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

Andrei Lankov
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
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Book Description

April 2013
Lankov substitutes cold, clear analysis for the overheated rhetoric surrounding this opaque police state. Based on vast expertise, this book reveals how average North Koreans live, how their leaders rule, and how both survive.

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The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia + The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future + Escape from Camp 14: One man's remarkable odyssey from North Korea to freedom in the West
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Product details

  • Hardcover: 283 pages
  • Publisher: OUP USA (April 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199964297
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199964291
  • Product Dimensions: 23.6 x 16.3 x 2.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 170,676 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Product Description


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.

In his accessible and refreshingly fair-minded new book, Andrei Lankov does a fine job of making sense of the world's most inscrutable is a commanding overview of the country's politics and society, and a significant contribution to policy debates in the United States and South Korea. (International Affairs Journal)

Lankov offers a nuanced picture of this secretive country, drawing on his own experience and the North Koreans he has interviewed. (Clare Debenham, THE)

[ (Oliver Kamm, The Times)

] provides an extraordinary insight into a state that defies conventional categories of tyranny.

This is the best all round account of North Korea yet. (Aidan Foster-Carter, Times Literary Supplement)

[Lankov's] book is an important curative to the unhelpful gaggle of pundits who describe nuclear-armed North Korea as "irrational" or an impenetrable "black box" (Christian Oliver, Financial Times)

There is no better road map in English than this wise, anecdotally rich and entertaining book. (Richard Lloyd Parry, The Times)

About the Author

Superb,.. An engaging blend of scholarship, reportage and memoir, offers striking details about daily life in a country reminiscent of George Orwell's '1984'. (new York Times Book Review)

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The real North Korea 27 July 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Andrei Lankov does a fine job in showing what works in North Korea and what doesn't and what we might expect to happen in the next 20 years or so.

The North Korean government is often portrayed as a bunch of loonies or the world's last rogue state. When you start reading the book you will quickly discover that it is anything but that. The author starts off with detailing how well Kim Il-Sung took over the country and what an excellent job he has done economics-wise. Lankov is fairly straightforward in his opinion on the matter. Having lived in Pyongyang also helps.

Chapter Two deals with the transformation of the economy under Kim Jong-Il, not that the chap desired for that to happen, I suppose. What strikes me so hilarious about this chapter is that North Korea is now probably more of a market economy than quite a few of the states of the European Union. I am not surprised that the country's present Government would like to go back to `the good old days' of the 1980s, but the author shows how well that would work.

The nuclear issue and how well it can be used to prise aid out of `the West' is dealt with at length.

The most interesting bit of the book I found the author's thought on North Korea in the next 20 years. There are also several scenarios on how the North and the South might find together. You will have to decide for yourself how likely you find any of these. I would agree with the author that the present system in North Korea will go with a bang rather than reform gradually, but I think that many of his figures are too low. German unification in 1990 was estimated to cost anything up to 800 bn Deutschmarks (roughly 400 bn Euro). So far the German government has spent about ten times as much.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Andrei Lankov’s history and analysis of North Korea is written in an interesting, accessible and engaging journalistic style. He paints a dire picture of contemporary life there. He offers prognoses for the future of North Korean society, and examines policy options for the rest of the world. Along with other authors on North Korea, he argues that the regime is rational, although in a Machiavellian sense, and the people more content than they were. This rationality is however very domain specific, and neither enlightened nor overall. He elsewhere presents the people as seriously oppressed.

Minor quibbles are that the text is often repetitive, the argument at times goes round in circles, and Lankov uses the cumbersome device of referring to himself as ‘the present author’, and then writing in the third person.

There is good coverage of the Kim dynasty and some of the general population, but insufficient coverage of the elite in between the two. Who are the people who devised Juche philosophy, or the people apparently capable of developing nuclear technology almost independently? Where did they come from, and whence their skills? How does the Kim dynasty interact with this elite? It matters, because it poses the question of whether the regime would simply collapse without the Kims, or whether an extensive power elite really controls the Kims and the country.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Refreshingly realistic 7 Jun 2014
By Washand
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
There is so much propaganda about North Korea on both sides of the DMZ that it is hard for the novice on this subject to choose one book that explains everything in a realistic way, but this is it. The author presents the impartial facts in a digestible format and makes predictions on what will happen to NK that are sound and based common sense and a much deeper knowledge of the Korean psychology than most Western politicians can fathom. The "unpredictable" actions of NK leaders become entirely predictable when you understand what motivates them. Korean culture, both north and south, is hard for the Western mind to grasp but this book helps the reader to understand the mindset. Why for example do South Koreans ignore the presence of death camps just a few hundred km north of their border - most South Koreans don't even know they are there and those that do are in denial. Left-wing South Koreans of a certain generation admire, even revere the NK leadership, so how can this be when it is obvious that the Kim dynasty has failed their people so completely. The explanations for conundrums such as these are all in this book, which is both authoritative and accessible.
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Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
North Korea is a far closed and hermetic country. Hard, very hard to find out dsomething reliable about this controversial country. Lankov provides clear and sensible explanations about the mentaslity of the rulers of this country. HE achieve this goal by adopting the point of view of the countries of this área. Lankov is far away of steriotypes and provides a new, refreshing view of this country armed with nuclear weapons. To read this book is neccessary to adquire some understanding of North Korea.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Now I get the picture... 9 Jan 2014
If, like me, you've ever found yourself looking at all the bizarre news and thinking "WHAT ON EARTH IS ALL THAT ABOUT!?", this is the book for you.

Not only has the author impeccable credentials but he explains all of the dynamics, history and rationale of the Pyongyang Regime very clearly and concisely.

A fascinating read.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars wrong timing ?
I had read one of Mr. Lankov's books before and found it very interesting, not only because of his knowledge of North Korea but also the comparisons with his native Russia. Read more
Published 3 months ago by SimonR
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating.
Provides an intriguing insight into the country and its origins. Only comment that prevents it being five stars would be that there is some repetition in the final chapters that... Read more
Published 7 months ago by gd
1.0 out of 5 stars The Fake Korea
"The entire population of Kim Il Sung’s North Korea were subjected to regular health checks. The checks were simple and cheap—like, say, chest X-rays, but they helped to locate... Read more
Published 8 months ago by Zero
5.0 out of 5 stars Beggers belief
A rather interesting and quite in depth look at what life is like in the country, albeit on unverifiable reports. Read more
Published 8 months ago by Dannygordon
5.0 out of 5 stars Balanced and exhaustive view of a mostly unknown society
It is difficult to asses a book on a society that is as closed to the outside world as North Korea. But Lankov seems authoritative and consistent in his own personal recollections... Read more
Published 9 months ago by MA
5.0 out of 5 stars The One to read.
I have now read several books about North Korea and in my mind this is the one to read if you want to find the best one to clarify the questions I had in my mind such as--Do the... Read more
Published 11 months ago by Mr. A. J. Scholefield
5.0 out of 5 stars From The Times: The best book on contemporary North Korea
However horrible and intractable the problem of North Korea, we console ourselves with the assurance that at least we know what is going on in there. Read more
Published 12 months ago by Richard Lloyd Parry
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating and very readable
This books offers a real insight into North Korea and its people written by someone who clearly knows a lot about the country and its political class. Read more
Published 12 months ago by A. Heatley
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