“Pyongyang’s brinksmanship indeed appears risky at times,” writes Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, South Korea. “But so far North Korea’s leaders have known where to stop, how not to cross the red line, and how not to provoke an escalation of tensions into a full-scale war.”
Lankov, a prolific commentator on North Korea, is in a good position to make these judgments. In the 1980s, the Russian historian lived in Pyongyang as an exchange student. He’s also one of only a handful of North Korea experts proficient in the Korean language. Odd as it may seem, such a skill is actually a rarity among Pyongyang pundits.
Ever since the world’s most heavily sanctioned country kicked off its two-month bout of war threats earlier this year, commentators have stepped forward to explain what North Korea wants and why. But most of them can’t read Korean, and have never been to North Korea. Lankov’s background gives his book weight.
He rightly insists that we must look to history to understand the nation’s strategy of using the Kim personality cult to resist reform. Founded in 1948, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the official name for the North, was in part a project of the Soviet Union. With tensions building up to the Korean War of 1950 to 1953, Moscow helped prop up the erstwhile guerrilla fighter Kim Il-sung. The “Great Leader” was then seen by his peers as a gauche and awkward figure, hardly fit for command. Yet today, the portly generalissimo is revered in valiant statues and portraits all across the country.