government.