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 rhetoric surrounding this opaque police state. After providing an accessible history of the nation, he turns ...

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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 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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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post - Max Fisher
…the book has the feel of a particularly fascinating college class taught by an elbow-patched luminary. The syllabus ranges from labor camps to nuclear diplomacy, from the police state to the state ideology, offering both the academic consensus and Lankov's take…readers will come away with a solid understanding of what's happening in North Korea and why.
The New York Times Book Review - Mark Atwood Lawrence
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.
Publishers Weekly
Not crazy, but crafty and cornered is the verdict of this probing, clear-eyed study of the world’s most irascible dictatorship. Lankov (From Stalin to Kim Il Sung), a historian at Seoul’s Koomkin University, traces the entrenchment of North Korea’s uniquely totalitarian brand of communism, with its backward and inefficient state-run economy, all-encompassing police state, hostility to outside influences, and hysterical worship of despot Kim Il-Sung and his descendants. Yet he discerns an underlying rationality to the regime, especially as its economy has reverted to illegal private markets after the crisis and famine of the 1990s. North Korea’s leaders, he argues, cannot undertake Chinese-style capitalist reforms for fear that opening the system would lead to their overthrow and reunification with South Korea; their only option, he contends, is to continue using nuclear threats and Machiavellian diplomacy to extort foreign aid to prop up the regime. Drawing on his experiences living in the country and extensive contacts with North Korean exiles, Lankov’s perceptive account registers the country’s dysfunctions, and the adaptations ordinary people make to ease them. Lankov’s is one of the best and most accessible recent accounts of this seemingly outlandish nation, and the book eschews North Korea’s lurid stereotypes to reveal a stunted normalcy. Agent: Andy Ross, the Andy Ross Agency. (May)
Library Journal
The first half of Lankov's (history, Koomkin Univ., Seoul; The Dawn of Modern Korea) book provides an overview of North Korea's past history, and discusses how it has changed in the years since the famine of the 1990s. The second half predicts that the North Korean regime will ultimately collapse, then discusses likely outcomes of this event. This work provides a realistic view of the difficulties that Washington and Seoul have faced in dealing with this adversary. However, Lankov proposes that engagement will hasten the fall of North Korea, and that this course of action should be pursued for the long-term benefit of its population. VERDICT Anyone with an interest in the topic will enjoy this lucidly written work. Novices will appreciate the concise summary of North Korean history, and specialists will be interested in the author's arguments regarding North Korea's possible collapse, as well as the challenges that will face a united Korea. The book's value is enhanced by anecdotes from the author's experiences living in both North and South Korea. For a more detailed study of the same topic, see Victor Cha's The Impossible State.—Joshua Wallace, South Texas Coll. Lib., McAllen
Kirkus Reviews
Examination of North Korea's misery-producing dictatorship, why it cannot last and how to replace it. A Russian historian who spent time in North Korea as an exchange student and lived through his own country's break with Soviet authoritarianism, Lankov (History/Koomkin Univ., Seoul; North of the DMZ: Essays on Daily Life in North Korea, 2007, etc.) offers an astute look into the lethal absurdities of the North Korean regime, from the time of Great Leader Kim Il-sung to grandson Kim Jong-un. To understand the current ossified system, Lankov looks back to the establishment of North Korea as a Soviet "client state" in 1945, when the obscure guerrilla captain Il-sung was installed as leader and the standard Soviet satellite model adopted. The Korean War only solidified the leader's grip, leading to purges and "a nearly perfect garrison state." Yet with enormous guile and manipulation, North Korea was able to extract the aid from the Soviet Union and China that helped spur the economic growth of the late 1950s. This cynical manipulation has continued in the ongoing nuclear brinkmanship used by North Korea to extract concessions (and aid) from the United States and China. Until fairly recently, the state has been able to maintain control over the lives of its citizens in a fashion remarkable even by Soviet standards, while the cult of leadership and vilification of South Korea (and the U.S.) contribute to the cohesive repression. While somewhat erratic in his organization, Lankov covers a tremendous amount of ground, lingering in his last thoughtful chapters on how to manage the North Korean crisis that is surely coming. Sanctions won't work, neither will strikes nor a ground offensive, but only the gradual awakening by the oppressed North Korean populace to the outside world. A well-reasoned survey by a scholar who excels at long-term thinking.
From the Publisher
"[A] probing, clear-eyed study of the world's most irascible dictatorship. Lankov's is one of the best and most accessible recent accounts of this seemingly outlandish nation, and the book eschews North Korea's lurid stereotypes to reveal a stunted normalcy."
-Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)

"The Real North Korea is one of the best books about this isolated republic to appear in years. Andrei Lankov draws on three decades of experience to write a deeply informed, thoughtful, fair-minded and highly readable account of 'life and politics' in North Korea, from day one to the present. His policy recommendations for dealing with the nuclear problem, for a South Korea waiting impatiently to inherit the North, and for the eventual end of this regime as we know it, are cogent and full of something rare in discussions about this irascible country: common sense."
-Bruce Cumings, Chair of the History Department at the University of Chicago, and author of Korea's Place in the Sun: A Modern History

"Lankov explains how North Korea's survival imperative combined with South Korea's success compels the regime to persist in internally rational but self-isolating behavior that only further deepens its quandary. North Korea is the Galapagos Island of nation states, and Lankov provides clear analysis of how the regime has survived despite steep odds, why the leadership cannot change, and why it must."
-Scott Snyder, Senior Fellow for Korea Studies and Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy, The Council on Foreign Relations

"The Real North Korea presents a detailed and careful analysis of a country that has been difficult for many to understand. Andrei Lankov, one of the world's top North Korea scholars, provides a fascinating look at the internal dynamics and motivations that drive North Korea. Few scholars of North Korea have the experience and insight of Andrei Lankov, and this book will be required reading for all who wish to better understand the actions of the DPRK."
-Terence Roehrig, Professor in National Security Affairs and Director of the Asia-Pacific Studies Group at the U.S. Naval War College and author of Japan, South Korea, and the U.S. Nuclear Umbrella

"Lankov offers a highly readable book and a unique perspective that yields a knowledgeable, sardonic, acerbic and not entirely dispassionate view of North Korea. The author also dishes up a rare treat, mostly unfound in books of this genre: common sense and humility about the North's future, a theme from beginning to end."
—National Interest

"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."
—History News Network

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780199964291
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 5/8/2013
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 380,319
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Andrei Lankov is Professor of History at Koomkin University in Seoul, South Korea. A native of Leningrad, he studied in North Korea as an exchange student. His books include North of the DMZ: Essays on Daily Life in North Korea, and From Stalin to Kim Il Sung: The Formation of North Korea, 1945-1960.

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Table of Contents


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Customer Reviews

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