A historic moment for N. Korea watchers





...Seoul-based historian Andrei Lankov spent the early 1990s anticipating something that hasn't happened. In his 30s at the time - "just a beginner," Lankov recalled - he felt certain that North Korea would collapse after leader Kim Il Sung's death. He planned his life around it. He craved the firsthand research that North Korea's collapse would allow. He called it his "top academic ambition" to enter the nation that operated like a vault, turning the imagined into the tactile. He's still waiting.

Lankov speaks with unusual frankness about the limitations of his knowledge, even though he attended college in Pyongyang in the mid-1980s. (He was later blacklisted from reentry for 20 years, having been accused by Pyongyang of operating as a South Korean spy.)

Some topics, of course, Lankov knows quite well. He knows the prices, more or less, of basic food commodities. He knows about changes in attitudes among the people, based on interviews with defectors. He knows about history from the 1940s and '50s, based on declassified documents. A commentator with breathless enthusiasm, he gladly speaks about any of these subjects - adding tangents about the history of Korean cattle, or elevators - for all willing to listen. But he doesn't know much about the topics he's asked about most frequently: political factions, power struggles, succession strategy, Kim Jong Il's thinking....


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