inevitable collapse of the old North Korea?
Wednesday, August 9, 2006
call it a Stalinist state any more, don't even think of it any longer as
a pint-sized former Soviet Union. All around the world, the times are
changing, and nowhere is the change more quiet but also irrevocable than
in the one place where you had thought change had all but been outlawed,
if not imprisoned: North Korea.
is the astonishing and almost unbelievable picture painted by one of the
world's most incisive and informed experts on the Democratic People's
Republic of Korea. The master painter is Andrei Lankov, and his
cliché-shattering portrait of the land of Kim Jong Il (PDF) is to be
found across in the inaugural edition of Asia Policy.
Lankov is a senior lecturer from the prestigious Australian National
University, now on leave at Kookmin University in Seoul, capital of
South Korea. Asia Policy, published by The National Bureau of Asian
Research in Seattle, Washington, sports a board of editorial advisors --
from Stanford University's Richard Armacost to UC San Diego's Susan
Shirk -- that reads like a virtual Who's Who in the field of Asian
policy scholarship. If Lankov's ground-breaking essay is remotely
suggestive of the high standards to be expected from this new journal,
then Asia Policy has a good chance of becoming required reading across
the country and perhaps elsewhere in the world.
Lankov writes colorfully but carefully to create a sense of North Korea
as one of the most dynamically changing states on the face of the earth.
He writes of the country's youth from the best connected families
sporting "mod" haircuts and dressing like any other street-savvy South
Korean kid. He describes the stream -- more like a flood -- of steady if
technically illegal videotapes of South Korean soap operas and pop music
making their way northward (generally through China); of the
proliferation of mobile phones; of the enormous popularity of South
Korean goods of all kinds (patriotically priced on the street well above
similar Chinese goods); and of the rise of female North Korean
entrepreneurs, whether working in the country's growing service
industries or peddling their sexual favors in the old fashioned way to
"newly rich and corrupt minor officials."
Lankov notes that the rise of the private entrepreneur was a survival
necessity in the aftermath of the series of devastating famines in the
nineties and the evaporation of Soviet aid after communism collapsed in
Russia. The emerging economy is a trade-driven, feral struggle to live:
"Those who could not trade are long dead," he quotes a North Korean
source as saying, "and [now] we are only left with survivors hanging
well-regarded Australian scholar adds: "These market operators now boast
large fortunes of several hundreds of thousands of dollars. While such
sums are still well below the fortunes attained by
cadres-turned-capitalists in China and the former USSR, they are still
unimaginably large by North Korean standards, and especially by the
standards of a Stalinist state with its emphasis on income equality."
policy implication of Lankov's explosive essay is obvious. Economic
exchanges are opening up North Korea as never before, and so more such
exchanges will only accelerate the further opening up of this otherwise
miserable nation, bringing it closer to more normal integration into the
world economic system and perhaps even closer to some kind of
co-federation with the capitalistic South.
last quote from this scholar: "Such exchanges should be encouraged, as
they expose North Koreans to the wider world and show them the
prosperity and freedom they are deprived of at home. The privileged
North Koreans who are allowed to travel overseas and interact with
foreigners inside the country are increasingly dissatisfied with their
government. Such determination in the USSR eventually produced
Lankov doesn't quite predict it, so let me go the final mile: North
Korea, if his analysis is correct, can no longer stand as it is. Regime
change needs not to be produced by sudden military action but by
continual, patient, steady economic interaction. Collapse and oblivion
of the current regime is the only way out for the North Koreans.
time -- in a year, in five, but not much longer than that, surely -- the
end will come. Koreans, by nature, are survivors. This includes those in
the North especially. They cannot possibly hope to survive in the old
way so some kind of irretrievable evolution -- and perhaps even
revolution -- is in the destiny of North Korea. God knows the people
there deserve a break.