Book review: In his new book, Andrei Lankov explains why North Korea will try to remain a pariah

In his new book, Andrei Lankov argues that North Korea's leaders are neither madmen nor ideological zealots, and explains how, in an increasingly digital world, they cannot control the growing flow of information for much longer, writes Joan Oleck

The North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at an observation post on the border with South Korea. In a digital world, author Andrei Lankov predicts Kim cannot continue his isolationist regime for much longer. AP Photo / KCNA via KNS
Powered by automated translation

The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia
Andrei Lankov
Oxford University Press

Clearly the US government is alarmed at North Korea's threat to test-fire a medium-range Musudan missile that could reach not just South Korea but Japan and even Guam. Proof? Secretary of state John Kerry went to China and Japan earlier this month to ask for their help.

Kerry also went to Seoul, posing pointedly alongside President Park Geun-hye and stating, "Kim Jong-un needs to understand, as I think he probably does, what the outcome of the conflict would be."

But others seem less unnerved by the threat. "Watch out, middle of the ocean!" chortled American comedian Jon Stewart about the (presumably) imminent missile test.

Author Andrei Lankov seems equally confident - as he repeatedly states in his new book The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia. "Pyongyang's brinksmanship indeed appears risky at times," writes Russian-born Lankov, a former Soviet-era exchange student in North Korea, now a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul. "But so far North Korea's leaders have known where to stop, how not to cross the red line, and how not to provoke an escalation of tensions into a full-scale war."

The leaders of the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) are neither madmen nor ideological zealots, Lankov argues in his informative book. He includes in this apparently stable grouping current (Supreme Leader) Kim Jong-un, his late father (Dear Leader) Kim Jong-il, and his grandfather and the DPRK's founder (Great Leader) Kim Il Sung.

"I have written this book in order to explain how North Korea has come to be an international problem," Lankov says, "and I also attempt to explain why North Korea's leadership has had no option but to try to remain a pariah."

Specifically, DPRK leaders remain pariahs because of their economy, left stagnant after the 1990s collapse of the Soviet Union removed a major influx of aid and their nation was hit with a terrible famine.

Today, says Lankov, Kim's regime adheres rigidly to its communist monarchy model, rejecting the market-reform route like that of, say, fellow communist nation (and neighbour) China for one simple reason: reforms mean openness. And North Korea's elite believe openness would spell their personal demise - political and physical.

So instead they hold fast to their life raft: keeping fellow countrymen in the dark about the outside world, controlling the media, building a nuclear arsenal and WMDs, and issuing threats to the world powers, manipulating them in return for aid (which some might call blackmail). North Korea's calculating leaders are "perhaps the best practitioners of Machiavellian politics that can be found in the modern world," Lankov writes soberly.

The overarching question, of course, he acknowledges, is how long - given the unknown ways of Kim Jong-un and the digital revolution - can North Korea maintain such control, such isolation? Lankov's answer: not long.

To reach that conclusion, he guides us through North Korea's history. How in 1945, after the Soviet takeover, Kim Ill-sung arrived with his band of guerrillas, to establish a different kind of communism, motivated by nationalist tendencies rather than social injustices (as in Russia). How a massive redistribution of land followed a year later. And how in 1948 two separate Koreas were proclaimed, subsequently going to comical extremes to emphasise their fictional control over the entire peninsula. (Until 1972 Seoul, not Pyongyang, was the DPRK's constitutional capital.)

The Korean War and the official division at the 38th parallel DMZ followed after North Korea attempted to take over the South, and the US intervened. Soviet aid then flowed in to prop up the DPRK as a buffer to protect China's north-east and Russia's Far East against the US military presence. And the 1960 overthrow of South Korea's Syngman Rhee regime seemed proof that unification just might be possible.

But then came the Asian miracle: North Korea, once continental Asia's leading economy, went south; its economy tanked while South Korea's exploded.

There were reasons for the fall: Kim Il Sung, says Lankov, managed to "out-Stalin Stalin". In 1957 he outlawed any private trade in rice (substituting a personal distribution system), limited private farm plots to 100 square metres (one-tenth the size of Russia's), and assigned citizens to both workplace and village-level surveillance organisations called imminban ("people's group"). "An imminban head should know how many chopsticks and how many spoons are in each household!" a North Korean imminban leader once told the author. And he was serious.

Sôngbun was another control mechanism. This hereditary caste system rated individuals according to their level of loyalty to the regime. Commit even a small act of individualism, and your descendants would pay for it forever.

In some of the book's best material, Lankov reveals still more strange aspects of this deeply secretive society - how American "imperialists" are presented as "two-legged wolves" who commit atrocities in the destitute "colony" they control and how South Korea's authorities beat children who don't pay their school fees (South Korean schools are actually free).

Also, how even academic articles were once required to quote the Great Leader (a challenge for a scientific publication). How portraits of the first two Kims had to be displayed in each household and how any damage to them had to be thoroughly investigated. (A famous story relates how a man, swept into a swollen river, lost his grip on his daughter but still saved portraits of the two leaders.)

Then there are the revelations about North Korea's prison camps, where disloyalists and their families languish for years, labouring 12-hour days.

In the 1960s, Lankov writes, "Kim Il-sung managed to create a society that was arguably the closest approximation to an Orwellian nightmare in world history" - but one that his people accepted because they could still eat. By the 1970s, though, things had gone downhill due to the economy's lack of innovation and distorted prices, high military spending (mandatory service runs seven to 10 years), and a national policy of self-reliance: the DPRK against the world.

These problems, plus the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994 and widespread soil erosion due to poor farming practices after the heavy rains of 1995-96 caused the devastating famine of 1996-99. According to some estimates (North Korea releases no data), as many as three million, or 2.5 per cent of the population, perished.

The food shortages forced authorities to relax restrictions, and people dove eagerly back into private commerce (while the most loyal and honest among them died of hunger). Their average Dh65 monthly wage, however, meant North Koreans were as poor as people in sub-Saharan Africa.

Still, positive change was afoot. In the borderlands, 70-80 per cent of people acquired DVD players, and computers began to appear; increasingly, North Koreans recognised that their neighbours 45 kilometres away in Seoul weren't under America's heel after all but were instead affluent and happy.

Their leaders, meanwhile, yearned for the good old days of 1984, the last year Kim Il-sung's system had actually functioned.

North Korea's nuclear blackmail in the 2000s was predictable: there were initial failures, but a nuclear test in 2009 was successful, prompting the US to deliver 240,000 tonnes of food aid in 2012 in exchange for a pledge to cease testing - which the DPRK promptly reneged on.

"The current regime will survive as long as it does not change much, but in the long run it is not sustainable," Lankov says, looking to the future. Digital media are spreading discontent among North Korea's previously clueless; and young people now view their leaders as parasites. The leaders themselves are ageing.

Therefore, Lankov predicts, one of four scenarios will occur: Chinese-style reforms, factional infighting, a spontaneous outbreak of discontent (a "Pyongyang spring"), or a contagion of unrest in China spreading over the DPRK's border.

In the meantime, says the author, North Korea's leaders will hold on to their weapons no matter what because, well, look at what happened after Muammar Qaddafi gave his up. North Korea needs leverage, and the world's alarmed nations may just have to let it keep that leverage.

Sanctions won't work because citizens there have no influence, no ability to self-organise. And negotiations are questionable. So the best solution, Lankov says, are academic and personal exchanges - because one-on-one information leaks work best.

Here, he remembers his own experience in then-Soviet Russia: The fate of Eastern Europe's communist regimes, he says, was sealed not by their repression, but by their economic inefficiency.

"The decisive impact on the Soviet imagination in the final decades of communism was produced by the sight of shelves at an American supermarket," Lankov says, "rather than the sight of vote counting at an American polling station."

Joan Oleck is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York.