[Sino-NK Exclusive] North Korea Through the Lankov Prism: Welcome to “The Real North Korea”

By | April 13, 2013 | No Comments

Kim Il-sung giving guidance to party members in 1961 | scan courtesy library of Queen's University, Belfast

Kim Il-sung giving guidance to party members in 1961 | scan courtesy library of Queen’s University, Belfast

Dr. Andrei Lankov, a visiting professor of history at Kookmin University in Seoul, is one of the top researchers and sought-after commentators on North Korean issues in the world today. His new text, The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia, comes out next month. Dr. Lankov generously provided SinoNK with a copy of the draft proofs two months ago and asked us to provide preliminary public reviews of his new text. We have gladly acquiesced to Dr. Lankov’s request, the results of which follow. – Christopher Green, Co-Editor 

North Korea Through the Lankov Prism: Roundtable on “The Real North Korea”

by Sino-NK

Andrei Lankov, The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia. Oxford University Press: New York. ISBN: 0199964297 (Forthcoming: May 8, 2013).

Rooting the DPRK in its Origins | Adam Cathcart

Andrei Lankov’s new text functions as a gloss on, and a distillation of, his previous work. In that sense it is rather like Bruce Cumings’ miniaturized The Korean War (Modern Library, 2011). This is not a text where a great deal of new research will be trotted out, nor is it clotted up with footnotes from the author’s new research. But taking the time to reflect, and having the ability to write with some salt, is worth a great deal.

Factionalism and purges are a vital element in Lankov’s contribution to the historiography, and this text revisits some of that work.  Kim Jong-un has seen his moment in history with Ri Yong-ho, but this is nothing compared to the long series of internecine battles — bureaucratic and otherwise — that Kim Il-sung had with his own cohort. These historical episodes, looking again at how Kim settled into power, are particularly useful to revisit today as a scattering of other new “competitor books” seek to reinterpret the Manchurian guerilla experience.

Before the Korean War, Lankov tells us, Kim Il-sung was “one of many North Korean Communist leaders, merely a primus inter pares in Pyongyang — one whose slightly special standing was largely, or even exclusively, derived from Soviet support.” That was in the years primary to the massive inflating of a historical personality cult, a task undertaken by Kim Jong-il for his own reasons. (Kim took a fateful trip up to the Chinese frontier in 1967, where he was haunted by the clangor of the Red Guards across the river as he sought to build the massive Pochonbo Battle Monument.)

There is an abridged explanation of the factional struggles and purges within the WPK that followed from 1953-1956, done in a style reminiscent of a certain deck of cards, or his 2005 text Crisis in North Korea: The Failure of De-Stalinization, 1956. Revealing how many of Kim Il-song’s comrades were purged, Lankov notes dryly: “Only two of the ten members of that initial Politburo were killed by their enemies rather than by their comrades” (p. 14).

How useful is such a legacy for Kim Jong-un? Lankov chooses not to connect those particular dots. But while Kim Il-sung was surrounded by men who had commanded, in many cases, their own militia—Mu Chong, for example—today Kim Jong-un is surrounded by the descendants of the victors of those very purges. Family guardians, and myths of perfect unity existing since the early days, remain stronger than ever. [The extended version of Adam Cathcart’s review, “Deviants at the Founding,” is available here.]

"Let's open a new phase of national reunification!" | Image: Uriminzokkiri

“Let’s open a new phase of national reunification!” | Image: Uriminzokkiri

North Korean History avec Pith | Christopher Green

To simply criticize Professor Lankov for putting old wine in new bottles would perhaps be unreasonable, for the disappointingly trite reality is that the North Korean authorities really do go out of their way to be inscrutable, casting a veil of strategic fog over their political motivations at every turn. As such, were they ever likely to throw open the door to the archives for anyone, much less someone as outspokenly critical of their choices as Professor Lankov? No, and therefore a text packed with brand new material from start to finish was surely too much to ask.

And, lo, Lankov provides nothing of the sort. Rather, the reader gets a detailed, pithy and eminently readable revisiting of North Korean history, one that includes the post-Kim Jong-il era. While this is not going to engage the expert audience in a meaningful way, it would also be a surprise if this uniquely populist, and popular, author’s legion of fans did not include a proportion who will thank him fulsomely for the historical rollercoaster ride upon which he has them embark.

Besides, the value of “a Lankov” arguably does not lie in the writing itself, but in the energy that surrounds that writing. Lankov, it is worth recalling, truly cares about Korea from the very bottom of his heart, and it is precisely because he cares about Korea in such a visceral way that he is prepared to act in its defense.

An insatiable consumer of “the literature,” he presumably enjoys working in dusty, bookish university libraries, and is no doubt also more than competent at consuming coffee in offices piled high with the fruits of Jstor and DBpia. However, he is simultaneously driven by the will to make some kind of “difference,” to leave the object of his academic affections in a better state than when he found it. In this regard he is arguably rather unique, and as such one should fervently hope that, as the man himself desires, this book is read and discussed in the corridors of power, because it ends on the description of some plans of action that, perhaps unlike tired tales of liquor smuggling in Scandinavia during the 1970s, bear a very great deal of repeating.

"Let's plant and raise even more sunflowers!" | Image: KCNA

“Let’s plant and raise even more sunflowers!” | Image: KCNA

The Regime’s “Logic of Survival” | Steven Denney  

Broadly speaking, there are two reasons why any long-time North Korea-watchers and those simply interested in better understanding North Korea might pick up this book: 1) It gives a comprehensive, learned overview of North Korea from the point of its inception as a state under Soviet tutelage, through the Soviet-North Korean schism, and forward to the modern, post-Kim Il-sung era; and 2) Lankov’s methodology, an approach to scholarship which differs from many conventional academics covering North Korea in that he creates his image of “the real North Korea” from a combination of relatively novel primary source material: defector testimonies, interviews, and personal experiences.

One of the most interesting, and insightful, reads in the book is found in the section on “The Logic of Survival,” wherein Lankov argues that the leadership’s unwillingness to reform “has very rational explanations” and that contrary to popular opinion, “North Korean leaders stubbornly resist reform not because they are ideological zealots who blindly believe in the prescriptions of Juche Idea … nor because they are ignorant of the outside world” (pp. 111-112). To put it in briefer terms, they are rational, Machiavellian-types, who are concerned about maintaining their power and dying of natural causes.  This, then, leads Lankov to speculate (probably quite rightly), “One of the reason behind the remarkable resilience of the North Korean regime is [the] universal assumption of its bureaucrats (including those who are quite low in the pecking order) that they would have no future in case of regime collapse” (p. 115).

Thus, Lankov has added to the recent literature on “what sustains the regime” that in addition to the “pomp serving power” argument put forth in North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics, there is another element to explain resilience and continuity: pure power considerations and a fear of the alternative.

"Let's make Chosun clothing a way of life!" | Image: KCNA

“Let’s make Chosun clothing a way of life!” | Image: KCNA

A Gendered Understanding of the North | Darcie Draudt

Description of wives, consorts, and mothers to the Kim leaders aside (a cursory overview is given in the brief section “Their Majesties and Their Women”), in Andrei Lankov’s newest book we find an interesting introduction to some of the gender-based issues relating to women’s empowerment in North Korea. Though gender is not a major theme of the work, the information Lankov presents on the issues of leadership personnel, the market, and the media does address some concerns about the role of women in the DPRK while also signaling possible areas for future research.

One of the areas of research most ripe for deeper inquiry are the role of women in the market trade, which as Lankov points out has been subject to official policies that have ranged from utter prohibition (1957) to limited tolerance (in the 1990s). “Men seldom trade in North Korea,” writes Lankov, and are in fact banned from doing so unless a household dependent (pp. 122-123). As corroborated in Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland’s well-received 2012 survey of 300 North Korean refugees, despite any policy or rhetoric otherwise, women find themselves marginalized in the male-dominated state, which Lankov mentions in his brief account of actual market activities in contemporary North Korea.

Even so, this passage also gives us a glimpse into what may be some real sympathy for the plight of women: Following the 2007 ban on market trade against women under 50, he mentions some tricks were successfully used to give police grounds on which to look the other way for the sake of their female comrades’ survival. As part of a section the “New Rich” in Pyongyang circa 2012, Lankov’s anecdotal description of one such entrepreneurial woman speaks to how female North Koreans may have a stronger—though legally questionable and very precarious—role in the national economy than simple reading of North Korean law may denote.

Lankov also aptly mentions that the imported 1945 Soviet communism barely revolutionized the “common wisdom” of a girl’s aspiration to find a proper husband and only work as much as would allow time to fulfill duties as mother, wife, and daughter-in-law, as by the late 1930s the Soviet government recognized the usefulness of traditional family roles and forced women back into the home and out of any professional occupation, despite earlier attempts at affirmative action in the 1920s and 1930s (p. 25). According to Dr. Hyun In-ae, a Ewha Women’s University professor and herself a North Korean defector, North Korean women’s empowerment is prevented due to their marginalization in the economy, one which is both systematic and structural. What mechanisms caused women’s roles to decline in the “revolution”? What are the daily life implications for women in market activity? Such accounts of women being defined by their roles in relation to men warrants further research into the underpinnings and cause of such a mode.

"We must preserve peace!" | Image: Blue Funnies

“We must preserve peace!” | Image: Blue Funnies

A “Pyongyang Spring” Forthcoming? | Mycal Ford

The future, a space of time which transcends all human predictabilities, bemuses all those whom are attracted to its allure. Among scholars especially, there seems to be a predisposition with how current events will bode and subsequently unfold in the future—and Andrei Lankov is no exception. In his new book, Lankov, while explicitly acknowledging the slew of challenges with speculation and prediction, daringly characterizes the possible future development of North Korea. His conclusion: North Korea is likely to continue for awhile (but not forever). Lankov unravels four scenarios of the future of North Korea’s likely demise: attempted reforms, factional clashes among the upper echelons of the DPRK leadership, spontaneous uprisings, and a revolt in China that would percolate like a contagion.

Lankov clearly identifies the dangers of, and barriers to, Chinese-style reforms in North Korea. While such reforms essentially threaten the Kim dynasty’s stronghold, North Korea might nevertheless be inclined to attempt to emulate the success of its neighbor. At the outset, a “reformist” government might experience less stability relative to a repressive Kim Jong-il-led North Korea. However, one cannot entirely omit the possibility of such a government hitting the right balance of terror, persuasion and incentives.

While many of the advisors of Kim Jong-un were inherited from his father, their increasing-age and subsequent deaths will, by-and-large, make way for new leadership. Lankov observes that those new positions might be filled by princelings, comrades-in-arms and other privileged groups. As such, the possibility of vastly contrasting views is plausible. Such an outcome could erupt in factional infighting or a purge of prominent officials.

A “Pyongyang Spring” or an outbreak of discontent among the population could set the nation ablaze. Along the border regions between North Korea and China, cell phones, DVDs, CDs, and other subversive technology are rapid. Gone are the days of solitude. And while North Koreans are still too fearful and isolated from one another, the DPRK iron-fist is loosening. The possibility of a hot spring emerging from beneath the ground and scorching that hand that has for far too long sealed the tectonic plates cannot be entirely ruled-out just yet.

Further Reading

Adam Cathcart and Charles Kraus, “Peripheral Influence: The Sinuiju Student Incident and the Soviet Occupation of North Korea, 1945-1947,” Journal of Korean Studies Vol. 13, No. 1 (Fall 2008), 1-28.

Andrei Lankov, Crisis in North Korea: The Failure of De-Stalinization, 1956 (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005).

Andrei Lankov, North of the DMZ: Essays on Daily Life in North Korea (Jefferson, N.C. and London: McFarland & Co., 2007).

Andrei Lankov, “A False Dichotomy: Professor Andrei Lankov on a Popular Revolution Imposed from Without,” SinoNK, February 18, 2013.

Christopher Green, “Wrapped in a Fog: On the North Korean Constitution and the Ten Principles,” SinoNK, June 5, 2012.

Christopher Green and Steven Denney, “Ancestor Shadows and Strategic Fog: A Parting Shot at the Kim Jong-un Speech,” SinoNK, January 4, 2013.

Julia Strauss, “Paternalist Terror: The Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries and Regime Consolidation in the People’s Republic of China, 1950-1953,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 44:1 (Jan., 2002): 80-103.

Peter Ward, “All the World’s a Stage: Looking again at North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics,” SinoNK, March 25, 2013.

Roger Cavazos, “The Passing of Kim Jong-il: North Korea Still Mired in ‘Charismatic Politics,” a review of North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics, SinoNK, December 17, 2012.

Steven Denney, “China’s Pragmatic Approach to the North Korean Problem,” Interview with Andrei Lankov,  SinoNK, April 11, 2012.

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