The Real North Korea

Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia
Narrated by: Steven Roy Grimsley
Length: 10 hrs and 59 mins
Categories: History, Asia
4.4 out of 5 stars (502 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

Andrei Lankov has gone where few outsiders have ever been. A native of the former Soviet Union, he lived as an exchange student in North Korea in the 1980s. He has studied it for his entire career, using his fluency in Korean and personal contacts to build a rich, nuanced understanding. In The Real North Korea, Lankov substitutes cold, clear analysis for the overheated rhetoric surrounding this opaque police state. After providing an accessible history of the nation, he turns his focus to what North Korea is, what its leadership thinks, and how its people cope with living in such an oppressive and poor place. He argues that North Korea is not irrational, and nothing shows this better than its continuing survival against all odds. A living political fossil, it clings to existence in the face of limited resources and a zombie economy, manipulating great powers despite its weakness. Its leaders are not ideological zealots or madmen, but perhaps the best practitioners of Machiavellian politics that can be found in the modern world. Even though they preside over a failed state, they have successfully used diplomacy - including nuclear threats - to extract support from other nations. But while the people in charge have been ruthless and successful in holding on to power, Lankov goes on to argue that this cannot continue forever, since the old system is slowly falling apart. In the long run, with or without reform, the regime is unsustainable. Lankov contends that reforms, if attempted, will trigger a dramatic implosion of the regime. They will not prolong its existence.

Based on vast expertise, this book reveals how average North Koreans live, how their leaders rule, and how both survive.

©2013 Andrei Lankov (P)2014 Audible Inc.

What listeners say about The Real North Korea

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  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

Broad and nuanced account of North Korea

Of all the countries in the world, North Korea must be among the worst places to be born. In terms of GDP, North Korea is as poor as Ghana. But the worst part of being born in North Korea is without doubt the brutal leadership. Kim jong un and Kim jong il before him, are prepared to do anything to save themselves from the pressures they are facing, from within their own nation as well as from the outside. They are not, as one might think, naive. Rather they know exactly what they need to do in order to stay in power. Unfortunately for the common people in North Korea, this entails a ruthless big brother society where the smallest signs of disobedience or doubt in the North Korean leadership, are severely punished.

The author, Andrei Lankov, has the right profile to tell the story of North Korea. He is a Russian citizen who has visited North Korea many times over the past 3-4 decades. He does not seem to biased in favor of any particular view, and he demolishes a number of myths and exaggerations that are popular in the west. For example, I have always thought that there was no private market in North Korea, but this is false. While North Korea, officially do not have a private market, in practice they do have a growing private market, and the people running them tends to be rich compared to other North Korean citizens. As long as these people behave according to a set of informal rules, the government, realizing their utility, leaves them and their businesses alone.

Even though Lankov exposes western exaggerations, he also describes the atrocities of the North Korean leadership and the resulting suffering that the North Korean people must consequently endure. All in all, the book provides a nuanced and multifaceted account of North Korea, from a historical and a contemporary perspective. If you want to understand this mysterious country better, this book is for you.

12 people found this helpful

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  • RP
  • 03-17-15

A thorough look at the puzzle that is North Korea

What made the experience of listening to The Real North Korea the most enjoyable?

What I enjoyed most was the unique perspective of its author, Andrei Lankov, who grew up in the former Soviet Union, a sometime ally of North Korea, and lived in North Korea as an exchange student. This is a clear analysis of the politics and their consequences in North Korea, backed up by personal experience and research from numerous sources to add depth and interest to this book. There is no hype or anti-east / anti-west rhetoric, just analysis of a very puzzling country.

What was the most compelling aspect of this narrative?

The author's experience is unique in that he understands the things that puzzle outsiders who lack such experience. For example, he explains why the North Korean leaders are not irrational: they merely appear that way to outsiders as they act in order to maintain power within North Korea. Despite the general repulsiveness of the Kim regime to outsiders, and their surface irrationality, the Kims are just crazy like foxes.

What does Steven Roy Grimsley bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?

His intonation helps a great deal in helping the book flow, and making it easier to follow the author's tone and thread of thought in the writing. As a Korean speaker, a few incorrect pronunciations of Korea words (due to how they are romanized in print) were harder for me to follow, but were not a problem.

Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

It took a number of commutes home to get through this, but it was always fascinating.

Any additional comments?

I liked that the author concluded with some suggestions of how individuals can help in moving North Korea into the modern era.

11 people found this helpful

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Bugjjog Hangug

Andrei Lankov has an excellent prospective on "The Real North Korea" (Bugjjog Hangug). Instead of focusing on the day to day lives in North Korea, he goes in depth in the mystery on the communist country. Frontline has done a documentary base on Lankov's studies. If you are looking for books on socialism on this backward thinking country, there are many other titles out there, such as, "Nothing to Envy", or those two reporters from the United States that got captured. Those books are very dramatic on labor camps, torture, famine and whatever else the medias focus on.

"The Real North Korea" was written to understand the structure of the broken country that won't survive to the next century.

5 people found this helpful

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Unique insight into the complex situation in Korea

Would you consider the audio edition of The Real North Korea to be better than the print version?

I think so - the complex nature of the relationships and history made is easier to understand in this format.

What about Steven Roy Grimsley’s performance did you like?

His voice leant an appropriate gravitas to the subject matter.

Any additional comments?

This was a fascinating and unique insight into modern day North Korea; it's relationships with the outside world and daily life in the region have become clearer to me now, and the quick-to-judge, headline grabbing media treatment of the country can now be read with appropriate skepticism. The discussion of the future of North Korea, and how we in the international community might handle the inevitable collapse was also very interesting and informative.
I will probably give this one a second listen.

3 people found this helpful

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Outstanding

Thoughtful analysis of the past, present, and future situation in North Korea. Best assessment I've read. Strongly recommend this for both the interested layman and the scholar.

3 people found this helpful

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great listen. good information

I found the book's history of Korea informative. The future possibilities and geopolitical analysis was very good and interesting

3 people found this helpful

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eye opening

loved this book. if you have any interest in politics and understanding N Korea and why they do what they do.. give this a listen

2 people found this helpful

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Insightful, objective view of North Korea

A very informed look into North Korea that presents all the discussion points in a format that shows no political agenda.
Just a great history book

2 people found this helpful

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Interesting on why the regime behaves as it does

An interesting discussion of the logic of the Kim family's political survival and behavior, and of what this means for the future of Korea. Overall it was informative, but the author eventually struck me to be repeating or contradict himself. I like how he deconstructs naive ways of looking at North Korea, but he ends up in a patronizing sort of pessimism that's maybe a bit over the top. I'm glad I read it, though.

1 person found this helpful

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  • Ce
  • 03-21-15

Exceptional Primer on the DPRK

The author's unique perspective as a former Soviet citizen lends credence to his expertise. A great overview of the Hermit Kingdom.

2 people found this helpful

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  • "martynthompson"
  • 09-14-20

Fantastic

For those who have read or listened to many North Korean related articles and books, this one picks up where the others all finish. It does make a few assumption that you are aware of the basic facts of the nation, but this allows it to delve much deeper in to detailed potential solutions and drawbacks of the reunification issue that other books don't come close to addressing.

1 person found this helpful

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  • Martin S.
  • 03-26-17

Really quite good

I really enjoyed this book. It was very informative, explaining the political and economic issues surrounding North Korea without ever going over my head... also gave a fair account of events without ever resorting to using weasel words or out right criticism.

My only two relatively minor gripes were:

- A few times the author practically repeated a point or sentence he had already made, almost word for word

- The narrator sometimes paused excessively.

but these are very forgivable




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  • Adrian J. Smith
  • 10-17-20

Blows away the MSM narrative

As a long time North Korea observer, including visiting the country itself, one would ask, could The Real North Korea offer much to old or new North Korea enthusiasts alike? The answer is yes, and some profound insights. What Lankov's book is not is sensationalist in any way. The insights Lankov provides are profoundly rational and provide a very different frame to the general mainstream media narrative. The insights offered by Lankov are thus; North Korea is not a place motivated by rigid ideology and its leaders are not hardline ideologues, rather, they are profoundly rational people, and North Korea's survival against the odds is a testament to this. North Korea's leaders are perhaps the most skilful practitioners of Machiavellian politics in the world today, and they do this with reluctance as there are no easy options before them. North Korea is a profoundly economically inefficient state that is liable to collapse in the near or long-term and North Korea's nuclear program is a form of economic blackmail to the international community. Brinksmanship and provocation are in fact, profoundly rational and calculated actions designed to create the necessary tension to back up North Korea's nuclear diplomacy. As Lankov reveals, North Korea has always depended on aid, even in the 1950s and 60s, its most prosperous period. It has successfully played off the Soviets against China, China against the Soviets and has maintained a careful balancing act throughout to maintain national independence. The first part of the book examines the history of North Korea, with an interesting, though not romantic examination of the life of Kim Il Sung, following onto the eventual collapse of the North Korean economy in the arduous march of the 1990s, and the examination of the North Korea of Kim Jong Il, surprisingly, a very different North Korea from the North Korea of his father. As a long term North Korea buff, this book was a true eye opener and really changed my views on the Hermit Kingdom. The book is very well researched, insightful, comprehensive and highly readable. The narration by Steven Grimsley has a tone of seriousness that keeps the excitement throughout. Overall, a superb book, one of the best books this reader has read in the past 2 years.

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 05-27-19

Excellent book

Portraying the Kim leadership as irrational and childish might make for great film and late night television skits but it doesn't reflect the solemn reality of nuclear brinksmanship and the unimaginable hardship that millions of North Koreans face every day. This book explains why North Korean leadership behaves the way it does and possible policy solutions that could help steer the situation in a different direction. The author is compassionate to the situation of everyday North Koreans and their voices are heard in this book. A must read for anyone who would like to know more about the situation in DPRK and is interested in forming a more nuanced understanding about the way that the Kim regime operates on the world stage.

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  • Rhys
  • 11-27-18

Excellently read, excellently written

Loved it, finished it quickly and with great interest. The narrator is very good, would definitely listen to more. The author is also brilliant and would love to hear more from him.

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  • ShaneRooney
  • 01-24-17

A good political view of past, present & future

An detailed view on how NK got to where it is and what the future may hold for NK.

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 12-05-16

Almost perfect.

A very interesting history of North Korea and a fair take on its possible future. The performance can be a little dry but it suits the subject matter.

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  • Andrew
  • 02-25-16

Very good

A very good book that's seems to sum up North Korea very well with some forecasts on what could happen in the future.

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  • PHILLIP
  • 07-29-14

Great Insight

Would you consider the audio edition of The Real North Korea to be better than the print version?

Yes, the narration was very well done and made for an easy read. The narrators deep voice and American accent are clear and crisp.

Who was your favorite character and why?

The general theme of the book was what interested me, getting a real insight into the North Korean way of life has interested me for years. The book provides real knowledge into the North Korean regime and how the North live in comparison to the south, it also provides a look at possible outcomes for when the Kim dynasty fall's. Possible reunification or keeping the North as a separate state.

Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

I would listen to this book in short stints as it can be very deep with a lot to take in, I did it within a week.