All Global Thinkers

Andrei Lankov

South Korea

For reading the Rocket Man of North Korea

Director, Korea Risk Group
Andrei Lankov

This was an anxious year, and North Korea probably caused more of that anxiety than any other state. In 2017, the world was confronted with the reality of Pyongyang’s bomb, its regular missile tests, and its rhetorical blasts to match them. Sixteen separate test launches left Japanese schoolchildren hiding under desks and U.S. and South Korean military analysts tabulating the number of people likely to be killed should war break out on the Korean Peninsula. Between Kim Jong Un’s intransigence and U.S. President Donald Trump’s tweets, the need for sober reads on North Korea grew stronger than ever.

That’s where Andrei Lankov has stepped in, providing a consistent, insightful, and sanguine view on the Hermit Kingdom. Lankov, a North Korea watcher and professor at Seoul’s Kookmin University, has persistently argued that Pyongyang is a rational actor and that its provocations are understandable. “North Korea is not irrational,” he says. “Irrational regimes go extinct. They are highly logical and very resilient, even if their goals are different from ours. The leadership wants to save its regime or, as they probably tell themselves, their state.”

As director of the Korea Risk Group, a North Korea-focused consultancy, Lankov has helped businesses and governments keep a finger on the pulse of the peninsula. “He provides social commentary, a public good, and intellectual heft for academia,” says Steven Denney, a fellow Koreanist.

Lankov is known for his extensive interviewing of North Korean refugees. “Other foreign students of Korea might interview a few,” he says. “But I interview dozens a year and two or three hundred in the past decade. It is sometimes important that I interview them and in their own language instead of working through a translator.” His work is widely distributed around the world, but one of his most important roles this year has been injecting a balanced view of the North into discussions in the South. A Seoul resident since 2004, Lankov is a regular presence in South Korean media, which turns to him for a perspective that’s sometimes missing in a country where analysis is often heavily politicized: The right sees Pyongyang as vicious and irrational and wants to punish it, while the left sees it as an unfairly caricatured underdog that should be engaged.

It “helps to an extent that I speak and write fluent, idiomatic Korean,” Lankov says. “People are interested in what I have to say, too, because views here on North Korea come as political packages, [where] each item is an article of faith not subject to question. But I say something that comes from the conservative package, such as that the regime is brutal, and then something from the liberal, that the regime is rational.”

Lankov’s unusual perspective is, in part, a product of his background. Born in the Soviet Union, he studied in Leningrad and then as an exchange student in 1985 at Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung University. “I know the advantages and disadvantages of the Leninist system, and I saw the disintegration [of the Soviet Union] and the disappointment afterward,” he says — knowledge that gives him special insight into North Korea’s own quasi-communist system.

His experience in North Korea as a 22-year-old student was somewhat limited — while foreigners like him could freely walk around the capital city, they were banned from entering private homes, and their assigned North Korean roommates kept a close eye on them. Lankov acknowledges this deficit. “There are perhaps dozens of people — diplomats and spies and some businesspeople — who have more experience in the country than I do and who know more,” he says. “But they are part of bureaucracies of a very peculiar type, and they can’t be talkative.”

As the Trump administration has grown increasingly bellicose this year, Lankov’s calls for caution have become especially important. “The only way to achieve denuclearization is revolutionary overthrow of the Kim family,” he says. “And then you have Libya or Syria, but with massive stockpiles of [weapons of mass destruction]. Normalization is the way forward, pushing North Korea toward becoming a developmental dictatorship like China under Deng [Xiaoping]. It will still be a brutal regime, but a better one, both for its own people and its neighbors.”

James Palmer is Asia editor at Foreign Policy.

Lankov publishes in English, Russian, and Korean.