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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A thorough look at the puzzle that is North Korea
What I enjoyed most was the unique perspective of its author, Andrei Lankov, who grew up in the former Soviet Union, a sometime ally of North Korea, and lived in North Korea as an exchange student. This is a clear analysis of the politics and their consequences in North Korea, backed up by personal experience and research from numerous sources to add depth and interest to this book. There is no hype or anti-east / anti-west rhetoric, just analysis of a very puzzling country.
The author's experience is unique in that he understands the things that puzzle outsiders who lack such experience. For example, he explains why the North Korean leaders are not irrational: they merely appear that way to outsiders as they act in order to maintain power within North Korea. Despite the general repulsiveness of the Kim regime to outsiders, and their surface irrationality, the Kims are just crazy like foxes.
His intonation helps a great deal in helping the book flow, and making it easier to follow the author's tone and thread of thought in the writing. As a Korean speaker, a few incorrect pronunciations of Korea words (due to how they are romanized in print) were harder for me to follow, but were not a problem.
It took a number of commutes home to get through this, but it was always fascinating.
I liked that the author concluded with some suggestions of how individuals can help in moving North Korea into the modern era.
Broad and nuanced account of North Korea