Few would disagree these days that North Korea is a problem, not only because of its fast advancing nuclear and missile program but also because of the sorry state of the country’s economy and its abysmal human rights record. It is a problem for us outsiders, but it is an even greater problem for the North Korean people themselves.
As people are fond of saying in such situations that “something has to be done.” But what exactly? What are the most ideal, but still realistic, solutions to the North Korean problem as it exists now, in the year 2017?
It is actually quite easy to describe the ideal outcome as seen from the point of view of some Western liberals. In their dream world, one day Kim Jong Un will suddenly appear on state television and deliver a long speech of self-criticism and repentance, begging for forgiveness for his sins as well as for sins of his ancestors. Then he will pack his belongings and depart for some Buddhist or Christian monastery deep in the remote mountains, where he will spend time in meditation while waiting for a fair judgment about his fate.
Meanwhile, the North Korean masses will happily and orderly celebrate the victory of democracy. Of course, they will immediately create a stable two-party system, while engaging in a civilized debate about their country’s future. Most likely this debate will result in North Korea’s unification with South Korea. The rich South will bestow generous economic aid, investment and technical assistance which will be gratefully accepted by the North Koreans, who in no time (a decade, perhaps?) will raise their country’s living and technological standards to those of South Korea.
No South Korean will ever think about taking advantage of his or her North Korean brethren, while all the North Koreans will be well-behaved, non-violent, and competent in the intricacies of modern democratic politics and the market economy.
Such a dream solution is attractive, sure, but all our readers, even the most optimistic of them, no doubt understand that the chance of such a turn of events taking place is zero.
As people are fond of saying in such situations “something has to be done.” But what exactly?
Of course, the liberal democratic paradise described above is merely one of the possible dream solutions. People of different ideological persuasions would suggest different outcomes: Korean nationalists will probably provide you with their alternative picture of the ideal future, as would the few surviving hard-line Marxist-Leninists.
KEEPING IT REAL
However, such pipe dreams are not what we are going to deal with. My goal is to ask what appears to be an ideal outcome, achievable if we firmly remain within the limits of possible. In other words, given the rather sorry situation of 2017, what can we realistically hope for North Korea to achieve in the next two or three decades if things go reasonably well?
Of course, any question about the ideal goal implicitly implies a question about values, an assumption of what is ‘good’ and who exactly should be the primary beneficiary of this ‘good’. In this piece, the desirability of a particular future will not be judged from the point of view of the ‘international community’ (whatever this nebulous term stands for) or from the point of view of the South Korean elite and/or even the South Korean population.
I have little interest in outcomes – no matter how practical and achievable – which will satisfy Korean (or, for that matter, Chinese, or Russian, or Japanese) nationalists, and I have little interest in utopian dreams. In this piece, I would like to speculate about what would be best for the average North Korean: a farmer from South Hamgyong, a school teacher from Kaesong, or an office clerk in a party committee in Sinuiju.
For a long time, the majority of the Western observers pinned their hopes on eventual regime change, i.e. some kind of popular revolution which would remove the Kim family and their henchmen from power and, hopefully, create a better country. When, back in the 1990s, North Korea was a country where common people were starving to death in large numbers, this attitude, frankly, made sense. However, even then it was not difficult to foresee that such a revolution would be bound to become a bloody, messy and risky affair.
Frankly, I myself was quite willing to accept regime collapse as a possibility back then, but the events of the last ten or fifteen years have made me seriously reconsider my attitude on the prospects of a North Korean revolution – and its desirability.
For a long time, the majority of the Western observers pinned their hope on eventual regime change
There are at least many reasons why one should not be excessively enthusiastic about North Korea’s revolutionary prospects.
First of all, revolutions tend to be violent affairs, and a possible North Korean revolution is not going to be an exception. There is no reason to expect that the future collapse of the Kim Family regime will go as peacefully as the collapse of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe back in 1989, in the days of the “velvet revolutions.” The North Korean elite is afraid of German-style unification, since it has good reasons to expect retribution for their real or alleged misdeeds.
Therefore, if the situation becomes really shaky, these people will not surrender, like their Eastern European counterparts once did: they will fight instead, believing that the loss of power will equal loss of freedom and, perhaps, life. The collapse of the North Korean government is way too likely to lead to a bloody mess with many thousands of people (at the very least) losing their lives.
The events of the last ten years, especially the sorry outcome of the ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions, once so enthusiastically welcomed, have demonstrated that the international community is not particularly willing (or, perhaps, not particularly able) to assist revolutionary forces once they have successfully removed their old dictator from power. The media and politicians love the glamor and dynamics of revolutions, but they are wary of the expensive tedium of nation-building.
Back in 2010-12, opposition movements in the Middle East received much encouragement and, occasionally, (at least, in Libya) direct support from the West. However, once these countries, predictably, found themselves in a post-revolutionary mess of gigantic proportions, they found out that their one-time Western cheerleaders-for-revolution had lost much of their initial enthusiasm. As we know, at least in three countries – Libya, Syria and Yemen – democratic revolutions, initially cheered by the world public opinion, ended up producing situations which, at least for the vast majority of the local people, are much worse than the ones they once faced under the old tyranny.
Therefore, it seems that the international community is more likely to be a problem rather than a solution. To put things differently, the well-meaning outside world is sometimes willing to spend many millions of dollars assisting those who want to get rid of a notorious tyrant, but is definitely unwilling to spend many billions of dollars to stop the resultant civil war and bankroll the long-term reconstruction of a country.
Media and politicians love the glamor and dynamics of revolutions, but they are wary of the expensive tedium of nation-building
One could argue that North Korea is different from Syria or Yemen because it has a natural caretaker: the rich South, which will surely assume responsibility for economic recovery and nation (re)building.
But given the current state of the South Korean public opinion and the country’s economic situation, I am not so sure that the decision to intervene in a possible mess will come easily, especially if China objects to such a move. However, even if a decision is made to help, the sheer scale of problems South Korea will have to deal with, objectively, exceeds what they could realistically do.
On top of that, unification with the triumphant South is not going to produce a society where North and the South Koreans will be equals. In all probability, the North Koreans, even though their living standards will significantly increase as a result of unification, will find themselves psychologically in an extremely uncomfortable position, relegated to the status of second-rate citizens for the rest of their lives.
It will take, at least, a couple of generations before the huge gap in income, education level, and, essentially, social-economic power between ex-northerners and ex-southerners disappears. As I have said a number of times, I could easily see how, in a post-unification North, nostalgia about the good old times of Kim Family rule will emerge as a powerful cultural force.
I would like to remind readers of a recent poll, conducted by a liberal-leaning agency in Russia, that indicated that Joseph Stalin, the one-time mentor and even puppet master behind Kim Il Sung, is now seen by the Russians as the greatest figure in the world history (38% of the poll participants think so).
On the other hand, in recent years the need for a ‘revolutionary solution’ has decreased, to a large extent because the economic, and to a much smaller extent, social and political, situation in North Korea has improved. Starvation is a thing of the past, and noticeable economic growth has resulted in a significant rise in living standards across the country. Most importantly, Kim Jong Un has started something his father was once deathly afraid of: he has begun, to some extent, reforming his realm.
Unification with the triumphant South is not going to produce a society where North and the South Koreans will be equal
Risks of a bloody revolutionary upheaval probably made sense when a significant part of the population faced a real chance of starving to death, but this is demonstrably not the case anymore.
Admittedly, many North Koreans still face the fear of being executed for political misbehavior or being sent to prison camps. However, as the history of the bloody 20th century has demonstrated many times, civil wars and foreign invasions usually kill far more people than even the most hard-working secret police can possibly manage.
THE REGIONAL MODEL
Therefore, if neither violent revolution or unification by absorption are good outcomes, what should be seen as an alternative? The answer seems to be quite obvious, even though this answer is probably not going to be to the liking of many readers – especially if spelled out honestly and unequivocally. From the 2017 vantage point, it appears that a North Korean version of ‘developmental dictatorship’ is indeed the best option one can realistically hope to achieve in the case of North Korea.
This model, pioneered by regimes in South Korea and Taiwan in the 1960-80s, and later, in the late 1970s and 1980s, quietly adopted by China and Vietnam, involves the combination of a market economy with an authoritarian political regime. The market brings growth, while dictatorship ensures political stability, prevents or regulates clashes between powerful interest groups, and suppresses organized labor movement, keeping the country stable and wages low.
This model, strongly disliked by the intelligentsia, has nonetheless demonstrated remarkable economic efficiency. It also created – obviously, against the expectations of its architects – solid foundations for an eventual shift to democracy in the more advanced of these countries (South Korea and Taiwan).
There are no reasons to believe that the ‘developmental dictatorship’ model would be unworkable in North Korea – after all, it worked remarkably well in countries of East Asia which are very similar to North Korea in culture and geography.
It appears that a North Korean version of ‘developmental dictatorship’ is indeed the best option
It seems that, currently, Kim Jong Un is implementing a North Korean version of such a model. One can point to the ‘June 28 Instructions’ and the ‘May 30 measures’, which introduced a household responsibility system in agriculture, and also dramatically increased the autonomy of industrial management. Of special importance is Kim Jong Un’s policy of ‘benign neglect’, or even tacit encouragement of private businesses. All these signs indicate that the changes have finally begun. Of course, it remains to be seen how far Kim Jong Un and his advisors are going to go with this model, but so far, the prognosis looks quite good.
Unfortunately, in the case of North Korea, a ‘developmental dictatorship’ is going to be significantly more repressive than similar models in Deng Xiaoping’s China of the 1980s or Park Chung-hee’s South Korea of the 1970s. North Korea is part of a divided nation, and the existence of the rich, free, and therefore highly attractive South Korea is, in itself, politically destabilizing. In order to counter such potentially destabilizing influences and prevent an outbreak of an East German-style popular revolution (albeit far more violent and bloody), the North Korean government will have to remain highly repressive.
The North Korean leaders and, broader, the ‘top 1%’ will have no choice for the sake of their own political, and even physical, survival to do everything possible to control and limit interaction between their populace and the outside world. In order to survive as a regime and/or a separate nation, North Korea has to remain isolated, even if such isolation is going to adversely impact prospects of economic growth (less investment etc.).
The North Korean elite will also have to tread the path of reforms quite slowly, much slower than was once the case in China. Deng Xiaoping once famously compared his careful and piecemeal approach to reform with “crossing a river by feeling the stones”. In the case of North Korea, the river seems to be far more dangerous and treacherous, so double caution is likely to be exercised by Kim Jong Un and his people and one should not expect quick progress.
Unfortunately, even a successfully reforming North Korea will remain a highly repressive and restrictive place with large prison camps and ferocious political police, with intense (and remarkably dishonest) indoctrination and tough censorship. This does not sound attractive, to be sure: however, as it has been said, the only realistic alternative is a regime collapse which is likely to produce much more death and suffering.
Alas, in real life we are forced to choose not between good and bad, but rather between lesser and greater evils, and there are sound reasons to believe that in this particular case a developmental dictatorship, with all its shortcomings, injustice and brutality, is still a lesser evil.
Such a regime will essentially become an embodiment of market capitalism, even though it will use the old-sounding Juche rhetoric to placate the population and keep up appearances. For example, it is quite possible that for the sake of ideological convenience North Korean business people will be officially described as, say, “Juche-style independent state enterprise managers” or something like that.
Most likely, this new system will generate significant economic growth – as a matter of fact, it has begun to generate growth already. In due time, this growth will translate into better food, better houses, better education, and better health care for the average North Korean – pretty much how it happened in China under the iron-fisted rule of Deng Xiaoping and his successors.
The North Korean elite also will have to tread the path of reforms quite slowly, much slower than was once the case in China
In the very long term, one could envision a situation when social and economic development will eventually create a foundation for the switch to political democracy – as it did in South Korea and Taiwan in the late 1980s. However, such a process is likely to take a long time and the present author, at 54 years old, doesn’t have much hope of seeing its eventual completion. However, what I hope to never see is North Korea plunging into a Libya or Syria-style violent mess. Nevertheless, preparations for such an emergency, no matter how undesirable, but still possible, should be made by all governments.
If we agree that the “developmental dictatorship” model, in spite of all its grave problems, is something which in the long run is going to serve best the interests of the North Korean common people, we also have to answer one question: what should we do to encourage such a development and make it more possible and less painful?
First of all, we have to keep in mind that switch to such a model means radical reform, and radical reforms seldom happen because the ruling elite wants them. People, generally speaking, don’t like dramatic change and most would prefer the status quo, unless they see a very valid reason to change their ways. Therefore, in order to change North Korea, we have to create a situation where the North Korean decision makers will see reasons why they should reform their country, even though such reforms may be uncomfortable and, indeed, politically risky.
The best way to do this is to increase North Korea’s exposure to the outside world. This is how reforms were initiated in China after the death of Mao “Great Helmsman” Zedong: back then, in the late 1970s, 99% of the Chinese population had no say whatsoever on matters of politics and were merely expected to demonstrate their unparalleled enthusiasm for any pronouncement from the leader.
However, the ‘top 1%’, or even less, the real decision makers, were aware that China was increasingly lagging behind its neighbors – especially Taiwan and South Korea. Top Chinese officials of the late 1970s came to realize that this process would have to be reversed, lest they eventually lose power and privilege. In order to do so, in the late 1970s, Chinese leaders embraced what by that time had essentially become the proverbial “only game in town”: that is, the market economy. They did it in a careful way without ever admitting it too openly in front of their populace, but the transformation was remarkably successful.
Radical reforms seldom happen because the ruling elite wants them
This transformation was only possible because the Chinese elite was aware of the economic success enjoyed by countries which chose the market economy model. They didn’t want China to lag behind even more, and they did not want to face their own angry populace if and when the common folks, sooner or later, learnt the bitter truth.
All this is definitely applicable to North Korea. All efforts aimed at introducing information inside North Korea should be encouraged, and the major target of such efforts should be not the common people, who have little influence, but the North Korean elite, especially younger sections of North Korea’s semi-hereditary decision-making class.
It is also desirable to help those North Korean officials who want to behave in more market-oriented ways – fortunately, there is no shortage of such people even now. This is why trade with, and investment to, North Korea is actually a good thing, even though from the purely economic point of view such projects are unlikely to be successful (I know a lot of businesspeople who lost money working with North Korea, and very few who made money). Training programs targeting North Korean officials and teaching them useful things about the modern economy and modern technology are also desirable.
WINDS OF CHANGE?
Needless to say, such policies are non-starters nowadays, when delusions about the efficiency of hard sanctions and the hardline approach reign supreme in Washington, and when Seoul and Beijing find it expedient not to challenge such illusions. However, sooner or later, we are bound to face massive disappointment in this approach and this might create some opportunities for a more realistic path.
Of course, one also has to approach the ‘developmental dictatorship’ model with eyes wide open. It is not a paradise and it is going to produce a lot of suffering and injustice. The only reason why one should resolutely support such an imperfect solution is that no faultless solution is possible, while the alternative models are seemingly even less perfect.
Incidentally, one cannot help but feel somewhat sorry for the decision makers who will work hard to promote such a solution (most of them necessarily have to be North Koreans, of course). They should not count on the gratitude of their contemporaries, or even of the next generation.
It will probably take a long time before their exploits get fair recognition, but it is also possible that in a world of the distant future, nobody will be ready to comprehend the sad fact that back in the 21st century, authoritarian modernization with all its bloodshed, exploitation and injustice was, indeed, a lesser evil than all other realistically available alternatives. However, we live in the here and now, and we should do what we can, not what starry-eyed idealists would like.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Few would disagree these days that North Korea is a problem, not only because of its fast advancing nuclear and missile program but also because of the sorry state of the country’s economy and its abysmal human rights record. It is a problem for us outsiders, but it is an even greater problem for the North Korean people themselves.As people are fond of saying in such situations that
Andrei Lankov is a Director at NK News and writes exclusively for the site as one of the world's leading authorities on North Korea. A graduate of Leningrad State University, he attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University from 1984-5 - an experience you can read about here. In addition to his writing, he is also a Professor at Kookmin University.