Category Archives: North Korea

North Korean Defector – Kim Choong Sung

As a counterpart to my Understanding North Korea articles, I did a few interviews with North Korean defectors. These people are  taking huge risks in talking to me, but they feel it is important to raise awareness of the difficulties faced by North Koreans.

Special thanks to M.Y. Sung, without whose translation these interviews would have been impossible.

Kim “Loyalty” Choong Sung. Defected in 2001, arrived in South Korea in 2004.

Who Are You?

I am from Ham-heung in Ham-gyeong-nam-do, a northern province in North Korea.

[For a while] life in North Korea was okay because I was a pop singer. NK-pop is like opera. I mean, North Korean pop singers learn a classical music style of singing. This is because in NK, singers should be able to sing without the help of a mic and speaker, like in the case of wartime, when no electricity would be available.

There are governmental auditions, so if one has a talent in singing, the government gives him or her the chance to receive university education.

‘Loyalty’ is not my original name. It was given to me by a missionary I met in China. ‘Loyalty’ is a word that appears frequently in the Bible. The missionary told me, “you’ve been loyal to Kim Il Sung, but now be loyal to God.”

Why did you Leave?

In other countries like Canada and South Korea, individuals can own gold, but in North Korea, they can’t. All gold belonged to Kim Jeong Il. So, if someone buys or sells gold, they are supposed to be executed. I had tried selling various things like salt, fish, and clothes, but at some point I couldn’t do it anymore because it was too hard [to make enough money]. Around that time, someone told me that I would be able to make a profit if I sell gold, though it’s dangerous. So I started selling gold, but got caught.

I got caught around the border between NK and China. And just one day before I got caught, Kim Jeong Il ordered to crack down on gold sellers and execute them. So I was about to be made an example of. I was told that I was going to be executed the next day. That night, I broke out of the jail, breaking the window that had steel bars. I broke the window, at night. The room had nothing but a window, no table, nothing. But I found an iron key ring on the window frame. With it, I broke the window. It took me 13 hours to do that.

How did You Escape?

I crossed the border with other eight people. Among them, there were three women, a mother and a daughter, and another named Young-hee (영희). Our nerves were on edge, worrying that we might get caught. We climbed mountains, walked through fields and paddies, and swamps. In that way, we walked across the border.

After I crossed the border, I lived in China for two years. During that time, I visited North Korea once, secretly. After that, I got caught again. So I have been caught twice overall. This time, I was very likely to be executed, so a missionary introduced me to a broker to help me.

While I was in China, I was living with two other North Korean defectors. A missionary was financially supporting us, but at some point he couldn’t do it anymore. We got kicked out of the house because we were not able to pay the rent. So, I parted with the two, living separately. Soon I heard that they had been arrested by the Chinese police when they had a fight with a Chinese taxi driver. I went to them and offered to [take their place in prison], so they were released. I did this believing that God would help me.

The police asked the taxi driver if he recognized me, if I was the person who had beat him. And, of course, he said he didn’t even know me. God helped me and I was released.

But after that encounter, the police asked my name and other personal information, as I didn’t have an ID card. I lied to them that I was the son of a deaconess I knew. I was attending her church, and I knew that her husband was a close friend of the head of the police station where I was arrested. A very close friend, like hanging-out-at-a-bar-together-every-night close. The police believed me and let me go.

There is a route from North Korea, to China, and then through Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, and to Thailand, which is used by many North Korean defectors. Mnay finally come to South Korea via Thailand. But when I reached Vietnam, I couldn’t go any further. When I arrived in Saigon, I was so exhausted that I couldn’t walk more. Overall I had walked for six months.

There were five shelters for North Korean defectors in Vietnam, where around 460 defectors had been protected. As they became too many, the South Korean government discussed with UN and decided to charter two planes and carry the defectors directly from Vietnam to South Korea. The planes took off on July 26th, about 6 months after I arrived in Vietnam.

After I arrived in South Korea, I was interrogated by the South Korean government for 3 months, and then, I got South Korean citizenship.

What Are the Main Differences Between North and South Korea?

First, the economy. And also that there is freedom here. In South Korea, even if someone criticizes the president, are not arrested. In North Korea, if someone calls Kim Jeong Eun just Kim Jeong Eun, I mean, without a proper title, they can get arrested.

Another thing I like about South Korea is that here I can get rewarded for my hard work. Now I work in as a DJ for the Far East Broadcasting Company and do I some musical performances as well. Working as a singer [in North Korea] did not guarantee enough food. In South Korea, I can get what my hard work deserves. If I sing here as much as I did in North Korea, I would become rich. In North Korea, I sang 24/7, but I didn’t get what my hard work deserved. Here, if I sing one song, I can get a certain amount of money, like 400,000-500,000 KRW.

Somehow, I was able to get the jobs, but [for many North Koreans] it is very difficult. A case like mine is rare, I think because I worked as a singer. You know, music is universal. If you can read musical scores and have some basic skills related to music, you can work anywhere. As for most other North Koreans, what they learned in North Korea is useless here. So they usually do physical labor.

What is the Future of North Korea?

Ultimately, I hope the NK government will collapse. And as I’m a missionary, after North Korea is opened, I might go somewhere else, like Africa. I will go wherever God wants me to go.

My family has been arrested, and my brother got arrested recently – in March of this year. He got caught while he was talking with me on the phone. I don’t know if he is going to be sent to a political prisoner camp or if he will be executed. He got arrested while I was protesting this March. So I can’t stop protesting. [If anything] I should speak up more. After the arrest, I haven’t talked to him. All I’ve heard so far is that he was arrested. I sent to my family about $20 000 USD, telling them to try to get him out of jail with that money. But it seems impossible.

Now, I’m [protesting] in order to get people to know about me. I’m not trying to hide. It could be more dangerous, but it could be less dangerous, too. I’m gambling now. If I become famous here, my family might be less likely to be harmed.

Whether in Canada, the US, the UK, or South Korea, individuals have freedom. But North Koreans do not have freedom. If they say something problematic, they get arrested, as there is no freedom of speech there. If they protest like I am doing now, they would get arrested and executed. There is no freedom of religion, either. So there is no freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, or freedom of religion there.

What I want to say is this: Everyone’s life is equally valuable whether he or she is the President, you, me, a North Korean defector, or a dying child in Africa.

In North Korea, most people’s life means nothing. North Korea is a country only for 1% of the people. In any country, great media or journalists consider human, individual life to be the most important, not just big economic or political issues. I think a genuine journalist is one who focuses on and talks about human life. This article, your pen, could save the people in political prisoner’s camps in North Korea, including my brother. The subtle difference coming from your pen might kill or save a person.

NOTE: These interviews have been edited for readability, but in no way has context been altered. 


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Understanding North Korea – Part 3

The third and final part of my article Understanding North Korea, set to be published in Groove magazine’s July issue, along with a few interviews I’ve done with North Korean defectors. Read Understanding North Korea | Part 1 and Understanding North Korea | Part 2 here.

The Dawning of Awareness

Contrary to common assumptions, modern North Koreans are not completely cut off from the outside world, as the previous generations were. While tunable radios are banned (all radios must, by law, have their tuners fixed to the government stations), cheap Chinese made DVD players are not a rarity. At approximately $30 USD, a DVD player costs a little less than an average North Korean earns in a month. Not cheap, but not overly expensive either – an investment comparable to buying a used car, for example. Certainly not something found in every home, but a realistic purchase for a substantial cross section of society.

Ostensibly permitted so citizens can enjoy biopics of their Dear Leaders, DVD players have given North Koreans the chance to glimpse the outside world through the lens of martial arts films from Hong Kong and South Korean dramas. The cultural impact of the humble DVD is great – Lankov’s colleagues in North Korea have reported that South Korean parts of speech and forms of address are starting to permeate the language.

The political ramifications of such international awareness are obviously undesirable from the regime’s point of view, which has spent decades indoctrinating its people in the evil ways of its Southern neighbor. North Korean propaganda about the South has been so pervasive that many citizens are unable to believe all of what they see in the imported dramas. For them the notion that nearly every South Korean household can afford a car is astonishingly contrary to what they have been told. Just as the North Korean government greatly exaggerates the opulence of its nation, they expect the South Korean government to do the same. But, as Lankov points out, “they do understand there are some things that cannot be faked – the cityscape of Seoul, for example. It is beginning to dawn on them that South Korea is doing well.”

This dawning awareness of South Korea’s modern success can be seen in the changing propaganda methods employed by the Kim administration. While once they asserted that the South was so poor that students had to sell their blood to pay for textbooks, they are reluctantly admitting that South Koreans are not in fact impoverished.

Traditional propaganda campaigns followed the Communist model of portraying North Korea as an industrial powerhouse, glorifying steel mills and smoke stacks while showing South Korea as a place of thatch houses, unpaved roads and sinister looking American soldiers. Now, however, the trend seems to have reversed, with the South depicted as a hellish inferno of pollution and suffocating toxic clouds. Conversely, North Korea is shown to be a pristine natural paradise through posters of political leaders interacting with common citizens in verdant fields and near crystal clear mountain streams. One specific campaign featured a cartoon turtle that was dying in the chemical wastelands of South Korea, and so was forced to flee to the pure waters of the North where he happily splashed for ever after.

Sinister American GIs throw babies down a well

Depicting North Korea as an industrial powerhouse was once a preferred form of propaganda.

As awareness of the outside world's economic successes dawns, North Korean propaganda is shifting to portray the country as naturally pristine.


The Future

Claiming to know the future of North Korea for certain is pure hubris, but based on the current trends, and testimonials from recent defectors, it is possible to speculate with some hope of accuracy. What is clear is that North Korea is changing, and in a typical communist dictatorship change marks the beginning of the end. Unfortunately for the Kim dynasty, the end will be harsh and very likely violent, predicts Lankov.

“I talk with the North Koreans a lot, roughly four or five times per week,” says Lankov, “and what is clear is that people who are now in their 20’s and early 30’s have very different ideas from their parents. They know North Korea is a poor place and they are [relatively] less afraid of the government. They no longer feel the Kim Jong Il method is the only method. While these people are still young, they will soon become the majority.”

Ironically, what is preventing the collapse of the North Korean regime is, in many ways, its enemies. With the possible exception of the US, most outside powers do not want the status quo to change. In a sense, the Kims are unusually lucky dictators.

South Korea, the nation that would seemingly be most eager to end the war, is perhaps the most wary of reuniting. Though lip service is usually paid in favor of reunification, a significant number of youth will admit that while they support the idea in theory, they do not want to deal with the realities – namely the huge cost to South Korean taxpayers. “I definitely support reunification,” says Hwang In Gi, a graduate student in Seoul, “as long as we don’t have to pay for it.”

This may sound like a heartless attitude, but South Koreans have worked exceptionally hard over the last five decades to transform their country into an economic success. For the average taxpayer, the cost of reunification would be substantial. If the United States annexed all of Central America, for example, and then asked American citizens pay for the cost of modernizing and improving the quality of life in the new territories, there would be predictable outrage. Asking South Koreans to pay for reunification is much the same except that in this case, North Korea has been threatening to kill them for the last 70 years.

Though South Koreans might not want to rush into reunification, North Korea will inevitably collapse. Exactly how is a matter of debate, but Lankov suggests several possibilities: An overly zealous police officer could go too far with a physical punishment and spark a violent riot which would spread across the country, forcing Kim Jong Eun and his elites into exile. Perhaps elements of the military that have less of a stake in the regime will decide it is time for a change in the power structure and stage a coup. It is even possible that Kim Jong Eun secretly desires to implement massive reforms and pursue political economic models that he studied while living in Switzerland. Maybe he has a bleeding heart and just wants all his people to be happy. It is impossible to know anything for certain.

But no matter what happens, sooner or later something will; the system is broken and unstable. “I would not be surprised if we learned tomorrow that there are riots [in North Korea],” says Lankov. “But I would be equally unsurprised if in 2027 we are discussing the 25th successful long range nuclear missile test. Being outsiders, we can know only that their system is rotten, but not how seriously. We just can’t know.”

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Understanding North Korea – Part 2

This is the second part of my three part analysis of North Korea and its leadership. This section finishes examining the precarious nature of the Kim family’s reign, and the policies they follow as they struggle to keep hold of the world’s most politically isolated nation. Read part one of Understanding North Korea here. The third and final section of the article, not yet finished, will focus on the future of North Korea and possible endgame scenarios.

Thanks to Professor Andrei Lankov, whose great knowledge made this article possible.

***Note: Some people have questioned me about how I know that NK has become less repressive than in the past. This is mostly based on first hand information given to me by North Koreans who have defected to the South within the last decade. Saying it is less repressive is an extremely relative statement, but compared to past figures, the reports given to me  by these people indicate a distinct change. These interviews will be published soon, and are an interesting comparison to this broader political analysis.

Andrei Lankov, Korea Times columnist and Professor of Korea Studies at Kookmin University

Let Them Eat Nukes

North Korea’s nuclear capabilities have been a staple of the international press for years, with the most recent ballistic missile test dominating CNN around the clock for weeks. This coverage is, in fact, exactly what the North Korean regime wants.

Nuclear weapons mean security, and when it comes to security, the Kim family and their advisors are decidedly more paranoid than most. They have seen what happened in Afghanistan and Iraq; they are well aware that a conventional army, no matter how large, cannot stand against the United States and its allies overwhelming financial and technological superiority. And unlike in those Middle Eastern nations where the locals fight fiercely to repulse the foreign invaders, after decades of totalitarian rule the Kim family has no reason to believe that North Korea’s citizens will engage in a sustained guerilla war on their behalf.

Having watched fellow dictators around the world being steadily deposed, the North Korean regime knows that nuclear weapons alone will save them. Gaddafi’s Libya, the most recent member of the so-called “axis of evil” to be toppled, would not have fallen so easily had it been in control of a similar nuclear arsenal. The insurgency in Libya greatly depended on NATO Special Forces, intelligence, and air support, and it seems unlikely that this assistance would have been so eagerly provided had there been a threat of nuclear retaliation. Had the Libyan government possessed such weapons, “Gaddafi would probably now be enjoying a nice supper after spending a few hours in the torture chambers talking with former pro-democracy [rebels],” predicts Lankov.

The sentiment of  “let them eat nukes” has been echoed somewhat ironically by political and military analysts when talking about North Korea, yet this is just what they have been doing for the last two decades. While Stalinist economies typically enjoy an initial period of success, this fades after 10 or 20 years, and once dead cannot be restarted. This is the position North Korea now finds itself in, unable to revive their economy, and on the brink of starvation.

Estimates say that between 5 and 5.5 million tonnes of grain are needed in order to keep the North Korean population alive, yet they are capable of producing only 4.2 to 4.8 million tonnes on their own. This difference has to be made up somewhere.

Enter nuclear driven blackmail. According to the World Food Organization, around 700 000 tones of grain are being supplied to North Korea annually, the bulk of which comes from the US, Japan, and South Korea – three countries which North Korea is technically at war with. Started by Kim Il Sung, a policy of agreeing to hold development of their nuclear program as long as payments continue ensures that North Korea’s enemies continue to keep it alive. North Koreans are, essentially, eating nuclear weapons.

Kill the Dissenters

Contrary to media portrayals in recent years, North Korea has actually become a less repressive place to live, according to Lankov. There are things done today that were unthinkable under the rule of Kim Il Sung. If a North Korean is caught trying to move across the border into China, they are rigorously investigated to see if they have had contact with South Koreans or Christian missionaries – those most often responsible for assisting defectors in reaching a safe country – but they are not automatically executed, as was common in the past.

If interrogators cannot conclusively prove that defection was intended, the punishment is “between two months and one year in prison – more or less arbitrary, depending on how much they dislike you. [Under Kim Il Sung] this would have meant five years at least and lifelong discrimination,” says Lankov. Before 1997, all family members of a suspected defector would have been sent to a prison camp and not released until, if ever, the accused was acquitted. Now, in most cases the families are not jailed, though they are harshly discriminated against and quickly removed from Pyongyang – a city reserved for the elite.

Despite these changes, North Korea is the world’s most brutal country when it comes to punishment. Various estimates put the number of prisoners at around 150 000. To put this figure into perspective, the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev never had more than 1000 political prisoners at any one time, even though the population was ten times that of North Korea. Only Stalin’s Soviet Union comes close to matching North Korea’s incredible incarceration rate, a period in history synonymous with fear and cruelty.

“So, they do not tolerate dissent. And they should not,” says Lankov. “With South Korea so close and an incurable economic crisis, any attempt to tolerate dissent could lead to instability and collapse. They allow nothing that is not approved by the government, and if they want to live to be old men, they should not.”

Control the Markets

Though North Korea has not reformed, this is not to say that it has not changed. The country that Kim Jong Eun presides over is drastically different than the one his grandfather left him – the most notable difference being the market economy.

Under Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s economy was totally controlled by government distribution. Basically nothing was bought or sold for decades, which the government deciding how much food a person could eat, how often their diet included meat, and even how many pairs of shoes were issued. Modern North Korea, however, has a greatly reduced industrial output, and the government no longer has the resources to dominate the marketplace as before.

Some estimates suggest that up to 70% of North Korean household income is now derived outside the state economy and instead comes from black market sources. “It is like African capitalism,” says Lankov. “It is illegal, but many people are smuggling, [engage in] household manufacturing, or run small workshops.” Private businesses are disguised as state operations, and state officials are themselves black market traders. Officially all businesses must belong to the government, but bribery and corruption allows a private economy to exist and expand.

Obviously not desirable from a despotic regime’s point of view, this sort of grass-roots economy is dangerous in the long run as people learn that they can now make a living outside the government. Illegal markets are becoming increasingly common, and are hotbeds for the spread of rumors about the outside world and criticisms of the state. The government is, for these reasons, constantly trying to regulate and close these markets, only to have them reappear and expand. It is an economic fencing match of sorts; the government will advance slightly, and the market will counter.

To hold onto power, the North Korean regime must find a way control these markets, but not excessively so. After the disastrous 2009 currency reform, when government intervention caused the value of the North Korean won to increase 10 000% overnight, leading to mass inflation and economic collapse, they have realized that too much control could be their undoing.

This is an extremely fine and precarious line that Kim Jung Eun and his advisors must now walk, made even more difficult by a population that is becoming relatively defiant. For the first time in North Korea’s history people are ignoring government decrees regarding the market, and laws are becoming difficult to enforce. Technically men are prohibited from being merchants, and women over the age of 50 are forbidden from trading, but these regulations are widely ignored.

Though the persecution of political dissenters is still vigorously enforced, the state officials who are supposed to enforce the laws regarding economic control are sabotaging them. These low level officials are in fact making most of their income from the market traders they are tasked with repressing. According to Lankov, “If [the official] succeeds in his duty, he is limited to 540g of wheat per day. But if he takes money from the traders he can eat meat every day. Does he want to do his job? Of course not, he is human.”


See part 1 of Understanding North Korea here

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Understanding North Korea – Part 1

Professor Andrei Lankov is the head of Korean studies at Seoul’s Kookmin University. As a citizen of the former Soviet Union, he was able to complete part of his undergraduate studies in Pyongyang as part of an educational exchange. This has given him a unique perspective on North Korea, the country that is arguably the most talked about on the news, while also being the least understood. Also a columnist for the Korea Times, I was lucky enough to hear him speak about the world’s last closed nation while photographing the third week of the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights conference in Seoul.

I decided to split this article into three parts to make it a more comfortable read. Read the second part here

Professor Andrei Lankov i

Professor Andrei Lankov in Sinchon, Seoul

Illogical. Irrational. Unpredictable. These are the kinds of words that are likely to be associated with North Korea and its dictatorial government. The infamous Kim family dynasty has been described as the world’s only remaining communist monarchy and they rule over a malnourished population, commanding an enormous military funded by a broken economy. There are few countries on earth that garner as much international curiosity as North Korea, possibly because so little is understood about it. So how have three generations of Kim males maintained control for so long? Are they as irrational and unpredictable as they may seem? What is the actually happening in North Korea and what does its present reality mean for its future?

“They are the best bunch of Machiavellians in existence,” Andrei Lankov, Professor of Korean studies at Kookmin University, says of North Korean leaders, “They know exactly what they are doing, and they have survived”. Survival, according to Lankov, appears to be the main objective of the current North Korean regime. While 20-30 years ago grand aspirations of a unified Korean peninsula under the control of Pyongyang may have existed, now it would seem that North Korea’s elite are simply trying to ensure that they are able to die comfortably in their beds at an old age. Those in power (an estimated 1-2 million of the countries approximately 25 million citizens) have become accustomed to rule and they have no desire to live out their days in exile – or worse.

One of the more remarkable things about North Korea is the fact that it still exists. Lankov remembers how people in the Soviet Union, as early as the 1980’s, were speculating on how quickly the regime would collapse. The country was economically backwards even then; survival after the death of Kim Il Sung seemed extremely unlikely. It was thought that perhaps Hungary or the former Czechoslovakia would be among the few possible Communist dictatorships able to stand the test of time, but while leaders like Tito and Husák  have long since been deposed and vilified in the passages of history, the Kim family marches on. Though by relative global standards the North Korean elite cannot be considered fabulously rich, living perhaps as luxuriously as a successful Manhattan lawyer, they are certainly comfortable. And they have gotten used to their power.

With the death of his father, Kim Jong Eun now has the precarious job of maintaining his family legacy. While some speculate that his Western education in Switzerland may encourage him to reinvent North Korea following the Chinese example, there are some major obstacles he faces. According to Professor Lankov, there are four foundational principles which the Kim family has used to hold dominion since the 1970’s – No Reforms, Keep the Nukes, Kill the Dissenters (All of Them), and Control the Market.

An inexperienced and untested leader, Kim Jong Eun is heavily influenced by his advisors, many of whom are left over from his grandfather’s administration. “There is no one in the government who could be considered Kim Jong Eun’s drinking buddies. They are relics of the 60’s and 70’s and he has to follow them,” says Lankov. There is no way to know if he likes or hates this situation, but it seems clear that the same policies will continue for the foreseeable future.

No Reforms

There has been speculation that North Korea has been on the cusp of reform since the 1980’s, yet very little has happened. While logic might suggest that the surest way to reinvigorate the dismal North Korean economy would be to institute gradual reforms as China did after the death of Mao, there is one major obstacle standing in the way – South Korea.

In China’s case, there was no “South China” to contend with. The income gap between North Korean and South Korean citizens is estimated to be between 1:15 and 1:40. Even if the most conservative estimate is true, this is still the largest disparity in wealth of any two countries in the world which share a land border. Any reforms initiated by Kim Jong Eun would necessarily open North Korea to the outside world, exposing North Koreans to “mind-blowing pictures of South Korean success. Though South Koreans will admit that there are problems in their [own] society, from a North Korean’s view, it is a very attractive life,” asserts Lankov.

From a dictators perspective, this poses some serious problems. Unlike in China where the population was aware of the successes of the outside world, North Koreans are largely without international awareness. Most Chinese knew that countries like the United States enjoyed very different circumstances than they did, yet they did not blame their government for failing to match American prosperity. North and South Korea, however, were the same country dealing with the same circumstances until the 1960’s. Opening North Korea’s borders after roughly 50 years of isolation would lead to a veritable tidal wave of information flooding the country. Images of South Korean prosperity would reflect poorly on the North Korean regime and place the blame for their dismal situation squarely on their shoulders. North Korean citizens will certainly demand to know why they are malnourished and poor while their neighbours to the South are “rich beyond imagination”.

“Even if [North Koreans] prove to be the best geniuses in the history of economics, it will not be enough. The North Korean people will be impatient, and they will want [improved living standards] now,” says Lankov. There will be a general sentiment that if they unite with South Korea they will immediately be given the same quality of life that the South enjoys. The likely result is an aggressive push to reunify as quickly as possible and the swift deposition of the current North Korean regime. From the perspective of Kim Jong Eun and his advisors, this must be a terrifying prospect.

Following the break-up of the Soviet Union, it was typically the former elites who gained the most. They were experienced, wealthy, politically savvy, and they had connections. They prospered more after the dissolution of the Soviet empire than they ever could have under the communist party apparatus. This will not be the case for the elites of North Korea, who fear a vengeful South Korea.

According to Lankov, the North Koreans know how they would have treated the South Koreans had they won the war, and they have no reason to expect anything different in return. Tyrannical as they may appear to be, the elites love their families like everyone else, which is why they won’t change. They are well aware of the fate of the Gadaffi family in Libya, and they do not want to suffer the same. From their perspective, reforms essentially equal suicide.

“Find me an elite in the world who is happy about surrendering power,” says Lankov. “It is nice for us to talk about reforms while we are enjoying a latte, but for these people it is a life and death matter. Even if their chances of survival are 50%, they are not likely to take the gamble, simply because they love their families. But I put their chances well below 50%.”

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