The Real North Korea

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

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

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.

“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.

He rightly insists that we must look to history to understand the nation’s strategy of using the Kim personality cult to resist reform. Founded in 1948, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the official name for the North, was in part a project of the Soviet Union. With tensions building up to the Korean War of 1950 to 1953, Moscow helped prop up the erstwhile guerrilla fighter Kim Il-sung. The “Great Leader” was then seen by his peers as a gauche and awkward figure, hardly fit for command. Yet today, the portly generalissimo is revered in valiant statues and portraits all across the country.

The North emerged from the devastating Korean War wealthier than its southern counterpart, then one of the world’s poorest countries. But the odd nature of North Korea’s government became increasingly apparent throughout the postwar era. Hoping for a Viet Cong-style insurrection in the late 1960s, North Korea attempted (and mostly failed) to infiltrate South Korean leftist groups. In the 1970s, in an effort to raise funds following a default on North Korea’s loans, North Korean officials turned to selling drugs out of the country’s embassies. And beginning in that decade all North Korean citizens were required to hang up a portrait of the “Great Leader” in their homes and regularly polish it.

When Soviet food and fuel subsidies collapsed in the early 1990s, the Kim dynasty – which was politically repressive yet still had popular support – chose to bolster itself through nuclear development rather than political reform. This choice came at a terrible cost. Resources poured into the military could have been used to allay a famine in the 1990s that left as many as 1 million North Koreans dead.

Lankov says that government repression in today’s North Korea surpasses the level found in the Soviet Union under Stalin.

Yet thanks to pirated DVDs and black market trade with China, many North Koreans today are aware of the growing wealth of their neighbors. If the government loosens its grip, the regime will collapse, says Lankov. “A large number of North Koreans would soon be exposed to dangerous knowledge of the outside world, and above all of South Korea,” he says. But even if it continues in its current state, North Korea will eventually disintegrate, he predicts.

Nevertheless, Lankov is mildly optimistic about the economy. Parts of the countryside suffer from food shortages, he says, but the days of famine are over. As for its future, Lankov writes, changes from the bottom and the expansion of black markets have shaken this closed society. North Korea’s garish nuclear threats reveal the nation to be a paper tiger. And yet, Lankov demonstrates, despite their pariah status, North Koreans are less crazy than the world imagines.

Geoffrey Cain is the senior correspondent covering North Korea for GlobalPost.

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