The mass defections of North Korean refugees are rare. It is even rarer when those defectors flee their country using their legally issued North Korean passports. Rarer still when it turns out that those defectors are the children of ranking officials in the Workers’ Party of Korea. Combine that with the fact that a high-ranking military officer from North Korea’s General Bureau of Reconnaissance also defected late last year and one has to wonder whether or not the North Korean regime may be finally starting to buckle under Kim Jong Un’s hefty heels.
(As of this writing, it has been reported that seven more North Koreans from two families who lived near the Chinese border defected on April 15th – Kim Il Sung’s supposed birthday, no less.)
Predictions of North Korea’s supposed imminent collapse have been around for about as long as Pyongyangology has been around; but like a malignant tumor, the North Korean regime has stubbornly refused to be expunged from existence, which has left many academics and world leaders with eggs on their faces. So talks of collapse seem to be little more than wishful fancies while talks of reunification mask nightmarish scenarios. However, one thing that the recent spate of defections prove without a shadow of a doubt is the fact that North Korea is a failed state.
So, why do some nations fail while others prosper? That has been a question that has haunted the minds of scholars since the days of Adam Smith, and are still being asked by the likes of David Landes, Jared Diamond, Thomas Sowell, and Daren Acemoglu and James Robinson. The two Koreas being nearly perfect mirror images of one another probably give Mssrs. Acemoglu and Robinson the most bragging rights for they posited that, more than anything else, a nation’s economic success or failure depends on its political and economic institutions.
… pointing one’s finger at sanctions is a lazy attempt to explain away unpleasant truths
After all, even though the Koreas are home to some of the most ethnically and culturally homogenous people in the world – whose shared language, history and culture long predate the division of the peninsula at the 38th parallel – the differences between Juche North Korea and capitalist South Korea are stark. Whereas South Korea is one of the richest countries in the world today, the northern half of the peninsula is still mired in darkness (quite literally when viewed from space) as it grapples with periodic famine and abject poverty.
It is all too easy to blame North Korea’s woes on international sanctions. However, pointing one’s finger at sanctions is a lazy attempt to explain away unpleasant truths. To explain, U.S. sanctions against North Korea can be traced back to 1950 when President Harry Truman initiated economic sanctions against North Korea under the Trading with the Enemy Act. This means that North Korea had plenty of time throughout the Cold War – decades – to set itself up to become a wealthy state while it still had powerful and much richer sponsors/allies in Moscow and Beijing. For a while, North Korea was wealthier than the South, but it is now common knowledge to all except the most hopelessly deluded that incentives matter; and that centralized economies’ lack of ability to produce relatively unhindered private incentives to make profits have doomed them from the start.
RETURN OF REALITY
The fact of the matter is that despite the wild-eyed and feverish battle cries of revolutionaries of long ago who claimed that they were fighting to create a new world, a New Soviet Man (or Juche Man seeing how the North Korean regime does not seem to credit its old sponsors for much anymore these days), it turned out that although people are free to evade reality, people simply cannot evade the consequences of evading reality indefinitely. There is no New Man – Soviet, Juche, or otherwise. Man has always been and always will be Man and out of necessity for his own survival, Man must always seek to be rational – a thinking being who aims to achieve by means of reason.
This is precisely why Mssrs. Acemoglu and Robinson were right when they posited that political structures matter. Knowledge, thinking and rational actions are attributes that apply only to the individual. After all, there is no such thing as a collective mind. But when the State tells individuals that living for themselves is wrong – that they should live, toil and die for nothing else other than the glory of the Supreme Leader and to accept that as the good based on nothing but pure faith, how could that not subvert reason? When at best the State treats private enterprise as a necessary evil and at worst a direct threat against its own survival, how could that not pervert the very engine of growth that all societies need to further develop?
And this is the poison that lies at the heart of every dictatorship, whether it is a dictatorship of the State or that of the Proletariat – the desire to enslave men. But in order to enslave people, the State must stamp out reason for that is the necessary foundation for a free society where slavery cannot exist. By destroying people’s ability to rely on the validity of their own judgments and choices, or at least by making them fear to rely on them, the State would have succeeded in forcing the masses to accept the rule of brute force.
By stamping out reason and forcing the masses to surrender their consciousness to his whims under the penalty of death by anti-aircraft guns, the tyrant gets what he wants – unearned greatness and power. As for the well-being of the people, of what concern is that to the tyrant?
Thankfully, although free minds can be imprisoned or even destroyed, they cannot be forced to work against themselves. And when minds are not allowed to be free, people’s final recourse is to vote with their feet. Once we see the way people vote with their feet, we can properly judge which society provides people better conditions and which society offers only chains. With nothing but the clothes on their backs, those who yearn for freedom have chosen to leave behind their shackles, much to the chagrin of their former jailers.
Perhaps North Korea will not collapse as soon as many people hope. But what is for sure is that these recent spate of defections is further proof that something is violently shaking within that failed kingdom in the North.
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Featured Image: North korean waitress singing - Pyongyang North Korea by Eric Lafforgue on 2009-05-20 14:48:35