As you know from our North Korea Instagrams, tweets and posts from the last few weeks, I just returned from another fascinating trip through the People’s Paradise, and not a moment too late. Jordan and I landed in Pyongyang in the thick of the “war” breaking out between North and South — remember that? — when the DPRK ripped up that little armistice with the U.S. and went balls-to-the-wall with its nuclear program and threatened to bury South Korea in a “sea of fire” and Kim Jong Un was about to prove that the world is much smaller than we think by sending some long-range greetings to Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and, for some reason, Austin, which I can only assume is retribution for SXSW selling out.
Or, as a local in Pyongyang put it to me, “Distance from here to Guam? 3,000 kilometers. From here to Hawaii? 7,000 kilometers. From Pyongyang to Washington? 10,000 kilometers. You know why I say this?”
I nodded. I’m pretty good with subtlety.
“You think we can reach it?” he asked.
“I think so.” Then he squatted on the sidewalk, lit up a Cabin, and cat-called a Pyongyang traffic girl.
That’s pretty much what the recent shenanigans on the peninsula feel like to me. Speculation, threats, amplification, reaction, braggadocio, alternating under- and over-estimation of what the country can do — followed by a dull fizzle when we remember that the news cycle has the worldview of a paranoid schizophrenic and the attention span of a twelve-year-old Jackass fan who quit his Adderall cold turkey. It’s been 60 years since the war “ended,” and yet we still respond to these gambits with predictable horror. Readers of The North Korea Blog, of course, know the crucial role that fear plays in the upkeep and stability of these regimes. There must be an enemy foaming at the mouth, ready to attack at any second, to justify the strong, loving hand of the state. Outside of the country, the specter of war is equally important, just to keep the powers that be (the U.S. aggressors, the Japanese wolves, the South Korean puppets) on their imperialist toes. It brings us back to the negotiating table, back to the concessions and the promises and the if-we-give-this-and-you-stop-that-will-you-pleases. It works. Hackneyed, thin, mind-numbingly self-interested — but effective.
So I wasn’t going to cancel my trip just because things were getting a little Strangelovey on the peninsula. (Recall my initial reaction to the nuclear test that kicked off this latest scare.) If anything, the manufactured war would only make visiting the DPRK more entertaining. Taedonggang in hand, smile on face, I was assaulted by one question over and over in the Yanggakdo, still brimming with tourists making fun of the imperialist cowards who canceled their trips. “Aren’t you afraid to be here right now? Aren’t you worried war is going to break out any moment?” A quick passage through the Pyongyang Airport (where I was once questioned, searched and swiped like it was The Lives of Others) and a jaunt to the De-Militarized Zone took care of that. I’ve never seen North Korean soldiers so chill before. Their main occupation seems to be posing for photos and reciting the standard script for visitors to Panmunjom. Sorry to burst the Drudge Report bubble, but this is not a country at war. It just isn’t.
Which brings me to my point about Andrei Lankov and why he’s my homeboy.
On the required list of reading for you DPRK-philes out there, Mr. Lankov’s is on top, and not just because he knows the peninsula like it’s nobody’s business (having studied, remarkably, at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang before defecting to the puppets in South Korea, where he teaches at Kookmin University), but because he brings a no-nonsense realism that recognizes the DPRK for what it is without condescending to marginalize the place as an irrational live-action 1984.
It was Lankov, after all, who told us (in the New York Times, no less) to “stay cool” and “call North Korea’s bluff” when the narrative started to smack of Brig. Gen. Jack Ripper, and gave credit where credit was due by recognizing the DPRK’s nuclear legerdemain, “another brilliant example of their skill.” He urged us to look south to the place that spawned Gangnam (the more impressive of the two), where the souls with a front-row seat to immolation were sipping lattes in Seoul with a “calm indifference.” Practice, after all, makes perfect. 60 years of saber-rattling, and the saber loses its edge. “The farther one is from the Korean Peninsula,” he reminded us, “the more one will find people worried about the recent developments here.” Well said. You can understand why it was Lankov that I forwarded to my mother while I was packing for the DPRK. I can’t say he made her feel any better in April, but he got something even better when I landed at LAX safe, satisfied and on my usual DPRK high: Vindication.
And now Lankov is getting much-deserved coverage for his book, The Real North Korea, which is in my queue and which we have added to our required reading for North Korea. The best review comes from the always delightful Economist (the same publication that tempered speculation a few weeks back by calling Pyongyang’s jingoism “a version of ‘Dad’s Army’ in totalitarian drag”), which commends Lankov for getting the DPRK right. This is, after all, “the world’s most rational despotic regime: a highly successful Communist absolute monarchy,” a place that does not get enough credit for being a survivor. Gaddhafi’s golden statue crumpled, Egypt made Tahrir Square a world-defining hashtag, Syria is disintegrating as we speak — and yet the Kims remain. The book is not an apology to the dynasty, of course — just read the subtitle — but an incisive, “unsentimental” (this is important) look at a country with some serious staying power. “The Kims are playing a long game,” writes the Economist, and Lankov explains how. They can cite the distances between Pyongyang and D.C. all they want, but we all know how that would end. They do too. A sea of fire, indeed.
Where others speculate, bloviate or — most commonly — simply entertain by summarizing Korean provocations into bone-chilling headlines that further obscure an already obscure regime, Lankov grounds us in realpolitik and common sense, of which there is an unfortunate dearth when it comes to the hermit kingdom.
All of which is to say that in addition to being smart, honest and well-informed, Lankov is our homeboy. Follow him closely.