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

Andrei Lankov, author of The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia, originally from Leningrad when it was Leningrad, is currently a history professor in Seoul. He was an exchange student in Pyongyang, is fluent in Korean and a prolific author of articles and books on North Korea; a previous book North of the DMZ (2007) reproduced more than one hundred essays on daily life in North Korea written for Seoul’s Korea Times.

Lankov is a fluent and knowledgeable writer as well as an established expert on the North, and what he tells us about the country is sharply and profoundly at odds with perceived wisdom in the West. First, he argues for the essential rationality of the North. Its prime focus is survival of the regime and—on this basis—its actions are logical. In Lankov’s view, the North’s Korea Central News Agency was entirely right in March 2011 when it said that the lessons of the Libyan crisis were that “peace can be preserved only when one builds up one’s own strength.”

Second, he argues that the market in North Korea now plays such a strong role in the economy that the state is incapable of putting the genie back in the bottle. Nevertheless, the economy is distorted by biases in favor of the military and the party—themselves economic actors—and against the “nouveau riche” kiosk capitalists emerging from the barely permissible margins of the economy. With Marx’s final departure from Kim Il Sung Square in April 2012, the model is management buy-out rather than workers’ control.

No, North Korea is not a pleasant place. There are massive camps filled with those who have fallen out of favour with the regime and those who have ended up on the wrong side of a faction fight. But in The Real North Korea the situation is—slowly—changing for the better. After Kim Jong Il came to power, family punishment was relaxed for all but the most serious crimes. Crossing the border to China had been downgraded to a minor offence in 1996—unless one consorted with the foreigners or South Korean Christian Evangelicals proselytizing the gospel to “godless”. It turns out the average “defector”—as described in the West—is not some fleeing youthful intellectual or reluctant general but a rural housewife in her fifties.

Lankov’s position is that the siamese twins of North and South need separating. This was partially accomplished in the period 1945-51 when millions on both sides of the 38th-parallel line-of-control chose between Moscow and Washington and moved accordingly. At the time, the North was more tempting than the South but millions moved in both directions.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, both sides continued with guerrilla warfare, infiltration and assassination, while the North, at least, organized underground political parties such as the short-lived Revolutionary Party of National Unification in the early 1960s some of whose militants spent over thirty years in jail incognito until released during Kim Dae-jung’s Presidency.

North and South have continued to move in opposite directions and their differences have spilled out over the borders into other countries. The reflection of post-war politics among the Korean diaspora has its remnants in Japan. Some 600,000 2nd, 3rd and 4th Generation “Overseas Citizens of North Korea” remain with their own schools, universities and communities isolated from the Japanese mainstream despite almost 100,000 having returned to the North in the late 1950s and early 60s as much pushed by Tokyo—fearing fifth columnists—as pulled by Pyongyang.

For Lankov, the least worst option for the North would be its incorporation into a wider Korean autonomous state under the suzerainty of the People’s Republic of China. That’s likely to go down as badly in Seoul, where they still routinely appoint governors of North Korean provinces, as in Pyongyang which only formally abandoned Seoul as the capital in 1972. Both sides are “in denial”.

The one thing that is very much off the agenda for economic, political and social reasons is peaceful unification. But the sooner they learn to live together separately, the better for all concerned.

It however remains to be seen whether Lankov’s book will cause the slightest pause for thought in Washington and other western capitals.

Ford, G. (2013). The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia by Andrei Lankov, Asian Review of Books, 7 August.

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