With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Review of Andrei Lankov's "The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia" (Oxford, 2013)

David Austin Walsh is the editor of the History News Network.

North Korea is a laughingstock in the United States. From Dennis Rodman’s VICE magazine-sponsored goodwill tour to the “Kim Jong Il looking at things” meme (sadly, “Kim Jong Un looking at things” just doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, though the Dear General also enjoys a good look at… things) to North Korean media’s own attempts to showcase the country's military might by threatening Austin, Texas with nuclear annihilation, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea exists in American popular imagination as a pathetic, retro-Stalinist fantasyland of a failed state.

That’s why Andrei Lankov’s The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia is so valuable. Though the book is written and marketed as an introduction to North Korea, Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, is a serious scholar of the country Kim Il-sung built – he earned a PhD in East Asian history in his native Leningrad and studied in Pyongyang in the mid-1980s. And Lankov, whose youthful dynamism and charmingly enthusiastic Leningrad accent belie his fifty years (full disclosure: I saw him speak at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. on April 26), is no stranger to making his scholarship accessible to the public: he’s a regular contributor to the New York Times, Foreign Policy, Bloomberg News, and the Korea Times on North Korea issues.

The main point of The Real North Korea is pretty straightforward: “North Korea is not a bomb,” despite what U.S. officials and all too many academics believe. North Korean leaders, while villainous, are not insane (though they’ve taken lessons from Richard Nixon about how to conduct foreign policy). While their decisions appear irrational to Western policymakers, North Korea’s actions are actually deeply rooted in its own national history, global history, and above all the legacy of its founder, Kim Il Sung.

The first half of The Real North Korea is a brief, but thorough, summary of North Korean history up to the death of Kim Il Sung. The Great Leader may have been installed as a Soviet puppet and only survived the Korean War (a conflict of his own making) due to Chinese intervention, but he was very much his own man – especially after purging pro-Soviet and pro-Chinese elements in his party in the 1950s. Kim then managed to out-Stalin Stalin himself by both building a personality cult of nearly stupendous proportions – “essentially [implying] that [he] was the greatest human being ever to live” (51) -- and at the same time constructing a thoroughly totalitarian system in which the state intervened at nearly every level. (Lankov notes that the North Korean system of travel permits -- in which even short-term visits to distant relatives had to be preapproved – was considerably more restrictive than even the Soviet Union under Stalin.) And, of course, Kim Il Sung’s regime perfected the Stalinist model of prison camps for the whole family – the spouses and children of political prisoners are also placed into camps for years, often decades. Though this practice has diminished since the death of Kim Il Sung (47).

But the key to understanding North Korea today is its economic history, and the economic history of its neighbors. As late as the 1960s, Lankov writes, North Korea actually had a larger economy than the South, partly aided by Japanese investment before World War II – “[b]y 1940, what would soon become Kim Il Sung’s ‘People’s Paradise’ produced 85 percent of metals, 88 percent of chemicals, and 95 percent of all electricity in Korea at that time.” (69) And the regime’s early promises of economic prosperity were neither atypical for communist countries nor were they excessively unrealistic: “all North Koreans will ‘eat boiled rice and meat soup, dress in silk, and live in houses with roof tiles.” For an impoverished peasantry dealing with the legacy of Japanese colonialism and the destruction of the Korean War, this sounded downright opulent. (17)

Conditions began to seriously deteriorate in the 1970s, as economic growth slowed and rations were cut. By the 1980s, North Korea was totally dependent on aid from the Soviet Union – ironically, this came as Kim Il Sung refined his “Juche Idea” of “self-reliance” – and when this aid was cut, the already-struggling economy went into total free-fall. The famine of the 1990s was devastating, though Lankov favors the “lower” estimate of around 500,000 dead (79). The disruptions caused the end of the national Stalinist system of Kim Il Sung and forced state acceptance of a black market economy, which has increasingly been brought to the fore.

Indeed, in many ways, the portrait Lankov paints of modern Pyongyang is reminiscent of the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union – economically stagnant and ultimately unsustainable, but a country in which the elites, enriching themselves on the black market, “feast on numerous delicacies in a multitude of posh restaurants [in Pyongyang]… Gone are the days when a bottle of cheap Chinese shampoo was seen as a great luxury, since nowadays one can easily buy Chanel in a Pyongyang boutique.” (189)

But that modest economic growth – and the North Korean economy has grown since the nadir of the 1990s – pales in comparison to the wealth of the South. Even the lowest estimates peg the South Korean economy as fifteen times larger than the North, the largest wealth gap among nations that share a common border. By comparison, the gap between East and West Germany was 3:1 (160). As more and more information about the outside world has been disseminated in North Korea – by way of DVDs, radios, and even the occasional contact with Chinese or South Korean businessmen – the average North Korean now knows that the South is much wealthier than the North. They still can’t conceive how much wealthier, though.

Lankov briefly mentions the racist North Korean propaganda that was the subject of B.R. Myers’ The Cleanest Race, but places it into context: as more and more North Koreans are aware of the South’s prosperity, the more and more they have rejected the regime’s attacks on the South as a post-industrial hellscape. And since North Korean leaders can no longer persuasively justify their regime as providing a better quality of life than the South, they must fall back on ethnic nationalism and anti-Americanism.

Will the world’s only people’s-republic-turned-hereditary-monarchy survive into the twenty-first century and beyond? Lankov has his doubts. He pegs the chance of a renewed Korean War as very unlikely (the North long ago perfected its strategy of escalation/de-escalation for aid, and in any event its leadership knows full well it would lose an all-out conflict), but there are more disturbing possibilities.

If North Korea embarks on Chinese-style reforms (Juche with Kim Jong Un characteristics?), it will likely trigger a regime collapse. The whole justification for the developmental dictatorship approach is that it delivers economic growth. North Koreans will be unwilling to support a regime that justifies itself on that basis when the vast wealth of the South becomes general knowledge ("the existence of the rich and free South is the major challenge for North Korean leaders"). This is why Lankov believes reform unlikely, though not impossible, from the current leadership -- it would be more akin to the Gorbachev reforms than those of Deng Xiaoping, the regime would not survive the turbulence, and most of the North Korean elite believe they’ll be strung up on lampposts in the aftermath.

If this kind of unrest does break out in North Korea – even without reforms – it will probably be brief, and it will be bloody. This is why North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons – it learned from the fall of Mummar Gaddafi in Libya that to do so would invite Western intervention if a civil war breaks out. Nevertheless, it’s exceedingly unlikely that North Korea’s neighbors will refrain from intervening in the event of internal conflict, given (ironically) that it is a nuclear weapons state.

The outlook for post-turmoil reunification (Lankov believes the status quo untenable, and barring the establishment of some sort of Chinese puppet regime -- which the Kim family is assured not -- reunification is the most likely outcome) is equally bleak. The North Korean population is totally unprepared for participation in a modern capitalist economy; South Korean voters have repeatedly expressed concerns about integrating the North, looking to the (much less severe) example of Germany; and even highly-educated North Korean specialists are trained in the methods of the 1950s Soviet Union, not the twenty-first century world. No one, Lankov writes, is going to hire a North Korean engineer who has never used a computer (238). Clearly concerned about the potential for a 1990s Russia-style collapse in a post-Kim North Korea, Lankov’s ideal (and probably unrealistic) scenario would be a confederation-style reunification, where the North would be gradually integrated with the South over a period of fifteen to twenty years (243).

Still, Lankov offers a prescription for American and South Korean policymakers: there are no “good” options when dealing with North Korea. The best that can be done is to tacitly accept North Korea’s nuclear weapons status, successfully navigate the next inevitable round of nuclear blackmail, but continue to engage the regime and, more importantly, the North Korean people. Information about the outside world is key – Lankov suggests starting an academic exchange program similar to that between the West and the Soviet Union in the 1970s, and that the South Korean government needs to treat its North Korean refugee population seriously.

Andrei Lankov has written a wonderful introduction to North Korean history and North Korean studies in The Real North Korea. Historians and researchers in other specialties – particularly involving the history of the Communist world – will find it a good introduction to the peculiarities of North Korea. Policymakers and staffers in Washington will find a sober-minded, realistic, and – given the author’s personal background as a Soviet academic – very different take on North Korea than the standard media line. Highly recommended.