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.”

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.

“The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia” by Andrei Lakov (Oxford University Press)

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).”

His insights range from revealing anecdotes — the story, for example, of an ill-considered “special economic zone” in Sinuiju, where Kim Jong Il installed an ultra-wealthy Dutch-Chinese mayor who was jailed by the Chinese police for tax evasion before he ever took office, shutting down the experiment before it began — to a persuasive case for why North Korea would “win” any small skirmish with the South or the United States. Sure, the more sophisticated militaries, if provoked, could easily destroy some “rusty warships” or even a command center. But North Korea doesn’t really need those — it would lose any full-on war anyway — and when the skirmish eventually ended, it could just tell its people that the evil imperialists had limped away in abject surrender. Meanwhile, whatever scant damage North Korea caused would send political ripples through South Korea and the United States, compelling both to buy Pyongyang’s good behavior with concessions. North Korea, Lankov explains, “can raise the stakes with relative impunity.”

Lankov even reproduces, from a North Korean elementary school textbook, this choice math question put to the country’s youngsters: “During the Fatherland Liberation War [the Korean War] the brave uncles of the Korean People’s Army in one battle killed 374 American imperial bastards, who are brutal robbers. The number of prisoners taken was 133 more than the number of American imperial bastards killed. How many bastards were taken prisoner?”

But all the puzzle pieces he gives us never quite add up to a finished picture. Readers will come away with far more knowledge about North Korea, but not much in the way of a unifying vision to hold it all together. That’s not because Lankov has no narrative — to the contrary, he consistently portrays the Kim regime’s behavior as a kind of Stalinist survivalism — he just doesn’t put it to much use.

Experienced North Korea-watchers may find Lankov’s grand theory of North Korea less than grand or groundbreaking. He portrays the country as a Stalinist holdover, a relic and a product of the Cold War that has somehow managed to survive on its leaders’ “Machiavellian,” brutally self-interested management. It’s a persuasive theory and well-argued, but it’s not exactly revelatory.

Lankov holds a unique ideological position within the surprisingly divided community of North Korea-watchers; he describes himself as “a right-wing scholar and a Sunshine policy supporter” (South Korea’s now-defunct, pro-engagement policy is associated with leftists). He’s respected, deservedly, for his valuable ability to bridge that gap. But his cautious centrism can produce banal, tepid arguments, making him neither as provocative nor as captivating as, for example, the left-wing scholar Bruce Cumings or the more right-wing B.R. Myers.

Readers who have a solid background on North Korea but want to more deeply understand it may be better served by Myers’s 2010 book, “The Cleanest Race,” a highly readable and passionately argued case that the country is not a Stalinist Soviet leftover at all but a byproduct of the now-forgotten ethno-fascist Japanese Empire, which colonized Korea in the early 20th century.

Readers who are interested in the country but know little may want to begin with a more straightforward narrative, either Barbara Demick’s powerful “Nothing to Envy,” an illuminating biography of regular North Korean lives, or Blaine Harden’s heart-pumping “Escape From Camp 14,” about the only North Korean known to have been born in one of the country’s horrific gulags and later to have escaped.

“The Real North Korea” is best for readers who are already familiar with terms such as “juche” and “sunshine policy” and who are seeking enlightenment on the mechanics of the world’s most enigmatic state, the minds of its bizarre leaders and what their future looks like. It’s an excellent primer on the experts’ understanding of North Korea and a fascinating series of insights from one of its most respected scholars.

Max Fisher covers foreign affairs at The Washington Post’s WorldViews blog.


Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia

By Andrei Lankov, Oxford Univ. 283 pp. $27.95