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

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

By Andrei Lankov

Oxford University Press, USA, 2013, 304 pp.

The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia BY ANDREI LANKOV. Oxford University Press, 2013, 304 pp. $27.95.

Around 10:30 PM on April 3, Lee Hyeok-cheol, a fisherman who had defected from North Korea six years earlier, stole a boat docked on South Korean–controlled Yeonpyeong Island and sped back to the country he had abandoned. South Korean surveillance did not pick up his vessel for 15 minutes, and by the time they could organize a pursuit, Lee had already crossed into North Korean waters. The boat’s owner managed to get a call through to Lee, imploring him to come back to the South, but Lee would have none of it: “You son of a bitch!” he replied. “You should have been nicer to me when I was there!”

Lee made his daring nighttime voyage during a period of heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula. In late March, North Korea had been launching an almost daily barrage of threats against the United States and had cut off the military hotline to South Korea. In a demonstration of support for Seoul, Washington sent a pair of nuclear-capable B-2 stealth bombers to do a mock bombing run off the west coast of South Korea. And South Korean officials responded by promising to bomb downtown Pyongyang, including statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, if North Korea attacked. The new Korean heads of state -- Kim Jong Un in the North and Park Geun-hye in the South -- were off to a particularly bad start.

On that night of April 3, North Korean border patrol agents, caught off-guard by Lee’s sudden homecoming, could have easily mistaken the fisherman’s return for a South Korean covert operation and shot at him. Had they done so, South Korean naval commanders -- who were under orders, in the words of Park, to “respond powerfully [to a provocation] in the early stage without having any political considerations” -- could have mistaken the fire as an act of aggression and launched an attack on the North Korean coast. And so Korea’s 60-year-old semi-cold war could have quickly become a hot one again -- and a nuclear one at that.

This episode illustrates just how dangerous the standoff with North Korea has become. With both sides on high alert, full-scale conflict, which neither side actually wants, could be sparked by a mistake. The results would be calamitous. Beyond a massive loss of life, and the possibility of nuclear strikes, war would destabilize the region, likely forcing the United States, China, and other countries to intervene, with no clear outcome except considerable destruction in one of the most economically dynamic regions in the world. Beyond poor communication, the risk of war is raised by a serious shortage of understanding on both sides. Given the stakes, knowing how and why Pyongyang does what it does is more important than ever. Yet 18 months after the accession of Kim Jong Un to the position of supreme leader, North Korea’s adversaries are still struggling to figure out what makes him and his regime tick. Victoria Nuland, the U.S. State Department’s spokesperson, inadvertently highlighted the problem on April 5, 2013, when she responded to a question about why North Korea’s leaders were behaving provocatively by saying, “I can’t possibly get into their heads.”


Nuland is not alone; few outsiders have any insight into the North Korean mindset. On the short list of scholars who do is Andrei Lankov, whose new book, The Real North Korea, should be required reading for anyone trying to understand North Korean history, politics, and society. A Soviet-educated historian who studied at Kim Il Sung University, in Pyongyang, in the mid-1980s and is now a professor at Kookmin University, in Seoul, Lankov possesses a singular perspective on his subject. Combining sweeping historical vision with rich detail about contemporary life, his new book portrays North Korea as a failed Stalinist state that miraculously survived the end of the Cold War and has managed to preserve its political system and ideology in the face of profound socioeconomic transformations. His portrait of the country represents a major contribution to the woefully underdeveloped field of North Korea studies and, like Barbara Demick’s 2009 book, Nothing to Envy, offers a rare and instructive window onto life there.

The Real North Korea is best at explaining the origins and development of the regime, starting with Kim Il Sung’s guerrilla days fighting the Japanese in Mao Zedong’s and then Joseph Stalin’s Red Army. Perhaps not surprisingly, given Lankov’s personal background, the author sees North Korea through a Soviet lens, a perspective that proves particularly helpful in understanding the early evolution of its government. Having combed through cables sent from the Soviet embassy in Pyongyang in the 1950s, Lankov reconstructs the story of the seminal 1956 Central Committee meeting in Pyongyang, at which Kim Il Sung fought off challenges to his leadership from pro-Chinese and pro-Soviet factions. This critical event is the centerpiece of Lankov’s thesis that Kim “out Stalin-ed Stalin”: while Nikita Khrushchev moderated Soviet communism in the 1950s, Kim doubled down on his Stalinist project by centralizing economic planning and concentrating his political power.

But Lankov’s judgment of North Korea by Soviet standards becomes less helpful as the story continues. Moscow’s influence waned over time, and the East Asian, rather than Eurasian, character of Korean communism became increasingly evident. Lankov recognizes as much when he writes, “Communism in East Asia was widely seen as a shortcut to the national revival and modernity, a way not only to solve social problems but also to leapfrog past stages of backwardness and colonial dependency.” The goals of opposing Western imperialism and reuniting territory have shaped Pyongyang’s strategy in a way that is less germane to the history of Russia and most eastern European states and yet is directly parallel to Mao’s mission in mainland China and Ho Chi Minh’s in North Vietnam. Indeed, Kim Jong Un’s bravado in trading military threats with the United States this past spring burnished his credentials as a worthy successor to this tradition. Neglecting to emphasize how the anti-imperialist nationalism of the Kim family continues to play a central role in the regime’s claim to political legitimacy is a serious flaw in Lankov’s analysis.


The Soviet focus Lankov takes also seems to have convinced him that the North Korean regime cannot follow China and Vietnam’s model by maintaining its political system and transforming its economy. Unlike China and Vietnam in the 1970s and 1980s, Lankov argues, North Korea’s current leadership dares not open the country’s economy and normalize relations with the West because following that path would expose the “yawning gap” between North Korea’s poverty and South Korea’s prosperity, leading the North Korean people to abandon the regime and move south en masse. Yet without economic reform, North Korea will eventually run out of resources. Therefore, Lankov argues, North Korea, like the Soviet Union, will one day suddenly cease to exist.

In the meantime, Pyongyang continues to hive itself off from the world and blackmail wealthier countries into handing over aid that the state needs to survive. Kim’s behavior this past spring seems to fit the pattern laid out by Lankov: “First make a crisis, then escalate tensions, and finally extract payments and concessions for the restoration of the status quo.” The strategy may work in the short run, but it is ultimately unsustainable, he argues, predicting that the regime will crumble by 2030 -- and even sooner if Kim is stupid enough to try his hand at economic reform.

The problem with Lankov’s explanation for why North Korea cannot pursue economic development is that it is contradicted by his own evidence of how much information has seeped across the porous Chinese border. This process began almost 20 years ago as large numbers of North Koreans fled to China, originally to escape famine and later to find work. The famine of the 1990s destroyed the centrally planned, highly regimented North Korea created by Kim Il Sung, giving birth to the “real” North Korea that Lankov ably describes, a semi-marketized, highly mobile society in which some two million people own cell phones and “grassroots capitalism” is thriving despite the state’s episodic attempts to restore the old economic system. Sectors such as transportation have been privatized, Lankov explains, describing a North Korean defector he met in Seoul who had run a small trucking company back in the North. Lankov also cites empirical studies on the rise of farmer’s markets, the proliferation of private retail shops and restaurants, and the population’s increasing freedom of movement. This mobility includes bribing one’s way into China and linking up with trade networks that connect even to the more than 20,000 North Koreans who have resettled in the South. This quiet but constant flow of people, goods, and remittances means that most North Koreans enjoy detailed information about the prosperity of South Korea and the rapid growth of China. Indeed, many of them watch South Korean television dramas stored on usb drives and DVDs smuggled in from China.

In other words, the secret is out. North Koreans already know that they are way behind their neighbors. Moreover, they have heard about how poorly North Korean defectors are faring in the hypercompetitive South, where resettled Northerners struggle to keep low-paying jobs and complain of social isolation. The resentful parting comment of Lee, the fisherman who returned to North Korea, captures the feelings of many, if not most, of those North Koreans now trying to scrape by as second-class citizens in the South. Lankov acknowledges the plight of the defectors but does not connect the dots to recognize that absorption into South Korea is not a particularly attractive option for North Koreans, precisely because of the economic gulf represented by the 38th parallel.


The other big piece of the North Korean puzzle missing from Lankov’s analysis is a consideration of North Korea’s precarious geopolitical situation and its impact on the regime’s strategy. The country has suffered from an acute sense of international insecurity since the end of the Cold War, when Moscow abandoned Pyongyang, abruptly severing trade relations and economic assistance, and Beijing betrayed Pyongyang by normalizing its relations with Seoul. The United States keeps troops garrisoned in the capital of its “linchpin” ally, South Korea, and stages large-scale military exercises to remind Pyongyang that it stands ready to level North Korea, as it did in the 1950s, should war break out. In such an environment, Pyongyang dare not shift gears from projecting strength to creating prosperity. This geostrategic insecurity is a better explanation for North Korea’s sluggish approach to economic reform and opening up than Lankov’s central claim that Pyongyang must keep its citizens in the dark about South Korea’s success.

In fact, it can be argued that North Korea already is following the Chinese model of reform -- albeit in a way that can be appreciated only if one takes a long view of China’s opening. Beijing acquired nuclear weapons in the 1960s and negotiated a détente with Washington in the early 1970s, at a time when the Cultural Revolution was still raging and the Chinese leadership seemed crazy to many outsiders. Only then, after achieving this modicum of security, did the Communist Party under Deng Xiaoping finally prioritize economic development. When asked why Pyongyang so stubbornly refuses to follow China’s successful model, Chinese experts on North Korea point out that North Korea today resembles China in 1970: waiting for a security guarantee from Washington before embarking on real economic reform.

Kim has been signaling that he wants to get on with that next phase of what he calls “economic construction.” The most important indication of this desire, which was lost in the noise of nuclear threats, came on April 1, when Kim promoted the pragmatic technocrat Pak Pong Ju to the position of premier, charging him with overseeing economic growth. A decade ago, Pak led North Korea’s “economic improvement” efforts, focused on permitting greater privatization, bringing prices and wages in line with the market, and attracting foreign investment, but he was sidelined in 2006 by an antireform backlash. He has resurfaced with the rise of Kim, and now, as premier, he could be able to work with pragmatic leaders in Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo, and even Washington. Pak’s return to the premiership is a clear sign that Kim takes the economy seriously and has a reformist bent.


For all its rich insights into North Korea’s past and present, The Real North Korea underestimates these forces for economic reform, overestimates the certainty of regime collapse, and ultimately fails to provide useful suggestions for resolving the Korean conflict. According to Lankov, the only thing Washington can do is wait for the regime’s inevitable demise, perhaps giving it a nudge here and there by exposing North Koreans to the world beyond their borders. But the country has been around for over 60 years and, as even Lankov admits, might last another decade or two, if not longer, prolonging the danger of war for the foreseeable future.

A better way -- indeed, the only real way -- out of the North Korean quagmire is for Washington to take the lead in addressing Pyongyang’s insecurity through a comprehensive peace process, including a treaty that replaces the current armistice and at last ends the Korean War. Denuclearization should be the phased-in end goal, but not the precondition for the negotiation process. Along the way, to build trust and create momentum for the eventual resolution of the conflict, Park should make every effort to resume serious economic cooperation with the North by expanding joint economic projects, such as the Kaesong industrial park and the Mount Kumgang Tourist Region, and pioneering new ways to bind both Koreas to peace, stability, and further cooperation.

Of course, should Park and U.S. President Barack Obama pursue this kind of “peaceful development” strategy, as the Peking University scholar Wang Dong calls it, critics will claim they are appeasing and rewarding bad behavior, echoing charges made against President Richard Nixon when he made his historic trip to Beijing in 1972. But in reality, it is Washington’s reliance on sanctions and military muscle that rewards the bad behavior of hard-liners in Pyongyang, who use such provocations to justify counterthreats and defense spending. In the absence of diplomatic engagement and economic cooperation, moderates in Pyongyang have little leverage in internal policy debates. The cycle of hostility is self-sustaining.

The Real North Korea thus turns out to be an astute account of North Korean history and society, but a less reliable guide to North Korea policy. If Park and Obama stick with the White House’s failed policy of “strategic patience,” waiting for the problem to simply go away on its own, as Lankov claims it will, then all parties risk having a rogue fisherman trigger another Korean War.

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  • JOHN DELURY is an Assistant Professor at Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies, in South Korea. Follow him on Twitter @JohnDelury.
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