The Real North Korea–Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia; “I have had enough of listening to talk about an irrational and unpredictable North Korea; they could be the greatest bunch of Machiavellians in the modern world”

April 9, 2013, 11:22 AM

North Korea Expert’s New Book Explores Regime’s Inner Logic

By Alexander Martin


Andrei Lankov is one of the world’s top experts on North Korea with decades of experience studying the inner workings of the isolated regime. Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, he graduated from the Leningrad State University, while spending time in the mid-1980s studying as an exchange student at Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung University. He speaks Korean and now teaches history at Kookmin University in Seoul.

In his new book, “The Real North Korea–Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia,” Mr. Lankov delves into what he calls the “inner logic of the North Korean behavior,” and the peculiarities of a society that has seen it survive until this day despite mounting international pressure and domestic economic woes.

Mr. Lankov argues that contrary to the common Western portrayal of the North as a country run by irrational, sadistic madmen, its leaders were in fact cold-minded manipulators who have used saber-rattling successfully for decades to ensure its survival.

“I have had enough of listening to talk about an irrational and unpredictable North Korea … they could be the greatest bunch of Machiavellians in the modern world,” he told KRT.The book begins with an overview of the history of the nation and lives of its people, from how it transformed from a Soviet client state to an “archetypal National Stalinist regime,” under the leadership of its founding father Kim Il Sung. The collapse of the Berlin Wall and the death of Kim Il Sung marks the beginning of the “era of Kim Jong Il,” which is soon followed by the “Great North Korean Famine” of the late 1990s as Pyongyang increased its dependence on using the nuclear weapons card to solicit aid and guide its foreign policy.

But Mr. Lankov says that while the regime could succeed in maintaining its status quo for the next decade or two, it would only prolong economic stagnation and create a greater gap between its neighbors. He says the regime’s “final crisis can be postponed but by no means prevented.”

And if reforms are indeed attempted, he says it would initially be greeted with much enthusiasm by the international media. But North Korean reformers, he warns, be it its current leader Kim Jong Eun or someone else, would first be adored by the public but later considered an obstacle to more “radical change and, eventually, unification with the fabulously rich South.”

Mr. Lankov predicts that such pressure is likely to trigger an outbreak of popular discontent and lead to the collapse of the regime.

“A reforming North Korea will be less, not more stable than the fossilized North Korea of the Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il era,” he said. “North Korea’s problems have no good solutions whatsoever.”

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

Andrei Lankov (Author)

Book Description

Publication Date: May 8, 2013

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.

Editorial Reviews


“[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

About 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.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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