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

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Andrei Lankov has gone where few outsiders have ever been. A native of the former Soviet Union, he lived as an exchange student in North Korea in the 1980s. He has studied it for his entire career, using his fluency in Korean and personal contacts to build a rich, nuanced understanding. In The Real North Korea, Lankov substitutes cold, clear analysis for the overheated rhe Andrei Lankov has gone where few outsiders have ever been. A native of the former Soviet Union, he lived as an exchange student in North Korea in the 1980s. He has studied it for his entire career, using his fluency in Korean and personal contacts to build a rich, nuanced understanding. In The Real North Korea, Lankov substitutes cold, clear analysis for the overheated rhetoric surrounding this opaque police state. After providing an accessible history of the nation, he turns his focus to what North Korea is, what its leadership thinks, and how its people cope with living in such an oppressive and poor place. He argues that North Korea is not irrational, and nothing shows this better than its continuing survival against all odds. A living political fossil, it clings to existence in the face of limited resources and a zombie economy, manipulating great powers despite its weakness. Its leaders are not ideological zealots or madmen, but perhaps the best practitioners of Machiavellian politics that can be found in the modern world. Even though they preside over a failed state, they have successfully used diplomacy-including nuclear threats-to extract support from other nations. But while the people in charge have been ruthless and successful in holding on to power, Lankov goes on to argue that this cannot continue forever, since the old system is slowly falling apart. In the long run, with or without reform, the regime is unsustainable. Lankov contends that reforms, if attempted, will trigger a dramatic implosion of the regime. They will not prolong its existence. Based on vast expertise, this book reveals how average North Koreans live, how their leaders rule, and how both survive.


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Andrei Lankov has gone where few outsiders have ever been. A native of the former Soviet Union, he lived as an exchange student in North Korea in the 1980s. He has studied it for his entire career, using his fluency in Korean and personal contacts to build a rich, nuanced understanding. In The Real North Korea, Lankov substitutes cold, clear analysis for the overheated rhe Andrei Lankov has gone where few outsiders have ever been. A native of the former Soviet Union, he lived as an exchange student in North Korea in the 1980s. He has studied it for his entire career, using his fluency in Korean and personal contacts to build a rich, nuanced understanding. In The Real North Korea, Lankov substitutes cold, clear analysis for the overheated rhetoric surrounding this opaque police state. After providing an accessible history of the nation, he turns his focus to what North Korea is, what its leadership thinks, and how its people cope with living in such an oppressive and poor place. He argues that North Korea is not irrational, and nothing shows this better than its continuing survival against all odds. A living political fossil, it clings to existence in the face of limited resources and a zombie economy, manipulating great powers despite its weakness. Its leaders are not ideological zealots or madmen, but perhaps the best practitioners of Machiavellian politics that can be found in the modern world. Even though they preside over a failed state, they have successfully used diplomacy-including nuclear threats-to extract support from other nations. But while the people in charge have been ruthless and successful in holding on to power, Lankov goes on to argue that this cannot continue forever, since the old system is slowly falling apart. In the long run, with or without reform, the regime is unsustainable. Lankov contends that reforms, if attempted, will trigger a dramatic implosion of the regime. They will not prolong its existence. Based on vast expertise, this book reveals how average North Koreans live, how their leaders rule, and how both survive.

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

  1. 5 out of 5

    Maciek

    This is a great book for those wishing to understand North Korea - how the country was formed, how it operates, and what drives it today. Andrei Lankov is a Russian scholar of Asia who specializes in Korea, and has lived in the North as a Soviet exchange student during the 1980's, attending Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang. Lankov is fluent in Russian, English and Korean, and currently lives and teaches in Seoul at Kookmin University. The Real North Korea could well have been titled North Kore This is a great book for those wishing to understand North Korea - how the country was formed, how it operates, and what drives it today. Andrei Lankov is a Russian scholar of Asia who specializes in Korea, and has lived in the North as a Soviet exchange student during the 1980's, attending Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang. Lankov is fluent in Russian, English and Korean, and currently lives and teaches in Seoul at Kookmin University. The Real North Korea could well have been titled North Korea for Beginners - Lankov not only present a compact and accessible history of the country, but provides insight into the mechanics of its government and daily life of its people, and presents his own thoughts on the country's future and the challenges it will face. Lankov's observations on North Korea are fascinating. His central thesis is that North Korean leaders are not the irrational, fanatic despots that their public image would suggest. The Kim dynasty is bound on remaining in power, and understands very well that the current economic system not only can't compete internationally but is woefully inefficient on domestic level (one just has to remember the horrible North Korean famine in the late 1990's, where a conservative estimate of victims begins in hundreds of thousands). So the question is: How can a state which is unable to feed its own people continue to exist in the 21st century? Lankov's answer is a simple one, and requires just two words - Foreign Aid! The Kim dynasty and the North Korean elite is well aware of the inefficiency of their system, and will regularly threat stability of the whole region to extort foreign aid not only from Beijing or Moscow, but also from officially hostile government, such as those in Washington and Seoul. North Korea depends on aid for its very existence - two thirds of its population struggles every day to secure their daily meals. If the situation is so dire, why won't the ruling elite implement a set of economic reforms to improve the situation - especially after such reforms elevated neighboring China to one of the world's largest economies? The answer is also simple: the ruling elite is very aware that any reforms are a threat to the current system which guarantees their hold on power, and could possibly end up in a revolution which would remove them from it - the very same civilians who toil the fields in poverty would be the first to reach for their throats, and if they were to survive they would undoubtedly be prosecuted by international courts. To maintain their secure and privileged status, the regime acts coldly and rationally in the only way it can to protect its own best interest - by maintaining a failed and inefficient system, and extorting foreign aid in a manipulative, Machiavellian way. North Korea has no intention of starting any real conflict simply because it is not in the interest of its rulers - while its army is large in number it's relatively unsophisticated, and reliant on old equipment which is often obsolete by modern standards. It would ultimately be outmatched by a modern military, and resulted in the regime being removed from power. Despite that, Lankov argues against a military intervention, even if it were to be completely selfless and meant only to liberate North Koreans. North Korea is a very mountainous country, which is poor for agricultural development but excellent for guerrilla warfare - which would be very bloody and could potentially last for decades, as the various armies which invaded Afghanistan have so painfully learned. Even if the resistance were to be ultimately wiped out, the cost in lives on both sides would be enormous - a good comparison which comes to mind is an allied land invasion of Japan during the second World War, a plan which was abandoned for precisely the same reason. But Japan was not and is not a nuclear power - unlike North Korea, which if attacked with a nuclear bomb could not reach Europe or the Americas with its own missiles, but would be able to turn greater Seoul - and its 25 million people - into a sea of fire. Unless the world is perfectly okay with sending generations of soldiers to fight and die in a decade long conflict with a 21st century Viet Cong or the total destruction of the Korean peninsula, a military intervention is best left out of the question. Still, certain improvements have surfaced in North Korea in recent years, and the country is in a very different state than it was when it was first ruled by Kim Il-sung. This is mostly because of the inevitable influx of information and media from China and South Korea into the North. Pyongyang has department stores with foreign goods and fancy restaurants; Over a million people own a mobile phone, and having a personal computer is not unheard of (the latest fashion fad among privileged Pyongyang teens is wearing USB sticks on a necklace). The government tolerates small farmer markets, described by Lankov as "capitalism from below", and which often are the main source for goods and income in certain ares of the country. Punishment for various crimes - severe and ordinary - has been reduced. Lankov's analysis is particularly interesting, as so far it's the only report I've read on the country which was written by a scholar who actually lived there, and is not a refugee. Most material on North Korea is written either by foreign analysts with very limited access to the country itself, or by refugees who were born in North Korea and defected to another country - usually South Korea. As a former Soviet foreign student in Pyongyang, Lankov is in a unique system to compare the North Korean and Soviet system and society - and draw interesting parallels and differences. While the Soviet Union can be considered a totalitarian state for much of its history, Lankov argues that the level of repression in North Korea was much higher, especially during the Kim Il-sung era - who, in Lankov's words, managed to out-Stalin Stalin himself. A good example are the draconian travel restrictions - while certain cities in the Soviet Union were closed to the public (mostly for military reasons) and travel abroad was indeed restricted if not impossible, short-time domestic travel was relatively free and unrestricted. In comparison, for decades North Koreans needed special permits to leave their home counties - and still do, although, they are much easier to obtain after the Great Famine as officials can be bribed to issue one. Nowadays, North Koreans can even apply for a permit to legally cross the border with China. A change is brewing for North Korea - and Lankov argues that it is unavoidable. The last portion of the book consists of his speculations about the future for post-Kim North Korea. Much space is devoted to possible unification with the South - which, if not carefully guarded, will not be beneficial for the North. For Lankov the North needs to be protected from the harmful, uncontrolled shock therapy which swept through eastern Europe in the 1990's and resulted in what can only be described as a robbery: selling off state enterprises for pennies to private investors in rigged contracts and destruction of entire industries. Ordinary North Koreans would have to be protected from scams and frauds which would be undoubtedly set up to exploit them; millions of engineers, doctors and soldiers would soon learn that their knowledge from the North is largely incomplete at best and completely obsolete at worst, placing them many years behind the Southerners, able to work only in menial and low-skilled jobs. To truly benefit all Koreans, unification would have to cost billions of dollars, be gradual, and last for decades, as it would have to unify one people but two very different nations. Lankov does a great job at maintaining a neutral and academic tone throughout the book, and although English is not his first language he is fluent in it and very readable, if a bit dry in places; he does his subject justice and has written an excellent and valuable work on North Korea, which I can recommend to anyone interested in the country. Also worth reading (reviewed and recommended by me): Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea - a captivating vision of North Korea seen through the eyes of six defectors. B.R. Myers's - The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters - a short but comprehensive study of internal North Korean propaganda and its impact on the nation - the answer to why North Korea is not a communist country, and more.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Louise

    Andrei Lankov is uniquely qualified to write this book. Having grown up in Russia, graduating from Leningrad State University and studying as an exchange student in the 1980’s at Pyongyang Kim Il-sung University, he has lived under communism and the aftermath of dictatorship. Currently a professor of history at Kookmin University in Seoul, his lifelong research is on North Korea where he has an extensive contacts inside and outside of the county. While on the surface it appears the North Korean’ Andrei Lankov is uniquely qualified to write this book. Having grown up in Russia, graduating from Leningrad State University and studying as an exchange student in the 1980’s at Pyongyang Kim Il-sung University, he has lived under communism and the aftermath of dictatorship. Currently a professor of history at Kookmin University in Seoul, his lifelong research is on North Korea where he has an extensive contacts inside and outside of the county. While on the surface it appears the North Korean’s rulers are bizarre madmen, Lankov shows how their decisions are rational responses to their need to survive and pass on their achievements to their families. For them, the alternative is unthinkable since they understand that their wealth (at the top) or modest life style (for the “elite”) has been built on the suffering of others. Figures are hard to come by, but there may be a 1:40 disparity in personal wealth of North and South Korea. This knowledge is far more dangerous than the Chinese under Mao knowing the wealth of Japan, or Brezhnev’s Russians knowing the lifestyle of those in Europe. Those discrepancies were not as great and could be explained away, but the North/South gap, which gets deeper each year, poses questions about “Great Leader” and “Dear Leader”. Lankov shows how keeping knowledge of the world outside is getting more and more difficult. The comparisons of life in the Kim regimes to life in Stalin’s are most interesting. Lankov describes the different living conditions, mobility, individualism, the penal system, defection, agricultural policy and more. In each category, life under Stalin was comparatively open. The few breaks in surveillance system are usually from bribing lower level officials, and a sign of change it that this is getting more and more common. Since the country cannot provide for its needs and Soviet largess has dried up, North Korea has become skilled in using threats regarding its nuclear program to extract aid. There are smaller schemes such as bootlegging and counterfeiting. A few North-South cooperative projects (these have ramifications for information control) are discussed. Lankov concludes with how the regime might end and what can be done to minimize its fall out. Here Lankov uses examples from the changes in different social and political climates in the Soviet satellites fared and the lessons that could be applied to North Korea. This book delves behind the history and policy behind the lives described in Barbara Deming's Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. If you are at all interested in North Korea, how it got this way and what can(‘t) be done about it, this is a must read.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Daniel Roy

    At last, here is an antidote to all the media hysteria about North Korea. Andrei Lankov is one of the top experts on the subject, and as a historian, he cuts through the bluster and the posturing to offer a realpolitik analysis of the Kim family regime. His central thesis makes a great deal of sense: the North Korean political elite do not act the way they do out of irrationality and fanaticism. This is merely what they want the world to believe in order to extract much-needed foreign aid from re At last, here is an antidote to all the media hysteria about North Korea. Andrei Lankov is one of the top experts on the subject, and as a historian, he cuts through the bluster and the posturing to offer a realpolitik analysis of the Kim family regime. His central thesis makes a great deal of sense: the North Korean political elite do not act the way they do out of irrationality and fanaticism. This is merely what they want the world to believe in order to extract much-needed foreign aid from reluctant countries such as the United States and South Korea. They are intelligent, resourceful, and utterly ruthless individuals who are quite willing to trigger international crises to get what they want, and will go to any length to protect themselves from a possible regime collapse. I particularly liked how Lankov drew on his own Soviet background to contrast the Kim family regime with Stalin's Russia and other communist regimes. This was a truly novel perspective on the DPRK for me. Lankov also draws from personal experience on a number of topics, having lived in Pyongyang for a year as an exchange student, and discussing with many North Koreans from all walks of life. Do note that this book is academic. It's pretty dry in places, and is probably a tough read if one has only a passing interest in North Korea. But for serious North Korean watchers, this book is a goldmine of information and analysis, on topics ranging from the ultimate goals of nuclear brinkmanship, potential scenarios for the fall of the Kim family regime, and recommendations for how to rebuild North Korea and reunify Korea when the current regime inevitably collapses. A perfect companion to Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Steven Denney

    Broadly speaking, there two reasons any long-time North Korea-watchers and those simply interested in better understanding North Korea should pick up this book: 1) it gives a comprehensive, learned overview of North Korea from the point of its inception as a state under Soviet tutelage, through the Soviet-North Korean schism, and forward to the modern, post-Kim Il-sung era; and 2) Lankov’s methodology, an approach to scholarship which differs from many conventional academics covering North Korea Broadly speaking, there two reasons any long-time North Korea-watchers and those simply interested in better understanding North Korea should pick up this book: 1) it gives a comprehensive, learned overview of North Korea from the point of its inception as a state under Soviet tutelage, through the Soviet-North Korean schism, and forward to the modern, post-Kim Il-sung era; and 2) Lankov’s methodology, an approach to scholarship which differs from many conventional academics covering North Korea in that he uses a combination of primary source material: defector testimonies, interviews, and personal experiences to create an image of “the real North Korea.” One of the most interesting, and insightful, reads in the book is found in the section on “The Logic of Survival,” wherein Lankov argues that the leadership’s unwillingness to reform “has very rational explanations” and that contrary to popular opinion, “North Korea leaders stubbornly resist reform not because they are ideological zealots who blindly believe in the prescriptions of Juche Idea … nor because they are ignorant of the outside world” (pp. 111-112). They are rational, Machiavellian-types, who are concerned about maintaining power and dying of natural causes. This, then, leads Lankov to speculate (probably quite rightly) that “one of the reason behind the remarkable resilience of the North Korean regime is [the] universal assumption of its bureaucrats (including those who are quite low in the pecking order) that they would have no future in case of regime collapse” (p. 115). Thus, Lankov has added to the recent literature on “what sustains the regime” that in addition to the “pomp serving power” argument put forth in North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics, there is another element to explain resilience and continuity: pure power considerations and a fear of the alternative.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Tadas Talaikis

    Among all the American imperialism propaganda about the "axis" of "evil" - a more realistic view on North Korea. I was always saying that the only prison is the prison of belief. How you can change something for people when they don't even know what's wrong? If they live in their fantasy world, how you can explain it's not real? Change in Eastern Europe also came slowly (if so for some), when people started to see more and more of new things, like shiny shop or how people live outside the wall. Re Among all the American imperialism propaganda about the "axis" of "evil" - a more realistic view on North Korea. I was always saying that the only prison is the prison of belief. How you can change something for people when they don't even know what's wrong? If they live in their fantasy world, how you can explain it's not real? Change in Eastern Europe also came slowly (if so for some), when people started to see more and more of new things, like shiny shop or how people live outside the wall. Real change is based on economics, not some magic powers of living in opposite fantasy world of "liberators". The problem is the strength of ideological belief, implementing even language of 1984, when even Russian "communism" though to be too liberal. It requires years and years to die off. North Korea is the one current examples that religion should cease to exist in the 21st century.

  6. 5 out of 5

    James

    It's rare for a historian to write a good book let alone an excellent book, here's an example of excellence. so many other reviews, no point me adding at this point, except to say the author has a very perceptive eye and I hope politicians in the US, south korea & china read this book. It's rare for a historian to write a good book let alone an excellent book, here's an example of excellence. so many other reviews, no point me adding at this point, except to say the author has a very perceptive eye and I hope politicians in the US, south korea & china read this book.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Omar Essawi

    Wow, this is a must read. An incredible insight into North Korea, exposing its domestic and foreign affairs, incredibly well written. I can't believe such a place still exists in the 21st century....but as the author questions, how much longer will it last? Wow, this is a must read. An incredible insight into North Korea, exposing its domestic and foreign affairs, incredibly well written. I can't believe such a place still exists in the 21st century....but as the author questions, how much longer will it last?

  8. 5 out of 5

    Mary

    The Real North Korea by Andrei Lankov was pretty disappointing. I had some very high expectations since it was published by Oxford University Press. I was looking for an insider's view of life in North Korea but that's not what I found here. To be fair, in the middle of the chapters, Lankov, on gray pages, does include some stories from life in North Korea. There are even a few photographs which is pretty impressive for a country so closed off from the rest of the world. The book focuses on the p The Real North Korea by Andrei Lankov was pretty disappointing. I had some very high expectations since it was published by Oxford University Press. I was looking for an insider's view of life in North Korea but that's not what I found here. To be fair, in the middle of the chapters, Lankov, on gray pages, does include some stories from life in North Korea. There are even a few photographs which is pretty impressive for a country so closed off from the rest of the world. The book focuses on the problem of North Korea. Lots of discussion about how they use their growing nuclear capabilities to keep the great nations running to them with foreign aid. The book concludes that there is no simple solution to this problem. Probably the most favorable solution would be if there were some sort of uprising by the people of North Korea to oust the current family dynasty that runs the country and keeps the citizen so isolated from the rest of the world. A desire for the material wealth enjoyed by nations like South Korea may be able to spark such a movement. Lankov does a good job of describing the Kim Family's rise to power and how they retain their power. So, I did learn about the historical background of North Korea. I do believe that most of the information in this book could be gleaned from reading current affairs and news magazines and Encyclopedia Britannica.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Jeffrey

    Fantastic eye-opening book that provides easily readable, instructive lessons on: The history of North Korea and how the Kims came to power (and just how much of the legend is total crap); What "Juche" is and how it's different from Stalinism; Why their regime hasn't collapsed the way that the Soviets did (or why they haven't changed like the Chinese did); Why what they do makes complete sense (from their perspective); Why even if North Korea collapses it will be a Fantastic eye-opening book that provides easily readable, instructive lessons on: The history of North Korea and how the Kims came to power (and just how much of the legend is total crap); What "Juche" is and how it's different from Stalinism; Why their regime hasn't collapsed the way that the Soviets did (or why they haven't changed like the Chinese did); Why what they do makes complete sense (from their perspective); Why even if North Korea collapses it will be a huge problem for everyone involved. Highly recommended for any reader with an interest in understanding North Korea. Some parts are written for more academic audiences or those involved with Korean policy making; that's why I don't give it five stars for a reader like me who just wants to understand North Korea better. But all in all, I don't think a layperson can choose a better introduction to understanding North Korea, why it does what it does, and what it holds for the future.

  10. 5 out of 5

    John Armstrong

    A great book on North Korea. Especially interesting is the author's take on likely reunification scenarios and their specific ramifications for both the privileged classes and the rank and file on both sides of the border. He sees risks as well as opportunities for both sides and recommends a gradual process that manages the interests of both sides as they merge into a single people. If there is a weakness in the book it is the author's South Korean/Western bias in his view of the Korean people( A great book on North Korea. Especially interesting is the author's take on likely reunification scenarios and their specific ramifications for both the privileged classes and the rank and file on both sides of the border. He sees risks as well as opportunities for both sides and recommends a gradual process that manages the interests of both sides as they merge into a single people. If there is a weakness in the book it is the author's South Korean/Western bias in his view of the Korean people(s). He sees South Koreans as prosperous and happy and North Koreans as poor and suffering, and seems to ignore, on the Southern side, growing systemic economic problems and social malaise, and, on the Northern side, strong ability to adapt to economic hardship and survive if not prosper through personal initiative. I recommend that anyone who reads this book also read, if they haven't already, Daniel Tudor and James Pearson, North Korea Confidential.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Paul

    I picked this up because I knew nothing about North Korea and thought it would be interesting to get a Russian's take on its history and situation. It was certainly a fascinating read (listen). I couldn't comment on its accuracy other than it *sounds* fairly levelheaded, based on conversations and interactions with North Koreans and other people who would actually know anything about the situation, and internally consistent. It certainly gives an interesting context to the recent developments her I picked this up because I knew nothing about North Korea and thought it would be interesting to get a Russian's take on its history and situation. It was certainly a fascinating read (listen). I couldn't comment on its accuracy other than it *sounds* fairly levelheaded, based on conversations and interactions with North Koreans and other people who would actually know anything about the situation, and internally consistent. It certainly gives an interesting context to the recent developments here in March 2017. Obviously, on the theory put forward in this book Kim Jong Un and his advisors are playing straight from the existing strategy guide, trying to embarrass a new American administration and get what they want (food, cash) from it, "secure" in the knowledge that even Donald Trump is not actually going to invade or drop a strategic nuke on the top two or five places where Kim might be.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Jae

    I've read most every book available in English about North Korea, and at some point they've started to repeat themselves. What makes this one special, though, is the analysis of the situation and what actually can be done (in contrast to everything else that's been tried and hasn't worked) to improve it. I kind of feel like everyone in a position of foreign-policy influence in the U.S. and South Korea should try to read it with an open mind. I'm giving it three stars rather than four because the I've read most every book available in English about North Korea, and at some point they've started to repeat themselves. What makes this one special, though, is the analysis of the situation and what actually can be done (in contrast to everything else that's been tried and hasn't worked) to improve it. I kind of feel like everyone in a position of foreign-policy influence in the U.S. and South Korea should try to read it with an open mind. I'm giving it three stars rather than four because the writing is somewhat awkward in a lot of places (the author is not a native speaker of English), but it's definitely four-star information and analysis.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Diane

    This sounds fantastic. From The New York Times Book Review: "The book, an engaging blend of scholarship, reportage and memoir, offers striking details about daily life in a country reminiscent of George Orwell's '1984.'" The author was born in the Soviet Union during the cold war and had access to North Korea as a student. Can. Not. Wait. This sounds fantastic. From The New York Times Book Review: "The book, an engaging blend of scholarship, reportage and memoir, offers striking details about daily life in a country reminiscent of George Orwell's '1984.'" The author was born in the Soviet Union during the cold war and had access to North Korea as a student. Can. Not. Wait.

  14. 5 out of 5

    William Staten

    Without a doubt Andrei Lankov stands as one of the most authoritative and insightful scholars on North Korea. If you're looking for a deeper understanding on North Korea -- how we got here, how the Kim family thinks, and what we're likely to see in years to come -- this book is a must read. Andrei Lankov's background sets him apart as one uniquely qualified to offer opinion on North Korea. As a native of the former Soviet Union and graduate of Leningrad University, Professor Lankov experienced fi Without a doubt Andrei Lankov stands as one of the most authoritative and insightful scholars on North Korea. If you're looking for a deeper understanding on North Korea -- how we got here, how the Kim family thinks, and what we're likely to see in years to come -- this book is a must read. Andrei Lankov's background sets him apart as one uniquely qualified to offer opinion on North Korea. As a native of the former Soviet Union and graduate of Leningrad University, Professor Lankov experienced firsthand how societies within failing (and eventually, failed) Communist states operate. Lankov also spent time in Pyongyang as an exchange student at Kim Il Sung University -- as a result, he is fluent in Korean, which only deepens his understanding of the nuances other foreign scholars may miss. He currently resides in Seoul and over the years has amassed a significant network of North Korean contacts on both sides of the DMZ. These contacts provide anecdotal evidence, which Lankov pairs expertly with irrefutable facts to paint a more comprehensive picture for the reader. Although the book touches briefly on the history of how North Korea arrived at its current form, this is not a history book. Rather, the book serves to shed light on how the Kim regime has managed to stay in power for so long while so many other authoritarian regimes have crumbled. It provides a cold, hard analysis on the situation as it is -- not as we would like it to be. I especially appreciated Professor Lankov's pragmatism throughout his analysis. He is equally critical of both hard-line conservatives and bleeding heart leftists, and serves as a voice of reason amidst this often charged and emotional debate. Professor Lankov shows us clearly that despite what major news outlets have reported, Kim Jong Un is not an ideological madman who lives to stir up trouble; quite the contrary -- he stirs up trouble to live. He is an extremely rational and intelligent actor, perhaps one of the best practitioners of Machiavellian politics in the modern world. Jong Un, like his father and grandfather before him, is extremely adept at playing the game of brinksmanship in order to extort aid from the international community. This aid is vital in staving off the collapse of his regime -- a collapse Lankov argues is inevitable. After reading Professor Lankov's book you'll clearly see how the cycle of bellicose provocation and charm offensives is a well-worn play in the North Korean strategy. Armed with this knowledge, you'll be able to make sense of the seemingly nonsensical events on and surrounding the Korean Peninsula. Lankov concludes the book with some real world considerations for what a post-KJU North Korea might look like, how best to handle the messy task of reunification, and what steps we might take now in order to best prepare. Professor Lankov is absolutely the kind of person we need to hear more from, and I would hope policymakers in both Washington and Seoul will take his analysis into consideration. Without hesitation I wholeheartedly give this book 5/5 stars. If you have any interest in the Korean Peninsula, you need to read this book.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Matt Ely

    A great summary of one particular country's modern evolution and how it maintains itself against all odds. Lankov goes to great lengths demonstrating that the apparent chaos of the North Korean state is a calculated approach that is necessary to the survival of its regime, and it does a great deal to put into proper context the occasional "flareups in tension" that seem to define its relationship with the United States and North Korea. Lankov also gives an economic description of the country's s A great summary of one particular country's modern evolution and how it maintains itself against all odds. Lankov goes to great lengths demonstrating that the apparent chaos of the North Korean state is a calculated approach that is necessary to the survival of its regime, and it does a great deal to put into proper context the occasional "flareups in tension" that seem to define its relationship with the United States and North Korea. Lankov also gives an economic description of the country's situation and its access to outside currency. This feeds into a focus on how the country can transition away from its current system and how wildly expensive and difficult that will be. This systematic approach to explaining a difficult country is helpful in cutting through the political rhetoric to some basic principles. It also reveals the two main challenges in my reading, neither of which are substantial drawbacks but which bear mentioning. First, the academic text can be difficult to get into at first. The extended description of the country's founding seems so far removed that it can be hard to latch onto familiar details. But stick with it! The foundation is necessary for understanding the modern application. The second issue is tonal. With the author proposing a system of interpreting North Korean action, he also takes his fair share of sneering potshots at those on either side of the political spectrum who would disagree. At points it's necessary for him to distinguish his views, but after his distinctive approach has been made clear, it can feel at points like the book is saying "And here, once again, I am right and the others are, as we can plainly see, wrong (and a bit silly)." Published just after Kim Jong Un came to power, it doesn't encapsulate every relevant event. Still, one feels much more capable of understanding North Korean issues, even ones that happened after the book's publication. I'd recommend it gladly to anyone who finds the existence of that strange country perplexing and wants to learn more.

  16. 5 out of 5

    JohnNY

    Great book and very good Intel and has a great understanding of the DPRK people, as a Russian citizen he has lived in Korea has great ideas of the mechanisms that would benefit unification and if so, it would be a international catastraphe. As a 50% Korean myself I would love to see a unification but the 25 million refugees that will need reeducation, the culture shock for the North Koreans and the malnutrition children, the paranoid high officials from reprisals and China's fear of having a US Great book and very good Intel and has a great understanding of the DPRK people, as a Russian citizen he has lived in Korea has great ideas of the mechanisms that would benefit unification and if so, it would be a international catastraphe. As a 50% Korean myself I would love to see a unification but the 25 million refugees that will need reeducation, the culture shock for the North Koreans and the malnutrition children, the paranoid high officials from reprisals and China's fear of having a US backed Korea bordering them will seem like a far long future idea. alot of books on North Korea this is the most insightful of them all.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Hava

    I am both repulsed and fascinated by North Korea the way most women are repulsed and fascinated with serial killers. What makes it tick, and why did it turn out the way it did? The author lived in North Korea for years as a student, and his research and insight into the culture really shows. This is a fascinating and eye opening look into a country that's a cross between 1984 and M. Night Shyamalan's The Village. I am both repulsed and fascinated by North Korea the way most women are repulsed and fascinated with serial killers. What makes it tick, and why did it turn out the way it did? The author lived in North Korea for years as a student, and his research and insight into the culture really shows. This is a fascinating and eye opening look into a country that's a cross between 1984 and M. Night Shyamalan's The Village.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Vinh-Thang

    Such a great, informative and surprisingly unbiased account of the DPRK. A must read for whoever who wishes to understand the past, present and future of the failed Stalinist utopia as the author put it.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Yannick M

    Incredibly good book.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Dilip

    It is one of the most difficult tasks for any historian to maintain neutrality while writing on North Korea. This is precisely what Andrei Lankov managed to pull off. The Humane portrayal of everyone involved underlies the fact that on the most basic level, every individual involved is a human himself, with the same aspirations and feelings. It would be easy to argue that the Removal of the Kim family would be the ultimate solution. A quick look at the failed(almost) Arab revolution shows us tha It is one of the most difficult tasks for any historian to maintain neutrality while writing on North Korea. This is precisely what Andrei Lankov managed to pull off. The Humane portrayal of everyone involved underlies the fact that on the most basic level, every individual involved is a human himself, with the same aspirations and feelings. It would be easy to argue that the Removal of the Kim family would be the ultimate solution. A quick look at the failed(almost) Arab revolution shows us that a quick fix does not always work. North Korea's case is far more unique than the Arab situation and requires measures which work on the ground rather than on paper. The sensitive issue of integration(reunification) with South Korea has been explored on a scale unparalleled and leaves the reader wondering what the ultimate solution would shape out to be like. The difficulties a backward nation faces while integrating into a developed economy as described by Andrei can be used to portray the difficulties the African nations are facing into integrating into a highly complex global economy which is moving at a rapid pace.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Adam

    I began this book about North Korea with high expectations. The author, an academic in South Korea, lived in North Korea as an exchange student when he was living in his native USSR. I had hoped to learn much more about life in North Korea than was revealed in this book whose subtitle is "life and politics in the failed Stalinist Utopia." Of politics, there was an adequate serving, but of 'life', the quantity of information was less substantial. The author has written another book, which I have I began this book about North Korea with high expectations. The author, an academic in South Korea, lived in North Korea as an exchange student when he was living in his native USSR. I had hoped to learn much more about life in North Korea than was revealed in this book whose subtitle is "life and politics in the failed Stalinist Utopia." Of politics, there was an adequate serving, but of 'life', the quantity of information was less substantial. The author has written another book, which I have not read, which includes essays on daily life in North Korea. Maybe, I should look at that one to satisfy my curiosity about the living conditions of North Koreans. Much of the book is dedicated to speculations of what might happen to North Korea in the future and what might be done to influence the country's fate. I found my attention wandering in these sections. This is the first book that I have read about North Korea. I hope that better ones exist!

  22. 5 out of 5

    Yi Tsing Pek

    borrowed this academic book earlier in the year for a public affairs paper i was writing. it’s a pretty comprehensive book on North Korea and included everything from Kim Il-sung’s rise to power; de-Stalinisation in North Korea; black markets, currency reform and revolt in its quasi-capitalist society; the rationale behind North Korea’s nuclear weapons etc. worth a read if you’re into the hermit country or politics, or else it’s going to bore you to death. fun fact: the author, Andrei Lankov, gr borrowed this academic book earlier in the year for a public affairs paper i was writing. it’s a pretty comprehensive book on North Korea and included everything from Kim Il-sung’s rise to power; de-Stalinisation in North Korea; black markets, currency reform and revolt in its quasi-capitalist society; the rationale behind North Korea’s nuclear weapons etc. worth a read if you’re into the hermit country or politics, or else it’s going to bore you to death. fun fact: the author, Andrei Lankov, grew up in Soviet Union and attended the coveted Kim Il-sung University.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Leib Mitchell

    The more things change, the more they stay the same. Reviewed in the United States on January 14, 2019 This book sat around on my bookshelf for a few years, and I only got around to reading it about 4 years after it was published. That wasn't a bad idea, because it gave me a chance to see how well the predictions made by the book stood the test of time. There are a lot of resonances between this book and many others that I have read before. 1. Communism was a movement that was first popular among in The more things change, the more they stay the same. Reviewed in the United States on January 14, 2019 This book sat around on my bookshelf for a few years, and I only got around to reading it about 4 years after it was published. That wasn't a bad idea, because it gave me a chance to see how well the predictions made by the book stood the test of time. There are a lot of resonances between this book and many others that I have read before. 1. Communism was a movement that was first popular among intellectuals. It seems that way everywhere. (Eric Hoffer. The True Believer) 2. The vast majority of people were uninterested in communism, and it was only something that took hold because of its appeal to the chattering classes. 3. The people who did the most suffering were the hoi polloi. 4. Kim il-sung was an accidental leader in much the way that Mao Zedong was. (Mao: The Unknown Story. Jon Halliday. Jung Chang.) 5. A bunch of people were in use in one conflict (in this case, they were acting in Korean units in various Chinese and Russian wars) and unable to settle down, and so they just found another one in which to participate (in the service of the Soviet Union as a buffer against the United States). This has a lot of echoes of Zimbabwe, where "wovits" were taken out of use in the War of Independence and put to use in expropriations. 6. People who are affluent are the ones who are most likely to participate in a mass movement. (Eric Hoffer, The True Believer. Again.) And that's because people who were trying to get the bills paid already are free from any sense of futility. It's not surprising that Kim il-sung was from an affluent family. 7. Mass movements are interchangeable. (Hoffer.) Communism was something that was a vehicle that just happened to have been convenient for the Kim family, but it had strong overtones of nationalism. (This was the point of another book. The Cleanest Race.) This was analogous to what happened in China, as well as in the "other China," as well as Vietnam. 8. Who decides something is just as important as what gets decided. (Sowell. Knowledge and Decisions.) What do we learn of North Korea itself? 1. The policy of playing states against each other was a skill that was developed long ago, by playing Russia and China against each other. 2. The overwhelming majority of people there don't care about this conflict as they are unaware of what is going on. 3. The regime is very rational and Machiavellian. Once you can see their actions in terms of their own jobs-- then everything makes sense. Bellicose rhetoric from North Korea is not really meant to provoke Wars, and can be turned off in a single day. The purpose of said rhetoric is to bring people to the negotiating table. Lankov believes that they would not start a war because they know that it something that they definitely cannot survive. And *survival* is the MO of this government. 4. The country was run down very badly after the collapse of the Soviet Empire. (And this is not something that we diddn't know. It's just that this author is a lot more detailed in his description of what went wrong and HOW.) 5. As a solution, the Lankov rules out sanctions because of spotty enforcement. He also rules out positive incentives. And that is because if the state gives up its nuclear weapons in exchange for some amount of financial aid, they will also have lost their leverage to extort money out of people. And they would just become another Sudan or Zimbabwe. 6. His solution is quite reasonable: Because the government (such as it is) is set up to benefit a very small number of people, then it is better to make contacts with that small number of people and they will be the catalyst for change. (In some cackhanded way, that may be what has happened. Kim Jong Un was educated abroad and his impression of the way other people lived in Switzerland may have left an impression on THE relevant person.) 7. There is a lot of realpolitik involved in this. I would have to say that this entire book treats all aspects of this as a cost-benefit analysis. He gives us an idea of the incentives and constraints facing North Korea, as well as explanations of why they behave as they do behave. (Libya gave up its nuclear weapons program, and we see what happened to Qadafi. The North Koreans saw it, too.) What of the author? (Quite a few things that make him a better voice of authority than the MANY armchair pundits who have never been to North Korea and speak NO Korean.) 1. He is a Russian, and he grew up and the former Soviet Union. It gives his comparison/ contrast to the Soviet Union significantly more weight. 2. He speaks Korean. 3. He has studied not only in Korea, but in Pyongyang. 4. He has interviewed several actual North Koreans. 5. He is very balanced/ even handed. (It's like Sergeant Friday decided to write a book on NK.) 6. There have also been a lot of positive developments years down the road that this book did not quite predict. (And Lankov was clear that he was speculating, and so I can't count that against the book to much. But then again, these overtures that they are making may be part of the same game.) There is a very good policy lesson to be learned for the US in all of this morass. The best choice is either complete neutrality, like Switzerland. Or, neutrality and non-alignment like Singapore. Trying to solve this problem now known as North Korea takes more effort and more time and more money than anybody really needs to spend on this.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Samusan

    The book is full of common knowledge and basic information. I learned little from it and the Andrei Lankov s speculations about the future of the country do not seem very plausible and profound to me. Also many ideas and realities are repeated many times across the book. It is not much new knowledge in this book for someone who read and watched thoroughly the generally available information on the internet.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Bethany

    After reading Nothing to Envy I've been kind of obsessed with North Korea (the recent highly bizarre murder of Kim Jong Nam is contributing to this phase). This book isn't perfect, it suffers from a lack of editing, but it's fascinating and accessible and the conversational writing is easy to follow. I appreciate the author's in depth discussion of NK political strategies as well as the chaos that will come down on North and South Korea once the Kims are gone. After reading Nothing to Envy I've been kind of obsessed with North Korea (the recent highly bizarre murder of Kim Jong Nam is contributing to this phase). This book isn't perfect, it suffers from a lack of editing, but it's fascinating and accessible and the conversational writing is easy to follow. I appreciate the author's in depth discussion of NK political strategies as well as the chaos that will come down on North and South Korea once the Kims are gone.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Haku

    Absolutely recommend to anybody who is interested in North Korea: how it became what it is today, the reasons for their policies, and an outlook on the future of possible unification. But one should not miss reading the stories written by refugees like Lee Hyeonseo or about everyday life in NK by Barbara Demick.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Omar Ali

    A very interesting and informative book. And the Russian author has no time for Tariq-Ali-ism, fashionable left-liberal bullshit OR FOX news bullcrap. He also has a dry sense of humor. Definitely worth a read.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Debjit Sengupta

    How much we know about North Korea? They are usually in news for three reasons- Their nuclear ambition, idiosyncratic rulers and people living a life of penury. The media especially Western media have been instrumental in people forming a stereotype idea about the nation. One cannot rule out the contents of the reportage but presenting one side of story that suits them, ignores the larger picture. News reporting on North Korea has been most often done sardonically; and biased too at times. The f How much we know about North Korea? They are usually in news for three reasons- Their nuclear ambition, idiosyncratic rulers and people living a life of penury. The media especially Western media have been instrumental in people forming a stereotype idea about the nation. One cannot rule out the contents of the reportage but presenting one side of story that suits them, ignores the larger picture. News reporting on North Korea has been most often done sardonically; and biased too at times. The fact remains that we know very little about this closed and mysterious nation. I had been searching for a book which gives a correct and unbiased account. I came across decent number of books until I stumbled upon this one authored by Andrei Lankov. The author has seen the social, political and economic life from close. North Korea was born in Sep’1948, just one month after South Korea was proclaimed as a nation. Both the nations claims being the sole legitimate owner of the entire Korean Peninsula. Unification is of paramount importance. However the issue has lost steam in recent years. Being a Communist nation, North Korea was under the influence of Soviet Union, who in turn selected Kim II Sung to head the regime. Coming to present, its still his decedent who is ruling the nation. Kim II Sung in few years had a firm grip of the nation. One of the gruesome part of Communist history has been that the founding fathers perished at the hand of the own comrades. North Korea was no exception. There is nothing much to write about impoverish economy of North Korea. One of the major income has been aids from foreign donors and they have long mastered the art of getting the aids in their own terms, and they set the conditions how the aid will be delivered and distributed. A decade after the nation was born, their relations with the master- Soviet Union was turning hostile. Simultaneously, Sino-Soviet relationship was beginning to worsen. Taking advantage of Sino-Soviet rivalry, they began to maintain an equidistant policy. For strategic reason, they were however appeased by both the nations. This continued till collapse of Soviet Union. After that, two new donors emerged- South Korea and USA. Despite being an anathema to them, North Korea was getting aids , though at irregular interval. The reason is unforeseeable horrendous outcome from this nuclear equipped nation. Coming now to the social life. It started with Kim II Sung regime that State control over citizen public and private life reached its zenith. Every facet of individual life was successfully controlled. People were kept away from the unauthorized outside knowledge. Close contacts with foreigners were discouraged. Private initiative was eliminated. Till 1990, grains and other related items can be acquired from State run public distribution system(PDS). Kim II Sung was given the title as “Great Leader” and the State issued a decree whereby people had to keep his portrait as a souvenir in living room, on a wall which does not contain any other adornment and should be cleaned regularly. Message that was driven on regular basis was that people in South Korea, envy their prosperous and happy counterpart in North Korea. Post 1990’s control over citizen has been less stringent because the State do not have necessary machinery to enforce it. To the outside world, The general perception has been that North Korea is a bizarre nation ruled by zealots and madman. It’s obdurate rulers who still hold on to the delusional beliefs of communism. In reality , quixotic policies are followed not out of ignorance. It’s because it suits them. It’s the expediency factor that comes into play. Nuclear program is more strategic than anything else, especially for regime survival. Many speculators and observers have predicted that current regime may either fall or initiate market reform. Neither of these materialized till now. If economic performance and individual freedoms are concerned, North Korea is lagging far behind its neighbours. There have been however fair amount of success in medical care and primary education. Though there are improvements in recent years with private ventures coming up and standard of living improving but still this indicators are not encouraging enough. The author deserve loads of appreciation for getting into the nitty-grity detail. The effort is more commendable because he has to gather the information from such a difficult nation ,comprising of closed and introvert society. Under what circumstances the nation was born, how the founding fathers were purged , Korean War, how the State exercise control over its citizen, economy, International relation, North-South divide and possibility of unification of Korean peninsula, are covered extensively. Even though, unification looks unrealistic , however the author have given impact of various scenarios. It seems , more reading space has been given on the issue than it ought to be. The book is dominated by the era of Kim II Sung and successor Kim Jong II, addressed as Great Leader and Dear Leader respectively. Little has been written about the current regime, headed by Kim Jong Un who is titled as Supreme leader. These are few blemishes to other beautifully narration in most part.

  29. 5 out of 5

    PG Pariseau

    An accessible picture of life in, and the problems associated with, North Korea. Written by a Russian now teaching in South Korea, the book displays a subtle understanding of the psychology of failing Stalinist societies and governments. The author is convinced that the Kim regime cannot survive indefinitely, but see the options for a landing as "hard, and even harder." The ruling class and its immediate beneficiaries are determined to not suffer the fate of the French aristocracy, and so will c An accessible picture of life in, and the problems associated with, North Korea. Written by a Russian now teaching in South Korea, the book displays a subtle understanding of the psychology of failing Stalinist societies and governments. The author is convinced that the Kim regime cannot survive indefinitely, but see the options for a landing as "hard, and even harder." The ruling class and its immediate beneficiaries are determined to not suffer the fate of the French aristocracy, and so will continue to make whatever trouble gets them the attention and then aid they feel they need, and will not open themselves up to a revolution of rising expectations. This means that no one is going to persuade the Kim government out of existence. One of the author's few missteps is spending a great deal of time in a penultimate chapter on the possibility for and course of a federated solution to reunification. But there will be no reunification as long as the Chinese Communist Party controls the regional superpower across the border - that hope is a delusion. The author fails to discuss the options the Chinese have for forcible regime change in sufficient detail, which is the only hope for a solution short of military action and its attendant horrors. His recommendations for North Korea policy are mostly long-term and anodyne, so the book has no convincing or satisfying conclusions. Only appropriate, I suppose. This would make an excellent introduction to the subject, however.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Zaz

    A nice book about the history and politics of North Korea. The subtitle was a bit misleading, as the book mostly failed at developing the "life" thread. If I have a good enough knowledge of South Korea, the Northern part was a mystery for me. After reading this book, it's sadly still a mystery, but I could talk for hours about people who ruled the country, some of the rules that were enforced and the fact it's a very controlled society (no surprise there). I suppose it can give some pictures of h A nice book about the history and politics of North Korea. The subtitle was a bit misleading, as the book mostly failed at developing the "life" thread. If I have a good enough knowledge of South Korea, the Northern part was a mystery for me. After reading this book, it's sadly still a mystery, but I could talk for hours about people who ruled the country, some of the rules that were enforced and the fact it's a very controlled society (no surprise there). I suppose it can give some pictures of how people live in North Korea but at the same time, if I applied the exact same way to describe life in my country, it will be totally impossible to describe an everyday life (and ruling people have absolutely no idea what working means and that you can't buy a house cash with your yearly salary). I learned for example that North Koreans were shorter than in the South, little educated, poor and had a portrait of their leader in their home. It's more than nothing, but too small for my tastes. Anyway, I can't say the book failed totally because at an historical and political levels, I think it did well. The problem is I'm totally not interested in these 2 sides, they usually are very tedious and boring for me, so no pleasure in reading this. Still, I found it a nice effort on a difficult subject as North Korea is still a closed country and I didn't find it too much judgemental, which was also nice.

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