Monday, January 20, 2014

Andrei Lankov: The Real North Korea

The first two thirds of this book is really really good: history and analysis of North Korea- the kind of thing that you don't really find very often because North Korea is so insulated. The last third of this book is a little suspect: it deals with the future of North Korea and what could and should happen. It's a tad, if not apologetic or forgiving of the Kim Dynasty, not particularly creative in thinking out of the Kim box. And maybe that's not apologetic- maybe it's honest: maybe it's going to be virtually impossible that any sort of progressive state building will come out of North Korea or engagement with North Korea. Andrei Lankov seems to know his stuff and it's possible that there just isn't an optimistic solution.

Lankov was an exchange student in North Korea as a young man growing up in the USSR. He has a unique perspective: unlike Americans who can't fathom anything other than democracy, Lankov lived under communism and watched it decline and a new, semi-open society take over. He, also unlike most Americans, has spent time in North Korea, although with similar restrictions on where he could go and who he could speak to and was supervised by monitors. He uses this perspective along with historical research, current contacts, economics, etc to explain why what many of us perceive as irrational behavior by North Korean heads of state (think nuclear brinkmanship, executions, abductions and playing nuclear powers off of each other (he doesn't explain Dennis Rodman- can anyone explain Dennis Rodman? Can Dennis Rodman explain Dennis Rodman?)) is actually quite rational and successful politics. Successful, in this case, means self-preservation and governance, not, of course, providing a high quality of living for the general population or participating as an important player in the global economy.

North Korea is literally one of a kind: not only has the government kept a more-Stalinist-than-Stalinist-Russia type government going since the 1950s, it's done so with a country with a thriving capitalist economy literally sharing a border and a language just to the South. In Lankov's telling, South Korea is the biggest threat to North Korea- both as a nation and to the dissolution of the nation. North Korea once had a booming economy and now is on par with Somalia, money-wise. South Korea has had the opposite change in fortunes. For the Kim dynasty to change, they'd have to admit they were wrong all of these years- that the enemy was in fact doing it right. Meanwhile, South Korea would have to do something that most nations don't really do very well: absorb an entire country of poor, uneducated people and bring them up to speed. Capitalist countries are much better as treating these people as throwaways, cheap labor- others. Think reconstruction south, how the United States treats Mexico, etc. Further, the two Koreas are technically at war- they are literally enemies. Any reunification would actually be seen as conquering- winner takes all. Not a pretty picture. Everything and anything that the North Korean government does can be seen in this light: they are fighting a hostile enemy. They are fighting for self preservation, fighting for their secret offshore bank accounts, and fighting (lastly) for their ideology.

If you're interested in North Korea, this is a good read. It's almost impossible to know what's "true" when reading about the country: is it the horrid conditions that the people live in? Is it this rational government that Lankov writes about? Is it something else entirely? Lankov gives a perspective: and it's a good one to add to the list of what's out there.


thb said...

After fall of USSR, many of the now "free" countries have struggled economically after the USSR subsidies disappeared. NK is the extreme, Cuba is bust, and many others can't find their way out of poverty and poor govt