STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
North Korea is celebrating the birthday of its founder, Kim Il Sung. The North's leader has been dead nearly 20 years but is treated like a god. And of course, his son; now, his grandson; have both succeeded him. As part of this year's festivities, North Korea sponsored a marathon in the capital, Pyongyang, that drew athletes from around the world; an event that came even though the North has been threatening a nuclear strike against the United States.
To try to make sense of all this, we've called Andrei Lankov, a Russian who studied in North Korea and is now a university professor in Seoul. Welcome to the program, sir.
ANDREI LANKOV: Thank you.
INSKEEP: So what are the birthday celebrations like?
LANKOV: Well, it's always a big event. Officially, the birthday is known as the Day of the Sun because of course, Kim Il Sung is a shining sun of North Korea and for that matter, universe. And entire media will be telling the North Koreans how lucky they are because they live in such a wonderful country, which is the world's best country because it was established by Generalissimo Kim Il Sung.
INSKEEP: And of course, his grandson is still with the people of North Korea. Why do you think that he has been pumping up his rhetoric against the outside world?
LANKOV: Well, essentially, it is just normal North Korean diplomacy. When North Koreans believe that it's time to start negotiations, in order to squeeze more aid and political concessions from the outside world it - start from manufacturing a crisis. They start making threats. They promise, usually, to make Seoul or other capitals into a sea of fire.
And the world media runs headlines about Korean peninsula being on the brink of war. Of course, it's not on the brink of war; it's just normal show. And of course, it does not actually harm that North Korea appears to be irrational because they make good money by looking irrational.
INSKEEP: Well, let me ask about that. Would you argue that they are rational, then?
LANKOV: Actually, they are very, very rational. I wonder, why do the foreign media, why do people overseas consider Kim Jong Un to be suicidal? Because if he attacks, he will be dead in 10 or 15 minutes. And he knows it perfectly well. And he's not suicidal. He is young boy who is madly in love with his wife, who loves fast cars and a slice of pizza.
And people around him are not suicidal. They are hard-nosed, cynical Machiavellians who survived decades in the cutthroat world of a Stalinist palace politics. They are not ideological zealots; they are just brilliant manipulators.
INSKEEP: Well, let me ask something - do you think that Secretary of State John Kerry, of the United States, has been approaching this correctly as he tours Asia?
LANKOV: Well, yes and no. I would say we just saw another repetition of the usual American mantra: Denuclearization of North Korea is the only condition for talks. Such statements, we have heard many times before from the United States. But there is one problem - denuclearization of North Korea is not going to happen, period.
INSKEEP: Why not?
LANKOV: They need it for security. And there is another reason. They need it for blackmail. Every year, they get about 7- or 800,000 tons of free food. And most of this free food stuff come from the countries which are technically their mortal enemies. And how do they push these countries into shipping this aid? Well, largely by appearing to be dangerous, and then suggesting a compromise. So nukes is a vital tool of their blackmail diplomacy. They're not going to surrender it.
INSKEEP: Andrei Lankov's new book is called "The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia." Thanks very much.
LANKOV: Yeah, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.