Tag Archives: north korea

Review of “North Korea in Transition: Politics, Economy, and Society,” edited by Kyung-Ae Park and Scott Snyder

If you want to read an example of the generally worthless state of international relations scholarship, it’s hard to do worse than North Korea in Transition.

north_korea_in_transition

It’s not that it’s put out by a bunch of cranks. It’s featured by the Council on Foreign Relations. And it’s not that it is not interesting. I highlighted several passages, many of which were thought provoking.

But… International Relations scholars, famously, can’t predict anything. The beginnings of wars, the outbreaks of peace, the collapse or emergence of empires — I’m aware of no solid model that can predict these as well as, say, the weather two days from now.

Some authors, like Bruce Cummings, appear to just be intellectual jokes

“American television rounded up all the usual images of North Korea: frightening soldiers goose-stepping through Pyongyang, a madman at the help who starves his people, missiles fired “over Japan” ( all missile launches are to the east, to take advantage of the Earth’s rotation)”

(pace)

map-north-korea-missile-sit

But generally, over and over, authors told us only what we already knew, and missed titanic changes under the surface.

It is noteworthy that the chair of the North Korean side in the DPRK-China Joint Guidance Committee for Economic Zones is Jang Song Taek, Kim Jong I’ls’ brother-in-law and vice chairman of the National Defense Commission

(yes, it is a noteworthy indeed that Jong Song Taek was arrested during a committee meeting, and tried as a traitor.)

jang-song-thaek-c-is

Kim Jong Un is known to have focused on taking control of the military and the intelligence apparatuses with teh full support of the two key
power holders, Jang Song Taek and Ri Yong Ho, under the tight supervision of Kim Jung Il.

(Well, we know something – perhaps what is not something we’re sure of.  Currently the only question is to what fraction of Jang’s family tree is annihilated.)

jang-song-thaek-executed

This isn’t to say the entire book is trash. Chapter 8, “Low-Profile Capitalism: The Emergence of the New Merchant / Entrepreneurial Class in Post-Famine North Korea” by Andrei Lankov is very solid. In fact, it’s probably worth the price of the book.

The rest of it ca be tossed, though, unless you want to be a pimp, a tourist, a loser, or an escapee in the academic ghetto.

Reviews of Histories of Communist Regimes

Reviews of Histories of Communist Regimes

Books reviewed:

Coat_of_arms_of_the_Soviet_Union_md

I’ve read numerous histories of the Chinese Communist Party, its leaders (Mao, Zhou, Deng, etc.) and enemies (Chiang Kaishek, Chiang Chingkuo, and Mao himself), but my knowledge of the Communist experience elsewhere has not grown much over the psat few years. Indeed, the ferocity with which Mao destroyed the Soviet system in the Cultural Revolution has left me feeling vaguely sympathetic to the Stalinist bureaucrats.

So I read three books, Iron Curtain (by the wife of a Polish Foreign Minister), The Real North Korea (by a Soviet-trained North Korea area expert), and The North Korean Revolution (by Charles Armstrong, a former student of Bruce Cummings, who has the reputation of being the most sympathetic to North Korea of any mainstream historians).

iron_curtain_crushing_eastern_europe_md

Iron Curtain is itself a comparative history of Soviet occupations of Poland, Hungary, and East Germany, so The North Korean revolution allowed me to witness the post-Soviet invasion in four countries, on opposite ends of Eurasia. The political dynamics of the four countries were similar, but North Korea from the beginning was a special case:

Political Composition of Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia in 1945:
1. Middle class parties associated with business
2. Populist farmer’s parties associated with the Catholic Church
3. Social Democratic parties associated with workers and intellectuals
4. The indigenous Communist Parties
5. The Soviet Occupation

Political Composition of North Korea in 1945:
1. Middle class Christian parties associated with the Catholic and Presbyterian Churches
2. Syncratic Buddhist-Farmers Party-Religion (Cheondogyo)
3. An “indigenous” Communist Party” centered around the future South Korea
4. Chinese-trained guerrillas who returned to North Korea (New People’s Party)
5. Soviet-trained guerrillas who returned to North Korea
6. The Soviet Occupation

When written out in a list, North Korea immediately appears more confusing. Three separate vocal religious movements, each deeply suspicious of each other but each with deep roots, are active in the country. Simultaneously, the “local” Communists find themselves under American Occupation, while the Soviet-ordained capital of North Korea (Pyongyang) is in the most heavily Christian part of the country.

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The confusion doesn’t end there. The indigenous Korean Communist Party had been eradicated by Imperial police, and the Japanese Communist Party (which absorbed its remnants) called upon Korean Communists to turn themselves in (!!!), with the reasoning that such would allow them to act as missionaries to prisoners.

The two rival groups of guerrillas, the Soviet-trained and Chinese-trained, were both survivors of the defunct Manchurian Communist Party, which in spite of its name was predominantly Korean and, (like the KCP) was obliterated by a successful Imperial counter-insurgency campaign. Those who fled to the Soviet union would largely wait in Siberia until the Empire fell. Those that fled to China likewise waited in Yenan, building up close connections to Mao, Zhou, and the rest of the Chinese Communist leadership.

Kim_Il-sung_1946

It was perhaps this confusion that allowed Kim Il Sung to pull off a trick that would prove impossible anywhere else. Elsewhere, the Communist regimes would either turn into Soviet occupation state with the indigenous Communist leaders imprisoned or killed (Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, etc), or else as home-grown regimes which were never under Soviet occupation (Cuba, China, Vietnam, etc.). In North Korea alone the Soviets came, Soviet allies were set up, and Soviet spies died as the local Communist party triumphed.

In Eastern Europe the People’s States would be “local in form, Soviet in content.” While much hay was made out of local architectural adornment, local folk art, and such, the Soviet Empire was run bureaucratically from Moscow. In North Korea, by contrast, the state was “Soviet in form, local in content.” Subsequent to North Korea, the only internationally active government that could challenge it for lack of educational attainment among its leadership was Taliban Afghanistan. Thus it is perhaps not surprising that the Kim Il Sung and his acolytes would give speeches against women working outside the home, against wage leveling, and against the Communist Party serving as a vanguard.

Andrei_Lankov_The_Real_North_Korea_md

The Real North Korea updates this to the present day. While Lankov notes that North Korean, alone among Communist languages, has two different words for “comrade” depending on the relative social status of the speakers, Lankov’s book describes the implications of such a non-egalitarian “Communism.” Indeed, there are no longer references to Communism, Marx, or Lenin, in North Korea’s interpretation: it is only foreign countries that insist on treating North Korea as Communist, whether it is China (which communicates to North Korea thru Chinese Communist Party Korean Workers Party channels) or the United States (which views North Korea as the last remnant of the Soviet Empire). Rather, as B.R. Myers implied in The Cleanest Race, North Korea is a fascist, explicitly racist state that is a successor to the Empire of Japan.

All of these books are well worth written. Applebaum’s Iron Curtain is somewhat tedious, but that is because the story is tedious: the Soviet obliteration of civil society in Eastern Europe. Armstrong has fallen in love with his subject — a naive reader would believe it was “natural” for Kim Il Sung to ban all dissent, because dissenters wanted someone else to lead them. Lankov’s The Real North Korea is the best of these, the perspective of someone who feels the Soviet system to be natural, but is deeply weirded out by North Korea.

I read (Iron Curtain and The Real North Korea), and The North Korea Revolution on a dead tree.

Review of “Inside the Red Box: North Korea’s Post-Totalitarian Politics,” by Patrick McEachern

While reading Inside the Red Box: North Korea’s Post-Totalitarian Politics by Patrick McEachern, I thought a lot about my employer. Like North Korea, my employer’s history was profoundly shaped by a charismatic founder whose total control of the country is nonetheless remembered asa happy time. If he was totalitarian, he was a very effective totalitarian. His hand-picked successor has been effective at securing regime survival, in the face of fastpaced competitors.

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Also like my employer, at least according to McEachern, North Korea’s leadership is best understand as representing powerful, defined, and well organized powerful institutions (or in my employer’s jargon, “orgs”). McEachern identifies these institutions as the Party, the Military, and the Cabinet. In North Korea, Kim is able to make his own decisions, but also relies on policy inputs from these three institutions. This is a “divide-and-rule” strategy, as the Government is the Cabinet can be expected to propose practical and measurable initiatives, the military can be expected to emphasize danger and thread, and the Party can be expected to support an intellectually “correct” line.

It’s not surprising that McEachern doesn’t make a comparison to my employer. After all, my employer doesn’t have prison camps or nuclear missiles! But it is somewhat surprising that McEachern does not make the obvious comparison: Mao organized China along the same lines. Like Kim Jung Il, Mao was disinterested in day-to-day execution of power: he was more interested in delegating suck work, while realizing he could never trust those to whom he delegated.

Inside the Red Box is a terrific history of North Korea was 1991 on, but is weak before that date. In this sense, it fits well with The Impossible State by Victor Cha, which is very strong for the period before 1991 but weak afterwards.

Review of “The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future,” by Victor Cha

Yesterday I finished The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future by Victor Cha. Dr. Cha is a professor at Georgetown University, and former Director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council, during the George W. Bush administration.

The Impossible State can conceptually be divided into three parts. The book’s approach combines a focus on the political economy of North Korea, with some discussion of the ideology of that state. The book implies a small number of important decisions should be made regarding North Korea.

North Korea was the Normal Korea

First, Cha argues that up through the early 1980s, North Korea was the “normal” Korea. Not only was North Korea the most industrialized state per capita during its founding, even after being leveled in the Korean War, and it was behind only Japan in per capita industrialization by 1970s. When North Korea sent a peace envoy to Seoul in the 1960s, South Korea executed him. That’s the sort of craziness we expect from North Korea these days!

South Korean per capita electric consumption did not exceeded that of North Korea until 1988. Even in the early 1980s the White House appeared to consider the possibility of a peaceful unification of Korea under Northern hegemony. Even though the North had as strong cult of personality throughout this period, Kim Il Sung (the founder of North Korea) used this as a tool for political control under a seemingly technocrat state along the East German or Romanian models.

The North Korean State Collapsed in the 1980s

The collapse of the North Korean state in the 1980s appears to e the result of several severe blows

1. North Korea’s was nearing the limit of State-led heavy-industry development
2. The focus on heavy industry created a distorted economy that could not deal with the collapse of the Communist trading bloc
3. South Korea was meanwhile engaging is a better developmental model that was overtaking the North’s economy
4. The South Korean government’s policy of “Nordpolitik” diplomatically encircled the North
5. The International Olympic Committee handed Seoul the 1988 Summer Olympic Games, which prompted an incredibly poorly thought-out campaign of Northern terrorism against the South
6. The North Korean leadership transition was contested, and distorted the political leadership away from a focus on economic growth

“Neo-Juche Revivalism”

The weakest part of The Impossible State, in my opinion, is Cha’s discussion of “Neo-Juche Revivalism.” Part of this may be because it seems the book went to press about a week or so after Kim Jong-Il’s death, so page upon page will go into explaining the particulars of Kim Jong-Il’s experience, and then there will be a paragraph or so about Kim Jong-Un, Jang Sung-taek, or some other leader.

“Neo-Juche Revivalism” is the term that Cha uses to describe Kim Jong-Il’s suspicion of political reform, and desire to return to the position of strength last seen in the 1970s. While to Kim Jong-Il recent North Korean weakness of an aberration, it is not clear that the new leadership actually believes it. Nor is it clear if Cha simply uses this term to refer to the focus on power and fear of outsides that has characterized the North Korean regime for decades.

What to Do

I was surprised from reading online that Cha is considered to be “hawk.” The approach implied by The Impossible State is that any sanctions regime that does not include China will not work, as China will just increase her aid accordingly. Likewise, China is unlikely to engage in sanctions, because China’s interest is in extracting North Korea’s natural resources and using North Korean ports to help develop land-locked Jilin province (a province which has a larger population than the whole of North Korea).

China’s colonization of North Korea, therefore, should be matched by South Korean colonization of North Korea. The point is to speed up the economic connectivity of the North while containing its militarily. The regime is too self-interested to attack other countries if it believes it will be attacked in return. This, all that’s left is to rot North Korea away from within.

Blind Spots

Cha is clearly a Korean subject matter expert, but he neglects important aspects of both Chinese and Japanese politics.

With regards to China, he states that China nearly removed Kim Il-Sung from power. But the context of this claim, Cha later writes, is General Peng Dehui’s speech against Kim Il-Sung during a Communist conference. But Peng’s speech against “Kim Il-Sung” was in fact targeted against Mao Zedong, both of whom were famous for their personality cult. Thus, Peng’s speech was not a serious call to invade North Korea, but a coded call to end the Mao Zedong personality cult.

Likewise, Cha largely blames Japanese outrage against North Korea for the abduction of Japanese civilians (most of whom were females) on the Japanese.

Cha asserts

1. North Korea’s announcement of the abductions was made in good faith
2. North Korea cannot be expected to account for missing or executed Japanese civilians
3. Japan exhibited bad faith by not forcibly returning visiting captured Japanese civilians back to Japan
4. Japanese politicians cynically exploied far-right-wing outrage for their own ends.

I really don’t know what to make of these claims. They are not only morally repulsive, they don’t even fit the tone of the rest of the work. They display an ignorance of both Japanese (and Korean!) view of women, which is more chivalrous than in the west.

Summary

The Impossible State contains a fascinating brief history of the Koreas since the Second World War. It persuasively argues that North Korea is the target of economic colonization. South Korea should exploit this, and work with China in absorbing its north neighbor while developing Jilin province.

Review of “The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves, and Why It Matters,” by B.R. Myers

Brian Renolds Myers is an professor of international studies, and the author of The Cleanest Race. When I began The Cleanest Race, I assumed it would be a brief overview of the Korean Workers Party, along the lines of the histories of the Chinese Communist Parties I have read. Instead, this slim volume is as disruptive to my thoughts about North Korea as China Marches West was to my thoughts about the Qing Dynasty. Just as China Marches West demolishes the idea that the early Qing dynasty was particularly Chinese, The Cleanest Race demolishes four major assumptions about North Korea.

The Cleanest Race refutes most of our assumptions about North Korea

1. That North Korea’s leadership emerged from anti-Japanese rebels
2. That North Korea is Communist
3. That North Korea aims for self-sufficiency (“juche”)
4. That North Korea is operationally Confucian

Each of these is worth examining.

While few people believe the WPK’s claims to have emerged from a long history of guerilla warfare against Japan, Myers clearly doubst the WPK was anti-Japanese at all. Kim’s brother worked for the Empire of Japan, and early North Korean propaganda bragged that collaborators were just as likely as guerillas to obtain high government roles. Kim Il-Song (the least educated leader in the history of the Commmunist World) was far more concerned about building personal loyalty to himself that concerned with world communism, or opposition to one particular government in particular.

Likewise, North Korea is “Communist” in a sense that no other country has been. Indeed, early in North Korea’s history the Kim faction cleansed the party both of a pro-China “Yenan” faction and a pro-Soviet “Internationalist” faction. While Soviet-educated Koreans wanted an industrialized socialist state along the lines of East Germany or Bulgaria, and Chinese-educated Koreans shared these goals while believing that the unique conditions of East Asia meant that labor could easily substitute for capital in constructing socialism, Kim encouraged racist attacks against Communist “allies” while telling fellow-Communist leaders it was better to keep a population poor, to make them easier to control.

North Korea’s ruling ideology of “juche,” Myers claim, is made-up hokum for foreigners. Certainly North Korea exhibits no interest in becoming self-sufficient, instead depending on foreigners for capital in the form of aid, drug deals, and counterfeit currency transaction. Instead, Myers claim, North Korea’s ideology is Japanese Imperialism combined with Korean racism.

Myers argues that North Korea is a successor state of the Empire of Japan. Further, North Korea is the only successor state not to suffer a occupation (unlike Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan). North Korea, therefore, is the purest expression of the the unique blemd of cultural superiority, worship of an effiminate Mother-King, and the rearranging of society to serve the National Defense State without regard to private property.

That a racist worship of a mother-king is not Confucian goes without saying.

The Cleanest Race is an amazing book, very quick to read, and I highly recommend it.