Max Fisher covers foreign affairs at The Washington Post’s WorldViews blog.
One particular aerial photo appears in just about every American documentary, book or lecture about North Korea. It shows Northeast Asia at night, with neighboring South Korea, China and Japan aglow while the Hermit Kingdom wallows in such darkness, save a dim flicker from the capital, Pyongyang, that it almost disappears into the sea.
The photo is typically used to show the depths of North Korea’s poverty and backwardness. But maybe it also says something about our struggle to understand North Korea that our most famous photo of this mysterious little country was taken thousands of miles away, from space. It doesn’t even show North Korea, really, so much as the North Korea-shaped hole in our understanding of the world. As a senior Obama administration official told The Washington Post after leader Kim Jong Il died in late 2011: “It is scary how little we really know.”
(Oxford University Press) - “The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia” by Andrei Lakov
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Americans seem increasingly aware of the information gap on North Korea. In early April, as the country issued a barrage of threats, the number of U.S. Google searches for “North Korea” skyrocketed way beyond even those for “President Obama” or “Beyonce.” A Pew Research Center poll found that 36 percent of Americans were following the country “very closely,” an astoundingly high figure for a foreign news story, but they still held misapprehensions about the country’s capabilities.
It could hardly be a better time, then, for “The Real North Korea,” a new book that seeks to answer or at least address the many questions the country poses, such as how it got to be what it is, why its people starve, why Pyongyang threatens nuclear war, how it staves off collapse and what happens when it can’t anymore.
Written by Andrei Lankov, a Soviet-born academic who studied in Pyongyang during the Cold War and has since become one of the most respected scholars on North Korea, 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. His prose is less than electrifying, weighed down by the unnecessary verbiage of the academy (he refers to himself at times as “the present author”) and by digressions clearly meant to satisfy fellow scholars rather than to serve regular readers. Still, readers will come away with a solid understanding of what’s happening in North Korea and why. Lankov illuminates large patches of that North Korea-shaped black hole.
What “The Real North Korea” lacks, unfortunately, is the feeling of immersion, of being there. Lankov has the academic’s unfortunate tendency to comment on history rather than to tell it, making his book not so much a narrative as a series of observations, anecdotes and insights. That can still make for enlightening and often surprising reading. Only Lankov could passingly remark, in a section on North Korea’s onetime efforts to install ideological agitators in the South, that he “personally knows people who once used to commute to Pyongyang via submarine (the usual way of ejecting or infiltrating full-time agents or full-time activists out of and into South Korea).”