Small Wars Journal

An “Area Study:” North Korea in A Nutshell

Sat, 06/19/2021 - 11:40pm

An “Area Study:” North Korea in A Nutshell

Book Review by David Maxwell


North Korea in a Nutshell: A Contemporary Overview

By Kongdan Oh and Ralph Hassig 

Rowman & Littlefield Publishers (June 11, 2021)

280 pages



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The authors have written one of the most important books on north Korea in recent history. It is not a breakthrough scholarly work (though it is grounded in thorough intellectual rigor).  Its important contribution is that it makes the hermit kingdom and the intelligence community’s “hard target” accessible to the policy maker, strategist, military planner, and perhaps most importantly, to the public.


Many fine and useful area studies have been done by the CIA and the DIA, the military services, and even the historical Special Operations Research Office (SORO) at American University.  In Special Forces we depend on area studies for fundamental knowledge of target countries. I am confident I have read every area study on north Korea.  With no disrespect intended to these fine organizations, there is no better area study than North Korea in A Nutshell.


But this is no dry area study. This is a very well written book that flows smoothly, and while filled with critical facts about the regime, it provides context for these facts and offers perspectives that help the reader to understand how the geography, history, culture, and the regime’s revolutionary thinking influence policy, strategy, and actions. 


This book covers every aspect of north Korea from the military, party, and foreign affairs to relations with South Korea, Japan, China, and the “ultimate enemy,” the U.S.  Each chapter stands alone and the book can be read in any order though I do strongly recommend first reading the introduction and Chapter 1 in order to have a sufficient understanding of the geography and history.  Do not be put off by reading about geography because the authors know well that geography is about the physical terrain and the culture and they weave in important political, economic, and historical information as they describe the unique geography of the north.


Unlike traditional area studies the authors have an important chapter on human rights which begins with the most important point: “north Koreans are not classified according to their loyalty to communism or to a political class but rather to their loyalty to the Kim regime.”  They described the caste-like system of songbun which classifies the people in three classes of the core (28%), wavering (45%), and hostile classes (27%). (p. 70-71).  Human rights is not only a moral imperative, it is a national security issue because Kim Jong-un systematically denies the human rights of the Korean people in the north in order to remain in power. The information on human rights will play a role in not only understanding the suffering of the Korean people in the north but will also assist policy makers in thinking through such things as transitional justice when unification occurs.


Most importantly this book touches on every major concept, idea, and aspect of north Korea to include key terminology, that is necessary for anyone who seeks to work on the north Korean problem: From the “Ten-Point Principles for Solidifying the Party’s Monolithic ideological System,” to the local surveillance system (inminban), to the “Paektu Bloodline,” to weapons of mass destruction and nuclear negotiations, to Offices 38 and 39 (for generating hard currency through illicit activities), to reunification and much more.


For anyone who wants to consider an information and influence activities campaign to target the elite, the second-tier leadership, and the general population, they even provide a suggested “top ten” lies the north Korean media (and Propaganda and Agitation Department) have been telling the nation for decades. (p. 67-68).  It is important to understand how the party controls the media and all communications so that it is able to lie with such impunity.


The ten chapters also provide an outline for deeper study and the footnotes point to important references.  Regardless of a policy maker’s or strategist’s specific focus he or she should read this entire book and then dive deep into the desired topic to expand their understanding.


This book will stand the test of time and as long as the Kim family regime remains in power it will be a critical reference.  Perhaps it could consider a minor update in 5 years just to account for current events but as long as the regime and party structure remain in place this book will be timeless. And even after Korean unification occurs and there is a United Republic of Korea (UROK) this book will be of immense help to understand the modern history of the north.


This book is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the most evil regime in the modern era.  Whether developing policy, political or military plans, contingencies, or considering the unification process, this book should be at the top of any recommended Korean reading list.  It is now on mine.

About the Author(s)

Dave Maxwell is the Editor-in-Chief of Small Wars Journal. He is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He is a 30-year veteran of the US Army, retiring as a Special Forces Colonel. He served over 20 years in Asia, primarily in Korea, Japan, and the Philippines. Colonel Maxwell served on the United Nations Command / Combined Forces Command / United States Forces Korea CJ3 staff where he was a planner for UNC/CFC OPLAN 5027-98 and co-author of the original ROK JCS – UNC/CFC CONPLAN 5029-99. He later served as the Director of Plans, Policy, and Strategy and then Chief of Staff for the Special Operations Command Korea. He commanded the Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines (JSOTF-P), served as the G3 for the United States Army Special Operations Command and culminated his service as a member of the military faculty at the National War College. Following retirement, he served as the Associate Director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Colonel Maxwell is a fellow at the Institute of Corean-American Studies, and on the Board of Directors of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, the International Council of Korean Studies, the Council on Korean-US Security Studies, the Special Operations Research Association, the OSS Society, and the Small Wars Journal. He earned a B.A. in political science from Miami University, and an M.A. in Military Arts and Science from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and from the School of Advanced Military Studies, and an M.S. in National Security Studies from the National War College. Colonel Maxwell teaches Unconventional Warfare and Special Operations for Policy Makers and Strategists.



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