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FDL Book Salon Welcomes Andrei Lankov, The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia

Welcome Andrei Lankov (Kookmin University) (Wiki) and Host Karin J. Lee (Executive Director, The National Committee on North Korea – NCNK) (author,  U.S. – DPRK Educational Exchanges: Assessment and Future Strategy)

The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia

Over the last several decades North Korea has had a low profile here in the United States. Other than a few magazines articles inaccurately portraying the country’s second leader, Kim Jong Il, as “irrational,” the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (or DPRK, the official name of North Korea) might as well be the forgotten country, to go along with the forgotten Korean War. But the third leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un, accomplished something his father and grandfather never managed to do: introduce the world to dueling images of North Korean modernity. On the one hand, there is popular culture – the young leader watching basketball with Dennis Rodman or enjoying a Mickey Mouse vignette with his hip, gorgeous wife. On the other hand, there are the advances in North Korea’s weapons program — — a third nuclear test, photos of Kim Jong Un in consultation with military leaders in front of a map of the world showing four military targets in the United States (despite the fact that North Korea has yet to successfully test a missile with that range).

What lies between these two extreme images remains difficult to explain or assess. True, the DPRK is far less isolated than portrayed in the United States. Chinese and European entrepreneurs take their chances doing business with the DPRK, North Korean students study abroad in China and Europe, well-heeled tourists can and do visit the country, and the Associated Press bureau chief on the Korean Peninsula spends half her time in the North. But there is still limited access to information, particularly regarding the lives of ordinary North Koreans.

Into this void comes Andrei Lankov with his book, The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia, which includes a brief though useful history of the country’s foundation, an essential review of the impact of the DPRK’s economic decline, an explanation of the North’s domestic and foreign policy strategies, and a pragmatic exploration of policy options. The book, though rich in information and analysis, remains accessible to the general reader, in part because it is peppered with illuminating vignettes and anecdotes.

Lankov is well-known in North Korea policy circles, especially for his condemnation of human rights abuses and impatience with economic policy choices that have the left the DPRK far poorer than its neighbors. Yet Lankov corrects the irritating and unhelpful tendency to view North Korea as a nation of evil perpetrators and their helpless victims. Instead, he describes a society of ordinary people who are not “brainwashed automatons,” an all-too-common assumption of human rights activists who want to “save” the North Korean people. It helps that unlike many authors writing in English he is fluent in Korean and therefore able to draw on a wide range of sources, including interviews with Koreans and reviews of North Korean propaganda.

One of the book’s highlights is the correction of the commonly held assumption that the DPRK has remained static since its foundation. As he explains, the collapse of the Soviet bloc has deeply and irrevocably changed North Korean society: “Post-1994 North Korea is very different from the country established and run by Kim Il Sung. It might be run by the same people (or their children and nephews) and the state may sound the same, but its society is very, very different.”

To me, this section is the heart of his book; it provides the basis for his explanations of North Korea’s domestic and foreign policy choices, (including the leadership’s fears that broad economic or political changes would loosen the leadership’s hold on its country), and guides his policy recommendations. Lankov believes that Kim Il Sung’s DPRK is slowly being replaced by a new society and “contradictions between the existing, old political order and the emerging social order will lead to more rapid change, and – just as importantly-to the demand for more rapid change. Where these demands will end, we cannot as yet be sure.”

An historian of strong opinions, Lankov confidently predicts possible futures for the DPRK, all of which involve some form of collapse or regime change. Lankov is difficult to categorize; he is a “hardliner” who advocates increasing the information flow into the DPRK through radio programming and engagement, including educational exchanges. He concludes that

The North Korean problem has no simple or quick solutions. Negotiations and concession will not help much, while pressure and sanctions will be even less useful. We should therefore brace ourselves for a long, winding and occasionally dangerous drive.

And, while he is unsparing of his criticism of the DPRK leadership, the US and the South Korea also come under fire for their bad policy choices. He is unable to resist mocking some North Korean peculiarities, but he brings to his topic something that is rare for authors tackling the question of what makes North Korea tick: affection and un-patronizing concern for the North Korean people and even some compassion for the North Korean leadership.

His perspective may be derived from his experiences growing up in the Soviet Union, his time as an exchange student in the DPRK, and his extensive conversations with North Koreans now living in the South. Although Lankov likely is despised by the North Korean leadership, this emotional connection with his subject distinguishes his book from others that try to explain the communist state.

Much has happened since Lankov finished his provocative book, including a successful North Korean satellite launch and the third nuclear test, a further round of UN sanctions, DPRK nuclear threats on the United States, and the closure of the Kaesong Industrial Complex (the decade-old economic zone established by the ROK just over the DMZ in the North). I look forward to discussing the book as well as learning his views on these developments and whether they influence his predictions for the future. Please join is in what is likely to be a refreshingly substantive and creative conversation about the DPRK.

Book SalonCommunity

FDL Book Salon Welcomes Andrei Lankov, The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia

Welcome Andrei Lankov (Kookmin University) (Wiki) and Host Karin J. Lee (Executive Director, The National Committee on North Korea – NCNK) (author,  U.S. – DPRK Educational Exchanges: Assessment and Future Strategy)

The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia

Over the last several decades North Korea has had a low profile here in the United States. Other than a few magazines articles inaccurately portraying the country’s second leader, Kim Jong Il, as “irrational,” the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (or DPRK, the official name of North Korea) might as well be the forgotten country, to go along with the forgotten Korean War. But the third leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un, accomplished something his father and grandfather never managed to do: introduce the world to dueling images of North Korean modernity. On the one hand, there is popular culture – the young leader watching basketball with Dennis Rodman or enjoying a Mickey Mouse vignette with his hip, gorgeous wife. On the other hand, there are the advances in North Korea’s weapons program — — a third nuclear test, photos of Kim Jong Un in consultation with military leaders in front of a map of the world showing four military targets in the United States (despite the fact that North Korea has yet to successfully test a missile with that range). (more…)

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