The Hermit Kingdom

Not much is known about the Hermit Kingdom, North Korea. One of the scholars trying to change that is Andrei Lankov, a native Russian who was an exchange student in North Korea in the 1980’s, speaks the language, and has stayed in contact with many ex-patriots as well as officials within in the country throughout his RNKcareer. His third book on the subject, the recently published  The Real North Korea, is a welcome addition to his previous work. Often portrayed in the media as a nation of madmen with little hold on the reality of public diplomacy, Lankov sees the Korean leadership as using brinkmanship and nuclear blackmail as the only way to sustain itself. The logic in its thinking is that it’s the only way left for it to get what it wants, that is, the aid that keeps it in power since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Lankov begins with the founder of the Kim family dynasty, Kim il-Sung, establishing a Stalinist model society after his tutelage in the Soviet Union. He wanted to provide everything his people needed, from housing to food to protection, in a collective state that could compete with the outside world and stand as a legacy to his great leadership. And with the benefit of massive amounts of aid from his benefactor, Stalin, he was able to do so for some time. That was before the economic miracle of South Korea, coupled with the dead weight of an economic system that was unsustainable, especially after the Soviet Union dissolved. Since that time, continuing with his son, Kim Jong-Il, and his grandson, Kim Jong-Un, North Korea has been a country that seeks the protection of China to keep it afloat. China, of course, much prefers the status quo in North Korea to any kind of confederation between the North and the South, that would surely be dominated by the South. But Lankov believes it’s only a matter of time, perhaps ten or twenty years at the most, that the Kim dynasty will remain in power, and that eventually the country will be united in some sort of way. He gives many reasons why, not the least of which is that the Kim dynasty has more interest in perpetuating itself than in making its own people the victims of its failed policies. Lankov demonstrates how this might be achieved. He is a champion of any kind of communication between the people of the North and the South. Even the staunchest supporter of the Kim family could see, without a doubt, the vast difference in the wealth of the two countries. He suggests joint economic ventures, exchange programs, the embrace of North Korean ex-patriots, giving them jobs in something that doesn’t condemn them to the underclass, but rather makes them feel like a part of the South, that they have a real stake in bettering their lives and the lives of their fellow countrymen. Further suggestions are made to the governments that deal with the Kim dynasty. It will never give up its nuclear capacity, it says, because it considers giving up that power would bring the same kind of ruin to their rule as what happened to Gaddhafi or Saddam Hussein. Therefore, the United States policy seems too stringent to him, although he sees the difficulty of allowing the North to keep its facilities when that would be perceived as giving in to blackmail. He thinks engagement between countries is essential to change. If no new facilities could somehow be a part of the bargain, the old facilities would become irrelevant. The Real North Korea is a sober look at a difficult situation, and one can only hope that our diplomats take it into consideration. There is much common sense here, as well as an opening into the mind-set of a dynasty that seems impenetrable. -Steve Corrigan

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