The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia, by Andrei Lankov, Oxford University Press, RRP£17.95/RRP$27.95
It never takes long for the vultures to congregate. As soon as North Korea’s government falls, its people – canny and resourceful as they are – will have little to shield them from conmen, Ponzi schemes and cult leaders. South Korea’s notoriously abusive corporate bosses will rush in to secure cheap labour. Other visitors from the South will arrive with deeds to family lands. Some claims will be genuine; some will be bogus.
There is also the matter of North Korea’s 1.2m-strong army. Robbed of their privileges, the security services will quickly sense opportunities to branch deeper into organised crime, trafficking arms, narcotics and people.
We have seen this mess before, when communism fell in eastern Europe. Andrei Lankov’s The Real North Korea makes an eloquent plea for international policy makers to learn from the 1990s and start smoothing the path now for a less traumatic transition in Pyongyang.
His lucid introduction to North Korea makes clear that, whether it takes one year or 20, this transition is inevitable. His book is an important curative to the unhelpful gaggle of pundits who describe nuclear-armed North Korea as “irrational” or an impenetrable “black box”. In fact, we know the game is up for a rational but manipulative leadership. One of the main strengths of the book is a description of how a ruinous capitalist genie has escaped in North Korea that the state will never be able to squeeze back into the bottle.
Lankov is a Russian scholar based in Seoul who has conducted fascinating research into North Koreans’ growing dependence on sotoji, or private allotments. The state had to allow these because people feared famine. But the market gardens have now blossomed into sophisticated trading networks that Pyongyang cannot control. While everyone is theoretically a state employee, many private traders peddle everything from gold to cigarettes. In 2009 Pyongyang tried to quell the power of this new class by seizing their money in a bungled currency reform. The reform backfired, sparked protests and failed to extinguish the new cadre of capitalists.
Compounding this nascent capitalism, North Koreans are also gaining a better understanding of the outside world from mobile phones, contraband DVDs and short-wave radios. The state propagandists can no longer lie as they once did. Indeed, Lankov’s most direct policy recommendation to accelerate the fall of Kim Jong-eun is to put more effort into increasing the flow of information to North Koreans who will ultimately change the state from the inside. The book does not pretend that this ultimate endgame will be anything other than convulsive; it could well be bloody.
Most of Lankov’s proposals are less confrontational than the information campaign. He readily admits that there is little we can practically do about Pyongyang for now. Foreign governments, such as those in Washington and Seoul, have been unproductively flitting between waving the carrot and the stick at the Kims. Neither works. It is also futile to expect China to deliver a coup de grâce.
Instead, Lankov argues, the international community should consider broader, longer-term plans to ease the pain of unification.
The main challenge is that interaction between ordinary North Koreans and South Koreans – the key to forging a successful state – has, so far, not been auspicious. North Korean refugees in Seoul complain that they are treated as second-class citizens. Lankov fears any precipitous unification would stoke up even more animosity. It would be wise, he argues, to pursue a more gradual process, where the two nations exist in a sort of confederacy for an interim period of 10 to 15 years. Seoul should keep the sharks out; for example, paying compensation to land claimants rather than letting them seize their old estates. South Koreans should also co-operate more now with North Korean refugees to try to build some early semblance of a shared civil society. More refugees should be incorporated into Seoul’s educational and commercial life.
Problematically, Seoul also needs a plan to defang the vicious security apparatus that runs North Korea’s gulags. As a model, Lankov sees the merits of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the (often flouted) rules in eastern European states to ban former security agents from holding office again.
The problem with Lankov’s proposals, as he admits, is that they are slow-burning preparations for change and not the silver bullets that politicians favour. But the recommendations are sensible. Rather than just hope for the best, we should use the final years of Pyongyang’s dictatorship more wisely to ensure a smoother unification for 75m Koreans.
The writer is the FT’s deputy analysis editor and former Korea correspondent