Ruediger Frank's New Book on North Korea

October 4, 2014 7:15 AM

Neither of us read German well enough to exploit the advantage of Ruediger Frank’s new book on North Korea, but we wish we could. Rudi has been working on North Korea forever and like a handful of other analysts—Andrei Lankov and Georgy Taloraya come to mind—he brings a perspective to the task that comes from having lived under a state socialist system. We simply reprint Rudi’s pitch below:

"In this book, I combine my expertise as an East Asianist and Economist with my personal insights based on 23 years of travel and interaction with North Korea on various levels, and also draw heavily on my experience as an East German who spent roughly half of his life under socialism. This is in many ways a very personal book, although I fought hard to make it as neutral and objective as I could."

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Adam Cathcart

The publisher's website has a great deal more background on the text, including some short excerpts. Unusually, Dr. Frank elects to use the first person (the better to be transparent about his own subjectivities both in and about the DPRK). This also allows him to return in highly readable ways to his scholarly roots (as his 1996 Ph.D. dissertation was on the North Korean-East German relationship) and engage in some extended discussion of GDR-DPRK parallels and historical gulfs. Recalling his arrival in North Korea in October 1991, Rudiger Frank notes his realization that it was so otherworldly in terms of his own cultural and political reference points in East Germany in the 1980s; Moscow in the 1950s seemed likely to be about the closest parallel. The text does some of the standard introductory work for readers, providing an overview of the DPRK's history with additional emphasis on the growth of nationalism and its fusing together with Confucianism and Communism not so much as ruling philosophies as the elements in the construction of a North Korean 'Weltanschauung.' The Kims and leadership obviously get their due in the text, but here the beauty of the comparative approach seems to shine through: The Kims are not odd men 'looking at things' but typical socialist bureaucrats making promises and dreams that their systems cannot seem to deliver upon. (Frank makes a reference here to the mythological figure Till Eulenspiegel that I do not understand -- perhaps that chaos inevitably will be made of such presumptions of order.) Finally, in spite of Kim Jong-un's nuclear ambitions (can we call them his achievements? certainly he takes credit) and the execution of Uncle Jang Song-taek, Dr. Frank ultimately sees Kim Jong-un as one of various signs of hope that North Korea will be able to change for the better. The third generation leadership, he argues, has shown intensive interest in improving the people's livelihoods, deepened international contacts with its neighbors, set up Special Economic Zones, and expanded universal education. 'These are interesting steps forward,' he writes, seeming to perceive tentative steps toward a broader opening and reform (or as the North Koreans call it, ever paranoid of creeping Dengism, 'adjustments') on the near horizon. Plenty to think about and argue with here; looks like one hell of a good book:

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Stephan Haggard Senior Research Staff