What I’m Reading: Andrei Lankov, ‘North of the DMZ’

lankov.jpgBack in the 1980s, one of my Russian friends who was then in her early 20s, worked as an interpreter at a joint venture between North Korea and the Soviet Union. She was by no means a prude herself …, but she was somewhat shocked by the amount of sexual banter which her female North Korean colleagues engaged in. For the entire summer when the girls were on their own, they tried to learn as much as possible about the sexual habits of the then Soviet youngsters, and also graphically discussed related subjects among themselves. These sex-crazed North Korean girls ….

But that is another story.  At least I have your attention. 

For the last year, I’ve been waiting  to read  Dr. Andrei  Lankov’s new book,  which is  about what all the other North Korea books are not about:  daily life.  It does not disappoint, and I’ve  found it hard to close and put down.  Lankov  acquired much of his material  by  living in North Korea among the North Korean people.   Without minimizing the regime’s repressive nature, Lankov  shows us that the North Koreans  aren’t really made of diodes and servos after all.   At least in Pyongyang where his experiences seem to have been concentrated, life is still  … life.  By helping us understand the human motivations that drive North Koreans, he helps us to find ways to reach them.

Lankov doesn’t believe  North Korea’s  problems will be solved as long as Kim Jong Il runs it.   He believes  in the power of subversion  — that North Korea will only change when we  expose  the ordinary human needs of its people to a world in which  so many more of those needs can be met.  I strongly  agree.  But I don’t agree  that it can be done without plenty of smuggling, subversive broadcasting, and in the end, violent resistance in some form.  Dr. Lankov has graciously agreed to have the Great Regime Change Debate here.  Get your own copy and join  us, hopefully  in about two weeks.


  1. My copy is in the mail and I can’t wait to start reading through it. I have always liked Lankov’s writings and perspective so this is sure to be a great read.

  2. I am looking forward to getting Dr. Lankov’s book as well. I follow his articles regularly in the Korea Times. I’m sure this book will be interesting reading.

    There was another book I was interested in getting some time ago. It was by Dr. Norbert Vollertsen. Everywhere I have searched for his book results in dead ends. It appears he did have a book, but now it’s out of print and I can’t even find a used copy. Do you know anything of this?

  3. Could someone tell me whether this book is actually a collection of articles Lankov wrote earlier for the (online) Korea Times or whether this is actually all new stuff ? I would appreciate if somebody could comment on this (they were posted online under ‘Another Korea’) ??

    Another reservation I would have about the book is whether Lankov’s insight of NK is still relevant today. He seems to lean on his experiences whilst living there, yet that’s actually a very long time ago. Everybody knows that NK must have changed drastically ever since.

    With regards to Norberts book, apparantly an independent German publisher has released a few copies yet it never made its way through to the usual book distributors. The book is available as long as you can pay for it.

  4. 1. Yes, Andrei told me that this is based on his KT essays, although he tells me that he edited it considerably.

    2. Andrei has been back to P’yang a few times since then, and his most recent impressions were quite deep, regarding how much popular feeling has changed. So yes, I think his experiences center around 20+ years ago, but they don’t just abruptly end there.

    3. Actually, my own concern — I mean to ask him this — is that his experience is skewed toward P’yang, which isn’t necessarily representative of North Korea as a whole. I mean, just look at NK on Google Earth.

    Either way, if you want some expert understanding of how people live in North Korea, you’re not going to find a perfect example. You just have to devour all of these experiences — Kang Chol Hwan’s, Bradley Martin’s, and Lankov’s, and weave your own contextual web into which you can put such curious events as soccer riots and reports of unrest in the North.

  5. Point 3 is a very good one and very valid. As one becomes aware Pyongyang is NK’s model city, one would be very eager to find out more about other area’s in the North. I guess readers do get spoiled. Perhaps ‘Paradise Now’ is some help as it does give a bit of insight of one family somewhere in Onsong, perhaps some further translations of books published in Japan could enrich our insights at some point – in case they’d ever become translated. That having said, I think I’ll wait till the online price drops a bit – and then buy it.

  6. I received my copy from Amazon earlier this week. So far I have skipped around and read only a handful of the essays in various chapters, but I am very impressed with Lankov’s writing style and the variety of subjects.

Leave a Reply

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