Being in North Korea

Cover of the book Being in North Korea on the background of a road with blurred figures walking

Being in North Korea

A unique view into life in North Korea, interweaving personal stories of North Koreans as real individuals and analysis of the historical events that have shaped the country, by Andray Abrahamian, whose work has taken him to the DPRK over 30 times.
They want most people to fly out of Sunan Airport thinking that even if North Koreans are unhappy, even if the system is abhorrent, that the state is in control and the country is in no danger of collapse. And I do think the system is essentially stable. In that sense, maybe they got me. Maybe I fell for it. Or maybe it really is locked down: a combination of rigidity and flexibility that has allowed for state survival beyond expectation.
Andray Abrahamian
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"By far the most informative book I’ve read on life in North Korea. Andray Abrahamian writes very entertainingly and knows what he’s talking about. This is a rich and surprisingly revealing portrait of a super-secretive society." – Michael Palin, Monty Python alumnus, actor, writer, world traveler

"Quite simply, a must-read for anybody going to North Korea. For everybody else, it is a literary excursion of the best kind – humane, funny in ways you will never expect, grim when it should be, and rich beyond belief with hard-won expertise." – Evan Osnos, Staff Writer, The New Yorker

"Each page of Being in North Korea is a fresh revelation. Andray Abrahamian has spent more time in North Korea than anybody I know and he's such a knowledgeable and amusing guide that you'll feel like you've had the privilege of an exclusive tour by the time you finish reading his book."
Barbara Demick, journalist, author, former Los Angeles Times' bureau chief in Seoul and Beijing

"Few North Korea watchers have the breadth and depth of experiences like Andray Abrahamian. Ranging from running a nonprofit training North Koreans on entrepreneurship to undertaking academic studies as a PhD-trained scholar, the author's work highlights his valuable perceptions about North Korea's society and markets. Being in North Korea captures Abrahamian's experiences in a way that informs and entertains."
John S. Park, Harvard University

"What is it like over there? This simple but at the same time immensely difficult question is what Abrahamian seeks to answer. Having worked in North Korea and speaking the language, he is the right person for such an endeavor. He identifies himself as an 'engager,' but he is far from being apologetic. Based on years of hands-on experience working with an NGO that offers capacity building to North Koreans, he paints a remarkably colorful, detailed and multifaceted image of what Westerners, in his words, often experience as a 'no' society." – Rüdiger Frank, Professor, University of Vienna


In 2010, while working on a PhD in South Korea, Andray Abrahamian visited the other Korea, a country he had studied for years but never seen. He returned determined to find a way to work closely with North Koreans. Ten years and more than thirty visits later, Being in North Korea tells the story of his experiences helping set up and run Choson Exchange, a nonprofit that teaches North Koreans about entrepreneurship and economic policy.

Abrahamian was provided a unique vantage into life in North Korea that belies stereotypes rampant in the media, revealing instead North Koreans as individuals ranging from true believers in the system to cynics wishing the Stalinist experiment would just end; from introverts to bubbly chatterboxes, optimists to pessimists. He sees a North Korea that is changing, invalidating some assumptions held in the West, but perhaps reinforcing others.

Amid his stories of coping with the North Korean system, of the foreigners who frequent Pyongyang, and of everyday relationships, Abrahamian explores the challenges of teaching the inherently political subject of economics in a system where everyone must self-regulate their own minds; he looks at the role of women in the North Korean economy, and their exclusion from leadership; and he discusses how information is restricted, propaganda is distributed and internalized, and even how Pyongyang’s nominally illicit property market functions. Along with these stories, he interweaves the historical events that have led to today’s North Korea.

Drawing on the breadth of the author’s in-country experience, Being in North Korea combines the intellectual rigor of a scholar with a writing style that will appeal to a general audience. Through the personal elements of a memoir that provide insights into North Korean society, readers will come away with a more realistic picture of the country and its people, and a better idea of what the future may hold for the nation.

Being in North Korea is published by the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center in its book series distributed by the Brookings Institution Press.


Click below to download an excerpt from Being in North Korea, including the Preface and Chapter 1.

Watch Abrahamian Discuss the Book

Cover of the book Being in North Korea, portrait of Andray Abrahamian, with text "A Conversation wing Author Andray Abrahamian, Author of Being in North Korea"

Being in North Korea: Complete Conversation

Cover of the book Being in North Korea, portrait of Andray Abrahamian, with text "Andray Abrahamian, Author of Being in North Korea: On Teaching Entrepreneurship in the DPRK"

Part 1: Teaching Entrepreneurship in the DPRK

Cover of the book Being in North Korea, portrait of Andray Abrahamian, with text "Andray Abrahamian, Author of Being in North Korea: On Life in the DPRK"

Part 2: On Life in the DPRK

Cover of the book Being in North Korea, portrait of Andray Abrahamian, with text "Andray Abrahamian, Author of Being in North Korea: Excerpt from Chapter 5 - "Oh, The (Foreign) People You'll Meet"

Part 3: Humorous Scenes in the DPRK - Excerpt from Chapter 5

Cover of the book Being in North Korea, portrait of Andray Abrahamian, with text "Andray Abrahamian, Author of Being in North Korea: On what's next with North Korea"

Part 4: North Korea Policy and US-DPRK Diplomacy

Cover of the book Being in North Korea, portrait of Andray Abrahamian, with text "Andray Abrahamian, Author of Being in North Korea: Excerpt from Chapter 10 - 'All You Need'"

Part 5: Saying Goodbye in the DPRK - Excerpt from Chapter 10

Meet the Author

Portrait of Andray Abrahamian

Andray Abrahamian is a non-resident fellow at the Korea Economic Institute, a visiting scholar at George Mason University Korea, and a senior adjunct fellow at Pacific Forum. During the 2018-19 academic year, he was the Koret Fellow in Korean Studies at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center.

Andray was heavily involved in Choson Exchange, a nonprofit organization that trains North Koreans in economic policy and entrepreneurship, where he previously served as executive director and research director. That work, along with sporting exchanges and a TB project, has taken him to the DPRK over 30 times. He has also lived in Myanmar, where he taught at Yangon University and consulted for a risk management company. His research comparing the two countries resulted in the publication of North Korea and Myanmar: Divergent Paths (McFarland, 2018). His expert commentary on Korea and Myanmar has appeared in numerous outlets, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Reuters. 

Andray holds a PhD in international relations from the University of Ulsan, South Korea, and an MA from the University of Sussex, where he studied media discourse on North Korea and the U.S.-ROK alliance. He speaks Korean, sometimes with a Pyongyang accent.

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