North of the DMZ (Review)

Posted January 9, 2007

Categories: Articles, Book Reviews, Korea

Review of Andrei Lankov, North of the DMZ (McFarland and Co., Inc. 2007), 346 pages.


In general, scholars love the countries they study. Those who focus on Nicaragua can’t wait to visit the country. Experts on Morocco eagerly await the day they can live there to do fieldwork or archival research.


But when it comes to most observers of North Korea, familiarity breeds contempt. Scholars of North Korea rarely have a chance to visit the country. And a palpable dislike can be felt in their descriptions of the politics, economics, and society of the country.


The Russian scholar Andrei Lankov is an exception to this rule. He has no love for the North Korea government. But he has an abiding respect for North Korean people and society. In his new collection of essays North of the DMZ, Lankov takes aim at the ridiculous stereotypes of North Koreans that are found so often in the descriptions of foreigners.


“The North Koreans are not brainwashed robots, whose idea of fun is to goose-step while singing songs about the greatness of the Dear Leader,” Lankov writes. “They work, fall in love, earn their living, have sex, quarrel with bosses, enjoy good food (when they can afford it) or interesting conversation, get themselves drunk, bring up children, and do the thousands of other mundane things which normal human beings do.”


Having studied in Pyongyang in the 1980s and returned on several occasions, Lankov has had unusual access to the country. He is fluent in Korean. He can make very useful comparisons between the North Korean and Soviet experiences. And he can write quite well in English, which ensures that his observations have much wider influence.


But what makes Lankov most unusual is his degree of empathy. Like a good anthropologist, he is able to put himself in the shoes of the people he is writing about. His empathy is even, at times, startling. For instance, when he studied in Pyongyang in 1984, he knew quite well that his North Korean roommate was also an informant for police security. “However, though our roommates were supposed to spy on us, many of them turned out to be clever and interesting people,” Lankov writes, “and I still remember them with great respect.”


North of the DMZ is valuable not simply for the attitude of the author. Lankov has managed, again like a good anthropologist, to give a detailed description of North Korean life. He brings you into self-criticism meetings, inside people’s apartments, and down into the Pyongyang metro. It is probably one of the best guides to the daily life of North Koreans available in English.


Consider, for example, his description of the care and cleaning of the portraits of the North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Most observers would consider it sufficient to note that the portraits are everywhere, that they are treated reverentially, and that there are penalties for those who damage them.

But Lankov goes further. He provides the concrete details: “Every set comes with a special box which is used to keep tools for maintaining the portraits. Inside such a box there are two pieces of soft cloth for cleaning the portraits and a bush. The cleaning should be done daily. In offices and schools, the local cadres are responsible for organizing proper cleaning, and the quality of the job is checked by random inspections by more senior cadres. It is a major sin to have portraits undusted, and even unintentional damage to the portraits is a serious problem.” Such a description would do an anthropologist (or a novelist) proud.


Another strength of North of the DMZ is Lankov’s comparative skills. He is often able to bring in his knowledge of the Soviet sphere to show similarities and differences with the North Korean reality. So, for instance, he points out that what North Koreans have generally had to endure every day in terms of political indoctrination – three to four hours – was at most the weekly requirement for average Eastern Europeans. And the propaganda of North Korea’s Russian-language magazine was so crude, Lankov reports, that Soviet barbershops would put them out for patrons to chuckle over.


Lankov is also able to tell some revealing stories about North Koreans in the Soviet Union. For instance, Ho Chin was a student in Moscow in the 1957 when he led a group of young North Koreans who petitioned the Soviet government for political asylum. Allowed to stay, he became an outspoken journalist and writer. In fact, he was so outspoken that the North Korean spy agency kidnapped him and was prepared to shuffle him back to North Korea. But he escaped and went on to publish a book about North Korean exiles in the Soviet Union. That Ho Chin was able to do this kind of work in Russia at that time speaks volumes about the differences between the Soviet Union and North Korea.


Andrei Lankov has also spent considerable time in South Korea, which gives him an opportunity to remind readers of similarities between North and South. It wasn’t long ago, he writes, that both Pyongyang and Seoul launched austerity campaigns targeting short skirts and lavish weddings. And it also wasn’t long ago that North Korea was the technological leader, not South Korea. It was, after all, Pyongyang that introduced color television in 1974, six years before Seoul did. And the Pyongyang metro started up a full year before the Seoul metro.


North of the DMZ is not without its flaws. There are no footnotes, and Lankov throws around statistics that have dubious parentage. How does he know that 20 percent of the North Korean population owns a camera, or that 5-10 percent own VCRs? Are these figures from the North Korean government, the South Korean government, or interviews with North Korean defectors?


Also, Lankov has a strange notion that the political left is stronger in South Korea than it really is. “In South Korea,” he writes, “the Left is increasingly powerful in academia and the media.” But particularly in the last five years, the media has moved increasingly rightward in its attacks on the Roh Moo-Hyun government. What irks Lankov, of course, is the tendency in South Korea to downplay the importance of human rights abuses in North Korea. But this is not a function of leftist tendencies in the media or academia. Rather, it has to do with the way engagement has been framed by the political mainstream.


Finally, the book could have used a bit of editing. Most of the essays originally appeared as columns in Korea Times and Asia Times.  When he brought them together into a book, Lankov should have paid a bit more attention to editing out the repetition.


Not everyone will like Lankov’s style. He is sure to offend many with his rather blunt remarks and his occasional lapses into Cold War rhetoric. But he takes North Korea – and North Koreans – very seriously. All students of North Korea would benefit from taking his latest book seriously as well.

Korean Quarterly, Winter 2007

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *