Resiliency and Opacity: A Review of North Korea: Markets and Military Rule

By and | January 05, 2016 | No Comments

Unveiling of the Kim Il-sung statue in Mansudae 1972; image via Chosen Central Television

Unveiling of the Kim Il-sung statue on Mansudae Hill in 1972. | Image: Chosun Central Television

Suzy Kim’s book Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution, 1945-1950, which Sino-NK subjected to a roundtable review in December 2013, narrates a moment in which the political energy that would go on to birth the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea could still be seen with optimistic eyes. Whatever the disputes concerning the book’s evidentiary base and methodology, the “everyday” people that Suzy Kim describes are essentially people like us, living lives essentially like ours: eating, drinking, reading, and dying. Yet they perceive the prospect of communist revolution and rise to power of Kim Il-sung as a time of great opportunity, a moment of promise. It is easy for the readers of today to dismiss historical texts and glibly move on, satisfied with the security of time and the outcome (or “end”) of history. Endpoints and outcomes would surely have seemed as indistinct and fluid in Soviet “liberated” Pyongyang as they might have in the trenches of the Somme in 1915, with narratives and stories still to be written and forged with energy, blood, and will. We — readers of a different time and space — should not so easily dismiss the lived experiences, anxieties, and expectations of different, distant temporalities.

Just like North Korea and its local politics, North Korean studies once inhabited a different conceptual frame and a contrasting, contested temporality. As scholars and readers we often forget or dismiss the body of knowledge produced by the epistemic communities of those frames and times. But before 1992 and the final collapse of world communism, faculties, and research institutions all over the communist bloc produced fine analytical research on matters addressing North Korea. The University of Bucharest produced extensive analysis of North Korea’s forests, the Soviet Academy of Sciences paid close empirical attention to its fields. Today much of this is lost, missing, and presumed irrelevant, condemned to the metaphorical deep stacks of the imagination, or else just burnt or destroyed in moments of blind, senseless optimism. The scholars who produced this research are themselves mostly forgotten, ignored, or retired.

In a sense, Jacques Hersh and his wife Ellen Brun fall into this category. Contributors to the legendary socialist journal, Monthly Review, Jacques and Ellen were pioneers of development studies in Europe, especially that focused on the then very much undeveloped East Asia. Jacques obtained a professorship in development studies at the University of Aalborg in Denmark in 1983 and founded its Research Centre on Development and International Relations in 1995. Jacques and Ellen were intellectual leftists of the old school and their research speaks of a different academic temporality. Yet their fantastic book from 1976, Socialist Korea: A Case Study in the Strategy of Economic Development is an almost forgotten work of empiricism and comparative inquiry on North Korea.

It is important that we as a community of readers, thinkers, and writers do not forget where we have been, and as such (and since Hazel Smith referenced their work extensively in her own book) I tracked down Hersh and Brun, disturbing them from what an Aalborg University tribute describes as their “right to laziness.” I personally was overjoyed that they agreed to respond in review style to Hazel Smith’s work for a forthcoming Sino-NK roundtable, some 11 years into a well-deserved retirement. It is a fine example of interaction across generations, one too rarely accomplished in these fickle, urgent times. — Robert Winstanley-Chesters, Sino-NK Director of Research

Resiliency and Opacity: A Review of  North Korea: Markets and Military Rule

by Jacques Hersh and Ellen Brun

Let it be said from the outset, this book is an important contribution to the understanding of the North Korean evolution and the multi-faceted crisis which has affected the country for the past few decades. Nonetheless, students of development studies and social change will find the book North Korea: Markets and Military Rule by Professor Hazel Smith stimulating and frustrating at the same time. Stimulating for the things it says and frustrating for the things which are left unsaid concerning the general problems of development paradigms and models.

As readers, we found it extremely positive that from the very beginning, the focus of the narrative and analysis presented consciously attempts to debunk the stereotype demonization of the North Korean state-building strategy, including the economics, politics and ideology involved as well as the cultural aspect. This is not the most common approach to mainstream analyses of the DPRK.  As stated by the author: “The reasons for the development of caricature as the dominant prism through which to think about North Korea are manifold.” (p. 20)

To a large extent, this is due to looking at North Korea through the lenses of the lingering ideological side-effects of the Korean War. This translates into an analytical approach which adopts military planners’ methodology of assuming the worst case scenario in shaping the analysis. But contrary to the notion of North Korea as an aggressive monster, the author argues that what we are dealing with is not a dangerous and irrational military power but a regime striving for survival. The difference is not insignificant!

Furthermore, Hazel Smith refutes the claims of North Korea’s uniqueness and strangeness arguing that this is due to ignorance of Korean (North and South) culture. “Many of the issues considered culturally singular to North Korea are just as relevant to South Korea; including the strong sense of ethnic unity and ethnic nationalism.” (p. 20) It could be added that the governance of the two states had some political cultural commonalities such as strong governments and the creation of a dynastic structure in the case of the Pyongyang political system and a corporate oligarchy (chaebols) where a handful of families have been the power center in South Korea’s economy. In both states the military played significant roles

Concerning the difficult period which arose during the famine years at a time of severe North Korean isolation, the author finds the accusation that the government deliberately starved its people to be unfounded. Likewise the claim that the country is a criminal state is said to be weak on evidence, although individuals may have been involved in illicit activities abroad.

This notwithstanding, unprepared Western visitors to the country may find the comportment of North Koreans strange. But Hazel Smith, who has lived and worked in the country, makes the case that the people there are no different from non-Koreans. In fact they are highly knowledgeable and aware of the outside world. The population is said to have a relatively high educational level.

The refusal of a caricatural portrayal of North Korea forms the point of departure for what turns out to be a strong empirically-based study of a-not-easily accessible societal entity. The end product is  a well-balanced effort at understanding the evolution of a society that has had to confront a longer list of challenges and hardships than most countries in the Third World.

The Pyongyang Metro circa 1977, just four years after it opened in September 1973. The construction put excessive strain on the DPRK economy, but foreign researchers saw only the impressive results of development through mass mobilization. | Image: Retro DPRK

The Pyongyang Metro in a postcard circa 1977, four years after the Ch’ollima Line (천리마선) opened to travelers in September 1973. External researchers found much to like about North Korea’s development model, although the construction project put significant strain on the DPRK economy. | Image: Retro DPRK

Critiquing Methodologies: Whither the Big Picture | When this is said and done, a critical issue that can be raised — though without underestimating the volume’s significance for comprehension of the DPRK — is related to the methodology of the analysis. Though strong in its focus on development and change in North Korea, the case-study does not relate the process to the big picture. In other words, the analysis fails to place the evolution of North Korea in the context of comparative international development studies and social change research.

There is a latent need to contextualize the successes and failures of developmental societies to the more general problematique of post-colonial transition to independent nation-building. In doing so, the case-study approach contributes to the general body of under-development/development studies.

The point we are trying to make is that development and social change although taking place at the national level do not take place in an international vacuum. By failing to contextualize and delineate internal and external constraints faced by developing societies, we reinforce the assumption that the failure and shortcomings of development and social change is inherently due to internally determined causes. This is a normative leap which demands to be critically affronted.

In the relatively young years of development studies, two paradigms confronted each other, each with their own narrative and recommendation for the choice of postcolonial path of nation-building and development. These two theoretical schools dominated the discipline of development studies in the decolonization period following World War II.

On the one hand, modernization theory proposed the Western model of societal change and economic growth. This was done by ignoring international economic history which shows that the growth of the European mode of capitalist development was carried out on the basis of the uneven division of labor. This relationship had been established during the colonial era enabling the transfer of wealth to the European cultural sphere.

Non obstante this basic historical process, newly independent nations were encouraged by modernization theory to emulate the evolution of the leading capitalist nations, although they had no possibility of gaining access to the economic surplus of other societies. The political component of the theory was stated in the title of Walt Rostow’s volume The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifest. The underlying message was that postcolonial nations should align themselves with the capitalist world economy under the leadership of the United States. The end stage being the “Age of high consumption” as epitomized in the concept of “the American way of life.”

Contrary to this approach, the school of dependency theory and World System Analysis argued that in a world divided between core and periphery, the new nations could achieve national development by controlling their relationship to the world economy and rely mostly on their own forces, i.e. self-reliance. This theoretical approach borrowed heavily from the school of “economic nationalism” as conceptualized by Friedrich List who has been dubbed the first development theorist.

“Infant Industries:” Protection and Development | The example of late-comers such as Germany, Japan, and even the United States showed that they had protected their “infant industries” from the ravages of the core-dominated world market. In other words, development was conceptualized as a political project of controlling the economic evolution of society vis-à-vis the international economy. In this process, the emphasis, especially in the catching-up phases of Germany and Japan, was not political liberalism and democracy.

Based on historical evidence and contemporary experience, the dependency and World System paradigm of development posited the paths of  mobility in the world economy as the results of  either “promotion by invitation,” “self-reliance,” or “seizing the chance.”  Needless to say, development is a complex process and these ideal-type theoretical patterns could not be exclusively implemented dogmatically. In practice, a combination of borrowing from each path could and did take place.

The division of the Korean Peninsula after the defeat of Japanese imperialism in World War II opened the way for the implementation of the two different models of development. The ROK following the “promotion by invitation model” and “seizing the chance” (created by the conditions of the Cold War and the Korean War) showing that state-led capitalist development could strive on the basis of the international market (i.e., export-orientation to the American market but also import-control). The strategy of the United States permitted in those years the emergence of the Newly Industrial Countries (the so-called NICs). In other words, a state-led development emerged with the aim of countering the influence of the state-led socialist Asian countries (China, North Korea as well as the national liberation war in Indochina). In contrast to South America, the New Industrializing Countries (NICs) of East Asia were “allowed” to carry out land reforms as well as state interventionism in the implementation of a path of industrialization and control of foreign investment and trade.

As far as the DPRK was concerned, “promotion by invitation” was never in the cards. Especially from the time of the Korean War and the cementing of the division of Korea, the United States imposed a regime of sanctions on Pyongyang. This was the time of the Cold War and the leadership of North Korea projected, perhaps making a virtue out of necessity, the concept of national self-reliance under the slogan of Juche. Building an independent national economy and society was a challenge of dimension. The country had been utterly destroyed during the Korean War and everything had to be rebuilt from scratch. Although North Korea was well endowed with raw materials and minerals, the country had limited arable land for agriculture production. The South had been the bread basket of Japanese imperialism.

Juche promoted the ideological mobilization of a Korean identity and societal model thus distancing the country from its alliance and dependency on its two allies, the Soviet Union and China, who were themselves in a ideological and political conflict. Neutrality in the Sino-Soviet rift permitted the leadership of North Korea to navigate between its two allies while retaining its independence. The attempt to lessen the country’s relative dependency on the Soviet Union and China was not lessened by US strategy in Northeast Asia, especially the American’s refusal to sign a peace treaty with Pyongyang. This could have put an end to the state of war on the peninsula and guarantied international recognition to the DPRK as a nation-state.

Pyongyang saw a building boom in the late 1980s, as the country responded to the Seoul Olympics with the World Festival of Youth and Students. | Image: Retro DPRK

Pyongyang saw a building boom in the late 1980s, as the country prepared to host the 1989 World Festival of Youth and Students (link in French). | Image: Retro DPRK

Three Decades of Success: Failed Transition | During the first three decades of its existence, the socio-economic development of North Korea proceeded reasonably well. But like other socialist countries, the North Korean transition from a labor intensive mode of production to a capital (technological advanced) intensive economy was difficult without access to input from the capitalist world. In this connections difficulties also accrued as a result of the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War as well as the Chinese transformation from a socialist economy into a hybrid form of state-capitalism under the political leadership of a Communist Party.

The result was the emergence of a destabilizing political context which was accentuated by the demise of Kim Il-sung and the natural catastrophes including the years of famine that hit the country. Likewise the death of Kim’s successor Kim Jong-il increased the level of political and socio-economic instability which had still, according to most analysts, not been entirely resolved by the time of the ascension to leadership by the younger Kim Jong-un.

Without distinguishing between externalities (foreign countries’ policies influencing Korean society)  and internal causes or shortcomings, the consensus in the Western media, if not in the entire body politic, was that the DPRK had, in the past few years, been on the verge of collapsing and ripe for a change of regime. Such an expectation was not entirely due to the imagination of analysts when considering the demise of the entire socialist camp and China’s about-turn.

That does not mean that North Korea did not face an existential crisis. The manner such an implosion was avoided is addressed by Professor Hazel Smith’s solid volume. In this connection, two themes are discussed in the context of the crisis. On the one hand, a political strategy of regime survival through  “military-first politics” as a response to the dire situation generated by the famine and economic collapse of the mid-1990 and on the other a societal survival referred to as the “marketization from below” of all aspects of society.

It should not be ignored that, objectively speaking, the militarization of the DPRK is not an entirely new phenomenon which can only be ascribed to the recent crisis. From the very beginning, the North Korean polity emerged (with Soviet assistance) through the anti-Japanese struggle. The Korean War soon after independence contributed to the creation of a martial state with a very strong military-party symbiosis. Nevertheless, the present militarization of the DPRK is to be seen in conjunction with the weakness of the national economy and society due to perceived domestic causes and real foreign hostility towards the regime.

As the author puts it: “The intent of military-first organization was to ensure that government and society was prepared for war…. Military-first organization of society did not mean that North Korea became a militarized society in the sense that the streets became full of gun-toting soldiers.” (p. 241) In fact she adds that soldiers and police didn’t normally carry arms in the society.

In addition, the regime’s attempt to build a nuclear capacity (against both Chinese and Russian advice) should also be understood as a defensive measure in the context of the hostile environment created by the South Korean-US alliance and the antagonism of Japan as well as, last but not least, distrust and  disenchantment with  the relationship to China and Russia. Furthermore, the US wars in the Middle East, starting with Iraq, represented a tipping point in determining North Korean nuclear deterrence strategy.

Intra-party decision making is unfortunately not discussed in the volume although it is a source of discussion and speculation for Pyongyang watchers. However, Hazel Smith cannot be faulted for this lacuna, given the secretive working of North Korean politics. In this connection, it should be remembered that the DPRK has no monopoly on the lack of governance transparency!

Opaque and Resilient: Conclusion | Students of North Korea will be extremely interested in Hazel Smith’s thesis of the marketization of society as the second outcome of the crisis. As the political system had difficulties coping with the agricultural catastrophe of food production and distribution, the people took the initiative to alleviate the country’s dire situation by marketization, i.e. reconstitution of the economic system from the bottom up. The analysis of the process is indeed fascinating

The reader will however be a bit disoriented by the term “marketization.” Should it be understood  as a movement toward capitalism with the creation of class distinction and loss of state control of the economy? It would have clarified the problematique had the discussion touched upon the transition from state socialism to capitalism which we have witnessed in the former socialist countries. In the case of the Soviet Union, the political system disintegrated prior to the privatization of the means of production. In China the introduction of proto-capitalist reforms took place with the communist party still in command. Is the DPRK evolving in a different direction?

Although the marketization process in North Korea took place outside the direct control of the state/party, the crisis seems to have been resolved through a combination of social initiative and state policies. As Professor Hazel Smith put it: “Military-first government did not abandon social policy to the market but neither were they successful in restoring the relative egalitarian social provision that had characterized the Kim Il Sung era.” (p. 278) Will the emergence of a new class of “nouveau riche” in an environment of economic crisis threaten the political structure as the author suggests?

Trying to project the future is difficult. But it is without question that the DPRK has surmounted its threatening disorder which originated in the 1990s. The question of wither North Korea remains an open question for students of the country. Speculations about the future of the DPRK have to factor diverse elements which will exert influence on the possible outcomes.

As seen from Pyongyang, the geopolitical and geoeconomic regional situation seems, after a few decades of negative developments, to be working in the regime’s favor. The confrontation between the United States’ strategy to establish a unipolar world and the Eurasian project of Russia and China to create a multipolar structure is turning North Korea into an important player in the new configuration. This could give the regime a window of opportunity to bring itself out of its relative isolation and strengthen its independence.

Although it would be hazardous to predict the future of North Korea, some elements can be introduced in order to perceive the contours of the country’s evolution. Compared with the disintegration of the German Democratic Republic as a result of the demise of the USSR, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea appears to be master of its own house. In addition, the nation is well endowed with raw materials waiting to be extracted. Estimates go as far as stating that North Korea has 6 trillion dollars worth of untapped rare earth minerals reserves. Its dependence on energy import is also benefitting from the fall of the price of oil which will probably not return to its former level soon. Last but not least, the country has a qualified and disciplined workforce which is relatively cheaper than other countries in the region.

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