Rambling about books

Book review: North Korea Undercover, by John Sweeney

Award-winning BBC journalist John Sweeney is one of the few to have witnessed at first hand the devastating reality of life in the controversial and isolated nation of North Korea.

Posing as a university professor, Sweeney went undercover to gain unprecedented access to the world’s most secret state. He spoke to people who have seen the horrific dark side of the regime and saw things which have been hidden for years from the eyes of the western world: huge factories with no staff or electricity; hospitals with no patients; uniformed child soldiers; and the world-famous and eerily empty DMZ – the De-Militarized Zone where North Korea ends and South Korea starts – all framed by the relentless flow of regime propaganda from omnipresent loudspeakers.

Sweeney also visited South Korea and met defectors from the North who told him the other side of the story: gulags within a gulag state, dire poverty, blunted lives, hideous torture, effective infanticide of disabled babies, stick-limbed children dying of famine and mass graves of political prisoners that could only be dug when the spring thaw set in.

With the world’s eyes focused on North Korea, Sweeney’s timely account is a stunning piece of reportage from the country the author describes as the strangest place he’s ever visited. A combination of first person experiences, new and revealing interviews, and history, North Korea Undercover examines the country’s troubled history and provides a window into life there today. Goodreads.

Book cover from Goodreads

I had this book from back in 2014, but then I had to move to Seoul, South Korea, and for some really odd reason I didn’t feel comfortable reading this book as I walk around Seoul, so this book never really see the light of day until 2017 when I realised I still have stacks of books that I need to finished before my departure to Colombia; I wasn’t going to bring the books knowing that I would probably bury myself with more books in Colombia. So, how did this book came to be? Simply put, I have an interest in North Korean issues, and whilst to be completely honest, the topic of what the inside of North Korea is like is a bit overdone (at this point), I am perfectly sure that different author will results in different point of view being made on the same topic.

Let’s start this off by me saying that I wasn’t happy with how the author pursue his information, that is by posing as professor (when clearly that he wasn’t); he was in every way possible was committing a crime by not disclosing his true intentions for entering a foreign country (however weird and un-democratic the foreign country may be), but then again as a journalist, sometimes one might have to do possibly almost anything in order to get the news out. That being said, I am not giving out verdict on what is right or what is wrong, it was a passing comment and at the end, the documentary was out and so was this book as the result of his trip to North Korea.

Okay, now that I got it out of the way, let’s talk about the contents of the book. While I may not have read all the books that were ever written about the conditions in North Korea, I have read enough books to know the gist of what North Korea is like during the occupation of Japan (which at that point Korea was not divided yet into North and South), when it was separated, during and after the civil war, during Kim Il Sung’s tenure, followed by Kim Jong Il’s tenure, and the most recent one, Kim Jong Eun’s tenure. That being said, reading this book was like a “oh what else is new” moment for me. Everything that was mentioned about the living conditions in North Korea within this books was not something that I haven’t read before.

So, was it worth it reading this book? For me, it’s a worthy read. Aside from the fact that most of the information was nothing new, I have to admit that the author’s writing style and his neverending wit and sarcasm kept the book interesting enough for me to finish the book even though, again, there was nothing new for me (even some of the books that he was referencing was books that I have read before). I have to admit that John Sweeney is such an interesting writer, I would not have guessed he looked the way he looked if his writing was to go by. He looked pretty serious but his writing was light enough for me to enjoy but doesn’t feel empty.

One thing that is also interesting for me was the fact this was the first book on North Korea that was written based on the author’s experience in joining the tour and posing as a tourist in North Korea. Most of the books written on North Korea that I have read were either written by defectors on a Professor that is an expert on North Korea, never a tourist going on a vacation with designated tourist guides in North Korea.

Ummmmmmm . . . no.

Okay, don’t get me wrong. I did enjoy the book, and I definitely had a great time reading it, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it, because to me apart from the author’s witty writing, there was nothing interesting offered by the book. That being said, if your interest in North Korea is something new, then this would not be a bad place to start. It covers enough vital parts about North Korea that for someone who are just starting to know about North Korea can actually read and not get too confused with the many facts and figures needed to understand about North Korea and its three leaders.

Title: North Korea Undercover

Author: John Sweeney

Genre: History, Non fiction


Goodreads link


2 thoughts on “Book review: North Korea Undercover, by John Sweeney”

    1. Thanks, you should read if you have an interest on North Korea, although it wasn’t that specific but his writing style was definitely entertaining and enjoyable.


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