[Book Review] Lankov is one of the world’s top North Korea specialists, publishing in English or Korean, and has the rare benefit of speaking the language and having spent time studying in the North. While getting time on the ground in North Korea can be difficult, too few ‘experts’ have spent much time in either of the Koreas, or even bothered to learn the language – problems readily apparent when talking to many U.S. military, intel agency, or other denizens of government assigned to Korea issues. Given 60+ years of failure to achieve U.S. goals when it comes to the North, maybe it’s time to try learning from folks like Lankov.
The book opens with a history of the North and the ruling Kim family that builds the framework for later chapters explaining why Pyongyang makes the decisions it does (hint: it’s not cause they’re crazy). A couple of quotes that relate to the point:
“The North Korean leaders do not want reforms [AKA more trade/interaction with the outside world, as the U.S. State Dept. is forever trying to foster] because they realize that in the specific conditions produced by the division of their country, such reforms are potentially destabilizing and, if judged from the ruling elite’s point of view, constitute the surest way of political (and, perhaps, physical) suicide.” [Hardcover edition, pg. 112]. The North Korean elite “would be happy to see a North Korean economic boom – as long as they are not going to enjoy this wonderful picture through the window gate of their cell.” [Pg. 118].
The last third of the book focuses on the future and what outsiders could do to foster change inside the North, or at least reduce tensions and enhance regional stability in NE Asia. Here, like other North Korea specialists (many outside of government), Lankov outlines the important role information can play in pressuring the North Korean regime. Ironically, this overlaps with the semi-idiotic movie ‘The Interview’ and the fear and anger it engendered in the North – military and physical threats are not the key, discrediting the leadership in the eyes of the North Korean populace is the key. In Lankov’s words:
“Only North Koreans themselves can change North Korea. […] The only long-term solution, therefore, is to increase internal pressure for a regime transformation, and the major way to achieve this is to increase North Koreans’ awareness of the outside world. If North Koreans learn about the existence of attractive and available alternatives to their regimented and impoverished existence, the almost unavoidable result will be the growth of dissatisfaction toward the current administration. This will create domestic pressure for change […].” [Pg. 215].
While I’m not as sanguine as Lankov that merely introducing knowledge of the outside world would achieve this pressure (people also need ways to secretly and securely communicate their dissatisfaction among like-minded groups, away from internal security police), I fully agree that information offers a powerful alternative tool. Rather than ever more economic sanctions, military threats, or diplomatic complaints, it’s time for a new approach that features information as the largest tool in the kit.