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5.0 out of 5 stars
From The Times: The best book on contemporary North Korea, 16 July 2013
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. A country of starving and brainwashed zombies who pitifully believe themselves to be living in a socialist Utopia. A crazed leader bent on launching a war against his enemies. (At least he doesn't have any way of actually delivering his collection of ramshackle nuclear warheads!) One of the achievements of this brilliant and accessible book is to prove each of these complacent assumptions disastrously wrong.
Andrei Lankov is a child of the Soviet Union, a former resident of Pyongyang, and an academic historian who has established himself as the pre-eminent foreign analyst of North Korea. With dry wit and the authority of personal experience, he describes a country subtler, more complicated, and more bizarrely fascinating than the totalitarian lunatic asylum familiar from the news. "North Korean leaders actually know perfectly well what they are doing," he writes. "They are neither madmen nor ideological zealots, but rather remarkably efficient and cold minded calculators, perhaps the best practitioners of Machiavellian politics that can be found in the modern world."
As an exchange student in the North Korea of the 1980s, Lankov witnessed at first hand a dictatorship which made Stalin's Russia look permissive. After the collapse of the USSR yanked away its economic props, half a million people died from famine. But there was a secondary effect, whose consequences are still being felt today: outside the biggest cities, the state - formerly a brutal and overwhelming presence - withered away like the flesh from the bones of the starving.
As industry, agriculture and the state distribution system failed, people walked away from their idled factories to grow what they could on tiny garden plots, and buy and sell the surplus. Officially, the markets were a grave offence against socialism, but the local enforcers were at it as vigorously as anyone. Despite intermittent attempts over 15 years, the capitalist genie has never been lured back into the bottle, and North Korea has changed forever.
Hundreds of thousands of people have crossed and re-crossed the porous border with China for trade, work, and marriage (these days, those who are caught spend no more than a few months locked up, rather than a lifetime in a gulag). A new generation of entrepreneurs bring back with them DVD players and discs of South Korean television. Many families have a computer, and miniature memory sticks which can contain a library of smuggled books and films. The result is a "the slow-motion erosion of the Kim family dictatorship" whose eventual demise, Lankov insists, is a matter of historical inevitability.
How exactly it will happen is another question. Kim Jong Un won't go to war, because he would be crushed, but no one can attack him because of his conventional artillery and nuclear warheads (which he could deliver not by missile, but in the form of a "trawler bomb", concealed in a civilian ship in Tokyo Bay or San Francisco). There are no signs of serious economic, let alone political, liberalisation - far from sealing its doom, the refusal to reform is the secret of the regime's remarkable survival.
Allow North Koreans a whiff of freedom, and their appetite for it will become uncontrollable. "The human rights and the like might be a great idea," Lankov quotes one apparatchik saying. "But if we start explaining it to our people, we will be killed in no time."
The best strategy, then, is not to isolate with sanctions but to increase North Korea's exposure to the outside world with exchanges, foreign university places, and investment. The change, when it comes, is likely to be sudden and violent, rather than "velvet"; the problems of integrating the impoverished, damaged Northerners into the rich South, and the "de-Kimification" of their society will be vast. "North Korea might look perfectly stable on one Monday morning only to become a chaotic mess by Friday afternoon," Lankov writes. "We should therefore brace ourselves for a long, winding, and, occasionally dangerous drive." There is no better road map than this wise, anecdotally rich and entertaining book.