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The Real North Korea

Are North Korea’s leaders insanely ideological – or merely pragmatic?

By Geoff Cain / May 10, 2013

The Real North Korea By Andrei Lankov Oxford University Press 304 pages

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For a glimpse into life in North Korea, take a peek into the country’s math textbooks. “During the Fatherland Liberation War [North Korea’s official name for the Korean War] the brave uncles of Korean People’s Army killed 265 American Imperial bastards in the first battle,” reads one question.

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“In the second battle they killed 70 more bastards than they had in the first battle. How many bastards did they kill in the second battle? How many bastards did they kill altogether?”

With prompts like that, readers can be forgiven for thinking that life in North Korea is erratic and strange, driven by a blusterous government and “insane ideological zeal,” writes Andrei Lankov in The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia.

For the most part, the so-called hermit state has failed to meet the basic needs of many of its people; an estimated 200,000 of them languish as political prisoners, according to the US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. The country indeed has errant political leanings, agrees Lankov. But its leaders, he argues, are not hellbent and crazy. Rather, in its quest for survival, North Korea’s elite political clique has fallen into a pattern of diplomacy – occasionally backed by nuclear bluster and blackmail, Lankov writes.

The goal? To get aid, money, and concessions from the outside world. It’s a desperate but perfectly rational strategy for a government that pours money into its military and faces the very basic need of self-preservation.

Pyongyang’s brinksmanship indeed appears risky at times,” writes Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, South Korea. “But so far North Korea’s leaders have known where to stop, how not to cross the red line, and how not to provoke an escalation of tensions into a full-scale war.”

Lankov, a prolific commentator on North Korea, is in a good position to make these judgments. In the 1980s, the Russian historian lived in Pyongyang as an exchange student. He’s also one of only a handful of North Korea experts proficient in the Korean language. Odd as it may seem, such a skill is actually a rarity among Pyongyang pundits.

Ever since the world’s most heavily sanctioned country kicked off its two-month bout of war threats earlier this year, commentators have stepped forward to explain what North Korea wants and why. But most of them can’t read Korean, and have never been to North Korea. Lankov’s background gives his book weight.

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