Kirkus Reviews QR Code


Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia

by Andrei Lankov

Pub Date: May 8th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-19-996429-1
Publisher: Oxford Univ.

Examination of North Korea’s misery-producing dictatorship, why it cannot last and how to replace it.

A Russian historian who spent time in North Korea as an exchange student and lived through his own country’s break with Soviet authoritarianism, Lankov (History/Koomkin Univ., Seoul; North of the DMZ: Essays on Daily Life in North Korea, 2007, etc.) offers an astute look into the lethal absurdities of the North Korean regime, from the time of Great Leader Kim Il-sung to grandson Kim Jong-un. To understand the current ossified system, Lankov looks back to the establishment of North Korea as a Soviet “client state” in 1945, when the obscure guerrilla captain Il-sung was installed as leader and the standard Soviet satellite model adopted. The Korean War only solidified the leader’s grip, leading to purges and “a nearly perfect garrison state.” Yet with enormous guile and manipulation, North Korea was able to extract the aid from the Soviet Union and China that helped spur the economic growth of the late 1950s. This cynical manipulation has continued in the ongoing nuclear brinkmanship used by North Korea to extract concessions (and aid) from the United States and China. Until fairly recently, the state has been able to maintain control over the lives of its citizens in a fashion remarkable even by Soviet standards, while the cult of leadership and vilification of South Korea (and the U.S.) contribute to the cohesive repression. While somewhat erratic in his organization, Lankov covers a tremendous amount of ground, lingering in his last thoughtful chapters on how to manage the North Korean crisis that is surely coming. Sanctions won’t work, neither will strikes nor a ground offensive, but only the gradual awakening by the oppressed North Korean populace to the outside world.

A well-reasoned survey by a scholar who excels at long-term thinking.