Andrei Lankov’s book, The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia, includes a brief though useful history of the country’s foundation, an essential review of the impact of the DPRK’s economic decline, an explanation of the North’s domestic and foreign policy strategies, and a pragmatic exploration of policy options. The book, though rich in information and analysis, remains accessible to the general reader, in part because it is peppered with illuminating vignettes and anecdotes.
Lankov is well-known in North Korea policy circles, especially for his condemnation of human rights abuses and impatience with economic policy choices that have the left the DPRK far poorer than its neighbors. Yet Lankov corrects the irritating and unhelpful tendency to view North Korea as a nation of evil perpetrators and their helpless victims. Instead, he describes a society of ordinary people who are not “brainwashed automatons,” an all-too-common assumption of human rights activists who want to “save” the North Korean people. It helps that unlike many authors writing in English he is fluent in Korean and therefore able to draw on a wide range of sources, including interviews with Koreans and reviews of North Korean propaganda.