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North Korea Undercover: Inside the World's Most Secret State

3.60  ·  Rating details ·  1,104 ratings  ·  149 reviews
North Korea is like no other tyranny on earth. It is Orwell's 1984 made reality.

The regime controls the flow of information to its citizens, pouring relentless propaganda through omnipresent loud speakers. Free speech is an illusion: one word out of line and the gulag awaits. State spies are everywhere, ready to punish disloyalty and the slightest sign of discontent.

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Hardcover, 336 pages
Published July 15th 2015 by Pegasus Books (first published September 12th 2013)
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Average rating 3.60  · 
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 ·  1,104 ratings  ·  149 reviews

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11811 (Eleven)
Mar 16, 2017 rated it really liked it
Journalists have a knack for making this sort of material more accessible than the average historian but I can't say I learned anything that can't be found on Wikipedia. I was however reminded of things I had forgotten and enjoyed the reading experience. The use of humor was well played and I'm fortunate to be a fan of inappropriate humor. ...more
It looks more like a tourist reviewing a place he had visited rather than an undercover story.

In my own opinion, the book does not cover much in depth details of the DPRK regime as compared to other books such as "Nothing to Envy" and "The aquarium of Pyongyang". This book-"North Korea Undercover" merely covers the brief facts on the regime where one can finds easily on the web. There are also no first hand encounter from the Author nor any interviews from Defectors or North Koreans.

However, on
Clare O'Beara
I found this an interesting though depressing read. We don't know exactly what goes on inside North Korea nor how many people starve to death or are jailed for life in cold gulags; but thanks to various journalists and escapees we have a fair idea. John Sweeney of BBC clearly despises the personality cult and brainwashing, having exposed Scientology. He found a similar, profitable but deadlier cult in NK on his undercover visit.

Now, Sweeney did not do anything but pose as a history professor to
Dec 27, 2015 rated it it was ok
I have varying thoughts. North Korea Undercover started out really well, with catchy writing and a promising narrative. I certainly agree with him that North Korea is an evil regime and I appreciated the historical and cultural summary.
The analysis bored me, however. Sweeney is immensely repetitive. He repeats the same stories and facts over and over. He occasionally fleshes the stories out near the end of the book, but by that point I had fully chewed over the information and was done with it.
Angus McKeogh
Oct 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Great book! Highly interesting. Extremely well written with sarcasm and tongue-in-cheek humor. It’s such a weird, weird world. And sad. It’s true. Highly recommended!
Sep 29, 2015 rated it it was ok
Shelves: nonfiction
2.5 stars for readability. 1.5 stars for content.

North Korea always fascinates. When I hear about new books on the subject I generally order copies from the library. This one doesn't live up to its billing. It doesn't contribute to our knowledge of North Korea, and there's nothing "undercover" about it, save for the author passing himself off to NK authorities as a teacher rather than a journalist.

North Korea Undercover is little more than a diary of a tourist visit to Pyongyang, where Sweeney's
For an undercover investigative journalist in the strangest country on the planet, John Sweeney has managed to write an incredibly dry book. He has spent little time on his own experience, preferring instead to regurgitate numerous quotes and paraphrase at length from other books about North Korea. It's quite an achievement to illegally enter the world's most dangerous, least democratic country and film the regime; even more so to do that and then make it sound dull and dry! ...more
Matthew Ciarvella
Jul 25, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2015
It was tough to decide what to rate this one; at various points in the book, my opinion veered anywhere from 2 to 4 stars. Overall, though, I liked the book, even loved it in a few places.

The good: Sweeney has an amazing talent to interview people in connection with North Korea that provided some fascinating stories. The chapter where he talks with two guys from the IRA who trained in North Korea before getting kicked out for bad behavior? Awesome, interesting, and way too brief for how interest
Talya Boerner
Oct 03, 2017 rated it really liked it
Given what’s going on in our world today, we should all educate ourselves on the world’s most secret state. North Korea Undercover would be a timely read for Halloween, only this is real life, and Kim Jong Un’s vileness should not be underestimated. Part exposé, part travelogue, the author writes of his time in North Korea posing as a history professor. He mixes his observations with other first-hand accounts of those once inside who lived to tell about it. Bottom line… the people of North Korea ...more
Dale Pearl
Worst non fiction book that I have ever read. Terrible is an understatement. The writing is all over the place, many sentences simply do not translate very well, and to top it off the content is more like a tourist log than any type of undercover expose.
I am not sure who John Sweeney's target audience is. Maybe that is why it is so bad as I don't think he has one. The only person who could remotely find value in this book would be a former Korean who has fled to the nether regions of the world.
Jamie Z
Apr 26, 2018 rated it it was amazing
We all think we know how bad the situation is in North Korea, however this is a very eye-opening read. The picture is grim. The brainwashing of the people and the severe impact that has had on the population is particularly disturbing. The rule of an sadistic dictator is bad enough, but to be brainwashed to think this the best possible way to live and that life is completely normal is terrifying. Read this and begin to understand the true terror of the Kim dictatorship.
Apratim Mukherjee
This book has a misappropriate title.It should be Stories from North Korea.John Sweeney talks about his travel less and more about defectors.Many a page are wasted in facts known to the world already.Moreover a whole chapter on IRA is added for no reason.I will give it two stars.The one extra star is for information in the book.
Author's travel narrative style rivals that of Bill Bryson. Unfortunately, the excellent narration didn't prevent me from losing interest regularly during the journalistic (second-hand) reports of conditions there.

May 05, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I didn’t realize how little I know about this country. This book has inspired me to continue to research and seek additional information about North Korea and read historical accounts of other dictatorships.
2.5 stars.

North Korea is one of the most intriguing places on earth. It’s a real life dystopia, and honestly during parts of this book I would have sworn Orwell was a fortune teller.

I’m just not sure Sweeney was the right person to tell its stories. He seems to leap-frog between concepts and theories, citing hundreds of other researchers and essentially recommending you go read their books instead. Advice I probably should’ve taken.

Some stories (like the one about Kim Jong Un’s former lover,
Jan 09, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Highly recommend this book if you are looking for an insight into North Korea written in layman's terms. ...more
Will Staunton
Aug 30, 2017 rated it really liked it
While North Korea is not a place that lends itself to levity, John Sweeney brings his very British wit to bear on the absurdity that is the Kim dynasty. The book could be seen as a beginner's guide to the country and its history, and paints a picture in broad strokes through Sweeney's first hand experiences and interviews with escaped North Koreans, diplomats, and other political figures.

The book could have used another round of edits, as Sweeney tends to repeat himself, but we can forgive him
Jun 06, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: asia, history, first-reads
(Full Disclosure: I received a copy of this book for free through Goodreads' Giveaway program. However, the views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of the author, the publisher, or Goodreads).

In 2002, Pres. George W. Bush famously called North Korea, along with Iran and Iraq, a member of the "Axis of Evil." While this was a rhetorical ploy used to give him cover to invade Iraq a year later, as this book shows, Pres. Bush was not wrong about the North Korean regime being evil. Part ex
May 14, 2016 rated it really liked it
While most of the reviews of this book have skewered it for using other sources (great books like The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag or Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea), I think those reviewers have missed the point.

This book is a travelogue, sure, but also includes a lot of history about North Korea and the Kim family, all packaged in a very pop-culture, palatable presentation. The audience for this book is not wannabe North Korean scholars. It isn't
Apr 07, 2015 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I bought this book 8 months ago after reading a fantastic book - "The Aquariums of Pyongyang", which is a memoir of the ten year imprisonment of a young boy in a North Korean concentration camp before he made his escape.

I wanted to know more about North Korea after reading that book and when I saw "North Korea Undercover", which is seemingly about a BBC journalist travelling undercover to North Korea, I was hooked and bought the book.

Unfortunately, that probably was the best part of the book fo
Kristin Strong
Nov 01, 2015 rated it it was ok
Could have been half as long. This is a glorified travelogue chronicling the author's eight-day trip to the DPRK with a group of students from the London School of Economics. There's not much juicy insider stuff here, as the group of foreigners sees only what the regime-provided minders want them to see. The history included is better read elsewhere, as it's not told in a linear manner and only served to confuse me, as it was hard to recall whether it was the Great Leader or the Dear Leader who ...more
Feb 14, 2015 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Undercover mission of John Sweeney failed big time. This book could have been so much more, while I have had a constant feeling that the author was not perceptive nor interested enough to grasp what he could from his visit to North Korea. You would expect some details, some descriptions, stories, images... instead what you get is John's biased humor and not-so-funny jokes.
You can easily book a trip to North Korea yourself as well and I guarantee that you would have more to say afterwards than J
James Cogbill
Jul 29, 2017 rated it really liked it
John Sweeney provides an excellent review of the history and ongoing tragedy of the totalitarian regime north of the DMZ and the bizarre/evil Kim Dynasty. Using accounts of defectors, significant research, and his own "undercover" trip to North Korea under the guise of a visiting LSE professor, Sweeney provides an astounding level of detail and his own personal reflections on the evils of the regime. He offers a policy prescription of attempting to open the closed society to news of the outside ...more
Apr 10, 2014 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Hmm - not keen on Sweeney's writing style at all but at least the reader can glean a little information about this secretive country.

Overall I was disappointed by the lack of solid information; surely more photos were taken than those included, given the number of people in the group, and more pics would have been more interesting and revealing than Sweeney's the countless references to other people's research.

Some of the links to web sites and articles were useful, but the book itself didn't re
Sep 06, 2016 rated it liked it
I'm fascinated by North Korea, which is really an alternate reality on Earth. The Kims have a lot to answer for to the millions of North Koreans spanning generations lost since its founding.

The book adopts an incredulous tone throughout the narrative that I thought detracted from the book a little. Sweeney's feelings are understandable, and rightly so, but the way it seeps into the text makes the book more emotional than factual. I realize, of course, no text on any subject is free from emotion
Jul 15, 2017 rated it really liked it
John Sweeney has written an illuminating book about North Korea, thick with sarcasm and indignation. Though people serious about subject probably won't glean much, beginners like me will appreciate everything this book has to offer. It's a little bit of everything; history, politics, exposé, and travel journalism, all written by a man who has decades of experience writing about tyrannical governments and organizations. His tongue and cheek observations will make you laugh out loud and then you'l ...more
Elisabeth Cole
Dec 06, 2016 rated it liked it
This book didn't have anything I haven't heard somewhere else. The author was honest about being biased and had no qualms about it. He came across as almost disrespectful at times in the book, with his actions and comments during his tour of North Korea. A lot of the book addressed his thoughts about what he suspected certain things meant and of course it always included something nefarious. Kind of got tedious but I did get through the whole thing. ...more
Daniel Gaddy
Jun 02, 2017 rated it it was amazing
If you're interested in North Korea, but haven't read much about it, this would be a great book to read first. He crams so much great stuff into it. He covers the country's general history and includes the individual stories of people who experienced the worst of the regime. But he also includes his own story of experiencing a tour of North Korea after telling officials that he was a history professor. The whole time he's incredibly cheeky about the craziness of the Kim dynasty. ...more
Ruben Malakyan
Jul 17, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
This amazing narrative by J. Sweeney sheds a lot of light on an otherwise secluded and secretive regime that is North Korea. With witty jokes and funny anecdotes, this easy-flowing book is most certainly something that you want to have if you are intersested in North Korea. The narrative is sometimes monotonous and repetitive but otherwise everything is very well organized to tell the REAL STORY behind this communist regime.
This irreverently written book on North Korea is part history, part travelogue. The strange world of the DPRK is laid bare, with stories of kidnapped Romanian artists, defecting American servicemen, obsequious minders, and vainglorious leaders who let their people starve while they dine on imported delicacies made by internationally renowned chefs.
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John Sweeney is an award-winning journalist and author, currently working as an investigative journalist for the BBC's Panorama series. Before joining the BBC in 2001, Sweeney worked for twelve years at The Observer, where he covered wars and revolutions in more than sixty countries including Romania, Algeria, Iraq, Chechnya, Burundi and Bosnia.

In 1996, He was sued for criminal defamation in Fran

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