The Real North Korea | Andrei Lankov

Summary of: The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia
By: Andrei Lankov


Dive into a revealing exploration of the enigmatic North Korea in this summary of André Lankov’s ‘The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia’. Uncover the secretive dictatorship that has existed since the late 1940s, initially under the rule of Kim Il Sung and now under the control of his grandson, Kim Jong Un. Grasp the workings of a ‘communist monarchy’ and the caste system of the sŏngbun, which determines status and opportunities. Witness how the regime’s ultimate goal is self-preservation, and learn how North Korea’s collapse may be closer than you think.

North Korea’s Communist Monarchy

North Korea’s history as a communist monarchy and the factors that have sustained its regime are explored in this summary.

Since the late 1940s, North Korea has been ruled by a “National Stalinist” dictatorship. After the Soviet Union took possession of Korea’s northern half in 1945, Kim Il Sung was chosen to lead the new “People’s Republic”. Purges during the 1950s allowed Kim Il Sung to replace Soviet government appointees with his own loyalists, forming a Maoist communist state where the state would provide all basic needs. Kim Il Sung created a personality cult that went even further than those in China and Stalinist USSR. Upon his death, his son, Kim Jong Il, succeeded him, and when he died, his son, Kim Jong Un, came to power, making North Korea unique in the world as a “communist monarchy.”

Between one and two million North Koreans work for the regime out of a total population of 24 million, most of whom live in poverty. North Korea’s leaders are often portrayed as zealous ideologues or sadistic killers, but they are ultimately human and not necessarily either. They are shrewd, effective and brutal leaders, perhaps the most ruthless and Machiavellian in the world today.

Despite its isolation and frequent tensions with the rest of the world, North Korea’s regime has sustained itself through a combination of factors. The prosperity of South Korea, in particular, is a significant geopolitical concern for the North Korean leaders. The per capita income ratio between the two countries is somewhere between 15:1 and 40:1, and North Korean leaders fear that if their people learn how their southern neighbors live, they might revolt and topple the regime. This fear largely explains North Korea’s isolation and resistance to reform, but it may also be the regime’s undoing. The slow but palpable improvement in North Korea’s economic situation may lead to changes that North Korea’s leaders are unprepared for.

North Korea’s Authoritarian Regime

North Korea is a reclusive state with an authoritarian regime operating on a philosophy called Juche and sustained by a pervasive personality cult around its leader, Kim Il Sung. The state exercises strict control of people’s work, consumption, residence, and travel, requiring all citizens to join one of its many organizations and attend mandatory indoctrination meetings. The average household monthly income is between $25 and $40, and per capita GDP, akin to that of Kenya’s or Chad’s. Farmers are allowed tiny private plots, and travel outside one’s city or county requires a permit. Even today, North Korea employs about 300,000 paid informers, who continue to monitor citizens’ every move. The regime’s economic stagnation could lead to bankruptcy, but systemic collapse is possible if reforms are implemented.

Limited Access Information in North Korea

North Koreans are strongly prohibited from accessing outside world’s information – they only have access to state broadcasts on their radio or TV sets, and must get security clearance to use foreign collections in libraries. Back issues of many periodicals including North Korean newspapers are also restricted. Moreover, the state has engaged in formidable internal propaganda for decades aimed at misinforming its people about the outside world, especially South Korea, and their country’s history.

North Korea’s Caste System

North Korea’s sŏngbun system is a hereditary caste hierarchy that ranks individuals based on their ancestors’ actions and affects their social status, education, and job opportunities. Dissent is punished for generations to come, making it a powerful means of suppression. The system was introduced by Kim Il Sung and is still in place today. Political criminals simply disappear, and as of 2012, 100,000 inmates were held in political prison camps. In the 1990s, events caused crises that led to a loosening of controls, resulting in corruption and a thriving private market. Although aspects of political control still exist, they lack strict enforcement, and it’s possible to skip indoctrination meetings by paying a bribe. North Korea remains a problem for the outside world because, in order to survive, its decision-makers have no choice but to live dangerously.

The Resilience of Private Enterprise in North Korea

Despite a series of devastating events that led to the Great Korean Famine in the mid-1990s, North Korean farmers were able to bounce back by cultivating illegal private fields, which now account for 20% of the country’s harvests. This marked the emergence of a private economy that further developed as people struggled to survive by producing and selling handicrafts. Women became the mainstay of this private commerce, given the patriarchal society’s limited options for men. However, the government’s aim is towards regime survival, and its nuclear weapons program is just one of many strategies deployed towards this objective. The thriving private economy operated across the Chinese border, involving both imports and exports, to fuel the development of a middle class. Today, informal economic activities contribute 78% of North Koreans’ average total household income. The late 1990s saw advancements in communication technology, which led citizens to enjoy the use of cellphones, inexpensive VCRs and DVD players, and computers to a lesser degree.

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