The Real North Korea: by Andrei Lankov

I’m fascinated by North Korea and have no idea why.   I’ve read 3 books about it now and this is probably the one most fact-based.  The others were  “The Orphan Master’s Son” by Adam Johnson,  and “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea”  by Barbara Demick about the lives of six defectors from North Korea.   At this point I feel like I have a fair background in the subject but I’m always watching the news and the new books.

The Real North Korea:  Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia
by Andrei Lankov
2013  / 303 pages
read by Steven Roy Grimsley 10h 59m
rating:  8+  / nonfiction 
(very little listening) 

Andrei Lankov is a Russian scholar of Asia and a world renowned specialist in Korean studies.  He has personal background from his days as a young exchange student from St Petersburg and many subsequent visits.  He currently lives in South Korea from where he writes columns for the English-language daily The Korea Times[6] and for Al Jazeera English.[7]

On Lankov:
NK News:

Lankov presents a fascinating look into the history of North Korea which is really only about 70 years old – since the end of WWII and the partition of Korea.  The Kim family dynasty/monarchy/dictatorship is central starting from the staunchly Stalinist Kim Il Song.  who was appointed by the Stalin at a time when there were very few Communists in North Korea.    His son  Kim Jong Il carried the mantle from Song’s death in 1994 until 2012 when he died leaving the young (age 32)  Kim Jung Un in power.

The section dealing with the differences between the war-end collapses in North Korea and Vietnam  is very interesting as is the family soap opera section.

The individual names of the leaders have changed,  but only some of the over-riding policy has.  Interaction with the world has happened in spite of the efforts to control it.   North Korea is one of the most backward nations on earth and yet it manages to manipulate world attention and concessions.  The people are starving (or were for many years) but the saber-rattling and research-oriented military gets most of the spending because big weapons can scare world neighbors into giving aid,  preferably without effective controls. But if controls are set these can be avoided – and any promises North Korea makes tend to be broken when they become inconvenient.    Basically,  the Kim family is protecting itself.

After four interesting chapters of history of all kinds,  personal and family as well as socio-political and economic,  Lankov moves to the future – what will happen next?   –  What are the priorities of the countries who continue to give North Korea aid- of China and Russia and others,  the US? –  Why does the carrot and the stick not work?  What are North Korea’s priorities?  Why is collapse of some kind inevitable?  And what kind of a collapse will that be,  in what way will reunification be a part of it, or will it?   How will different scenarios work out in terms of nuclear weapons,  immigration,  the Kim family,  etc.

The book is structured with the turn to the future at about 2/3 through and then comes an “Intermission” to preview or prologue the switch.  It works well –  like “Considering what we’ve learned,  what are the various scenarios which could likely transpire in the future?”

Also about the structure there are various magazine style inserts which depict less important aspects of the situation.   “The Sorry Fate of Katya Sintsova”  and “A Flower of Unification”  are two of the titles.

Lankov’s narrative is very well organized and he writes almost like a native,  there are places where a word seems to be missing or a correct verb tense is lost in a complex sentence structure.  Not enough to be really annoying.  It is a bit dryly academic compared to other nonfiction accounts which tend to try to “read like a novel.”   I think this is a matter of taste.   It took quite a while

If you’re interested in North Korea but don’t have a lot of background this is an excellent book to get up to speed.  A few things have happened since 2012, it’s really more of the same,  but there will come a time when it will all change.

Washington Post: 


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2 Responses to The Real North Korea: by Andrei Lankov

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    North Korea depresses me…
    The example of Northern Ireland inspires me: after decades of violence, a peace deal was negotiated, largely due to the efforts of an amazing woman, Mo Mowlam. And it’s still holding – although there are breakouts every now and again, both sides are doing everything they can to keep their hotheads in line. So sometimes when I’m feeling optimistic, I think, well, it might be possible to get a peace deal in the Middle East. But Korea? I can’t muster a shred of optimism about Korea.


  2. I suppose North Korea is depressing in that there will likely not be a “negotiated” settlement, not the way the family Kim plays their games. But it will collapse as all the Stalinist countries have been doing in one way or anther. China has good reason to keep North Korea from actually exploding and South Korea has been trying to work with the North on mutually beneficial projects. Ireland didn’t have the issue of Stalinism but religous convictions are almost the same – also, no weapons of mass destruction there. . The Middle East difficulties involve both religious issues and nuclear capability and the world seems to be divided about resolution. After this book I’m more worried about that area than North Korea which has very few friends left, their old machinery and technology are almost antiquated, and world leaders are not so willing to be coerced into giving aid.


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