A Roundtable Review of Hazel Smith’s Markets and Military Rule

By | January 21, 2016 | No Comments


Markets have sprung up the country over in response to the breakdown in the Public Distribution Service, a phenomenon discussed at length by Smith. | Image: Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt

More than 40 years ago, scholars Przeworski and Teune wrote that the overarching goal of comparative and other social scientific inquiry was “to substitute names of variables for the name of social systems, such as Ghana, the United States, Africa, or Asia.” In North Korea: Markets and Military Rule, Hazel Smith seems to argue similarly; as it goes for the rest of the world, so should it go for North Korea. 

Long an object of intellectual and popular interest, North Korea is often treated as an exception, somehow escaping the explanatory power of established analytical frameworks and social scientific theories. Apparently, it requires a deliberate effort from an established Koreanist to get the point across that North Korea — like Ghana, the United States, Africa, or Asia — is, in fact, just another country and thus just as knowable as any other. Drawing upon a plethora of sources and decades of experience writing about and working in North Korea, with North Koreans, Smith delivers a powerful, edgy, and historically informed critique of (North) Korean Studies.

To explore the contours and content of Hazel Smith’s Markets and Military Rule, Sino-NK assembled a team of qualified scholars of North Korea. Jacques Hersh and Ellen Brun contributed a stand-alone piece that was published on January 5.1)Jacques Hersh and Ellen Brun, “Resiliency and Opacity: A Review of North Korea: Markets and Military Rule,” Sino-NK, January 5, 2015. Four additional reviews appear here. These reviews of Smith’s book provide a well-rounded perspective on an important contribution to the literature. — Steven Denney, Managing Editor

A Roundtable Review of Hazel Smith’s Markets and Military Rule

by Sino-NK

Smith, Hazel. North Korea: Markets and Military Rule. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. 381 pp. ISBN 9780521723442.

Going Beyond Caricatures

by Rudiger Frank (University of Vienna)

“North Korea is mad, bad, and sad.” This very first sentence in the introduction sets the tone for the following 332 densely printed pages. It contains a good dose of satire and irony, a feeling that most long-term North Korea scholars can easily share.

As if it would not be hard enough to research a country that is, mildly speaking, not as easily accessible as we wish, among the biggest challenges of our profession there is also the constant need to morally justify any result that does not instantly correspond with stereotypes that have been created by years of sensationalist media reporting. As soon as you go beyond the safe “mad, bad, and sad” narrative, you encounter at least suspicion, if not outright criticism and even passionate attack from various sides. Are you perhaps dumb? Or, heaven forbid, pro-North Korean? Certainly a scholar who dares to neutrally write about North Korea does so in order not to jeopardize his allegedly close and cozy relationship with “the system.” Sometimes one even gets criticized for just travelling to North Korea, which brings cash to the regime and legitimizes it. Indeed it seems easier to have an axiomatic opinion on that country if research is done from the outside, in the best case crowned be a single five-day visit to just confirm what has been known before.

Hazel Smith is among the few Western scholars to have lived and worked in North Korea, and who did so for more than a week or two. In addition, she is also a rigorous scholar and does not hide her love for academic precision and clarity, for theory, proper analysis, and hard facts. It is this mix that makes the book stand out among similar works. It is a good combination of a personal, first-hand account and a sober scholarly analysis.

Hazel does not hide her disgust of the system and its grave violations of the human rights of its citizens, but she also acknowledges attempts, some more successful than others, to improve the situation. Not all these impulses come from “good” forces like “the people,” who of course need to stand in opposition to “the system” in order to qualify as good. In some cases, whether we like it or not, and for whatever reason, it is actually “the leadership” (in case you wonder, these are the bad guys) that is responsible for progress or at least involved in it. This is something we have to deal with. North Korea is as complex and hard to understand in simplistic terms as any other society.

This is not to say it cannot be understood at all, which would be another frequently encountered stereotype. Hazel argues that North Korea is not unique at all; it is actually just another country, with an “authoritarian government that rules over an economically struggling society.” She makes extensive use of available quantitative data on North Korea, in particular those from the Word Food Program and UNICEF as well as other UN institutions. She does so with recognizable satisfaction in cases when this evidence does not support the stereotypes prevailing in Western media.

A central argument and recurrent theme of the book is thus that North Korea can be understood relatively well if only the available data would be used, which, as Hazel passionately deplores, does not always seem to be the case.

Once we give up the idea of North Korea being evil, unknowable, homogeneous, etc., it is not that surprising anymore to read that it is undergoing a profound transition. This is another of the key points of the book. A focus of the book is placed on showing and explaining this domestic process of change, its origins, its driving forces, its direction, and its consequences.

Targeting a general audience, the book starts with a historical introduction and explores the origins of the current North Korean state, before it covers some essential aspects of the North Korean version of socialism. In the last third of the book, focuses is put on marketization, a process in which the North Koreans themselves are identified as agents of change. Throughout the book, Hazel Smith tries to show that many, if not all, of the phenomena encountered are in fact either human or Korean.

The book is full of facts and numbers that are sometimes hard to digest, but on the other hand it is fun to read not least because of the many ironical, satirical, and sometimes cynical remarks that pepper the text. In many ways, it reminds me of my own book on North Korea (Nordkorea. Innenansichten eines totalen Staates [North Korea: Interiors of a totalitarian state]). Perhaps the similarity in approach, content, and style is why my positive opinion might be heavily biased.

There is one point to criticize: I would have avoided, and be it for purely opportunistic reasons, a map that calls the waters east of Korea “Sea of Japan.” (p. xii) And I must say that the quality of the print is miserable — a shame for a publishing house with such a proud name. But that is clearly not the author’s fault.

The book ends with an appeal towards the West for engagement. North Korea, Smith shows, is not just a bad system with a mad leader and a sad life for its citizens. It is a society of some 25 million individuals who deserve our attention and respect in their daily struggle for a better life for themselves and for their children. This has already resulted in changes that should be acknowledged, even though the way to go is still long and thorny, if not to say arduous, and full of risk and uncertainty for the North Koreans and their neighbors.

The entrance to a market in Hyesan; screengrab from "KBS Panorama" | Image: Destination Pyongyang/Sino-NK

The entrance to a market in Hyesan; screengrab from “KBS Panorama” | Image: Destination Pyongyang/Sino-NK

North Korea: Just Another Country

by Georgy Toloraya (Russian Academy of Sciences)

There is a widespread belief that North Korea is a Hermit Kingdom inhabited by politically indoctrinated and ignorant robots blindly devoted to a malicious government that deliberately starves its population while threatening to turn the world into a “sea of fire.” Does this picture make any sense? Actually, it is evident that “many of the claims about North Korea are as bizarre and illogical as the picture they are supposed to portray,” (p. 1) argues Hazel Smith, a professor of International Relations and Korean Studies at the University of Central Lancashire, in her new book North Korea: Markets and Military Rule.

Presenting a captivating and broad-ranging overview of North Korea, Smith challenges numerous stereotypes about it, including the homogeneity of its society that is widely believed to be unchangeable and insusceptible to external influence as well as totally controlled by the state. She also combats a long-held view of the DPRK as a country that cannot be studied in the same way as the others, arguing that North Korea can be compared straightforwardly to other Asian countries or poor societies in transition from communism to capitalism. Using conventional approaches to knowledge, Smith suggests that the contemporary social, economic, and political environment should be situated in historical and cultural context as the best way to understand the country.

What might be more important is that Smith refuses a widespread preconception of North Koreans portraying them as mere bystanders in history, helpless victims of the regime or villains, arguing that they are “active agents” of their destiny and the major force to ensure further transformation in North Korea.

This fresh perspective along with a historically grounded analysis could not have come at a better time taking into consideration some irreversible changes in North Korea that are acknowledged by many observers.

Nowadays, the daily life of North Koreans is becoming more and more alienated from the official pronouncements of the government. Two major shocks — the end of the Cold War in Europe and the devastating famine of the early 1990s in North Korea — have resulted in its social and economic transformation, notably in marketization “from below.” Smith understands marketization in North Korea as “the institutionalisation of market dynamics throughout the society” (p. 12, italics in original) meaning the establishment of a set of norms, practices and procedures that regulate social interactions. Most of them mostly are not formalized or codified but might have serious consequences for the future of the country as well as the whole region to the extent that other countries will have to react.

Divided into three parts, the book identifies two periods for comparative analysis: the Kim Il Sungist era, 1953 through the early-1990s, and the military-first era, from the late 1990s onwards. Understanding the processes that took place during these two periods is essential to gain more insight into the reasons for the North Korean government’s reluctance to pursue more far-reaching economic reforms. “Political disassociation of the population from the government” (p. 331) amid marketization, she writes, explains why the regime consider it as a politically dangerous phenomenon.

This growing distance justifies Smith’s approach under which she fundamentally distinguishes between the North Korean government and the society of the DPRK as well as between the nation and the state. It is one of the key terms to understand the contemporary transformation in North Korea as well as its common and distinctive features in comparison with neighbouring South Korea.

Highlighting a number of significant economic and social developments in North Korea the book aims at the same time at predicting how they might influence the existing security issues in the region. Thus, it is of the few that simultaneously scrutinizes its inner changes with its potential impact on the regional stability, especially taking into consideration the nuclear issue of the Korean Peninsula.

In covering the international community’s efforts to prevent the DPRK from becoming a nuclear state, the book focuses mainly on the US policy toward North Korea. In stressing the need for re-engagement by the USA and its leadership in the East Asian region as the crucial factor, she concludes that it is essential to work out a coherent global strategy toward a comprehensive settlement on the Korean peninsula that would require security guarantees for the DPRK. Smith, however, downplays the contributions of other participants of the six-party talks, claiming that they can serve as the foundation for fresh initiatives no longer, and suggesting that other countries such as the UK and Germany should be engaged as useful interlocutors, which is an alternative of questionable effectiveness.

While many studies make use of information from anonymous sources including North Korean defectors that is difficult to verify, Smith does not rely on such unsubstantiated data. The broad empirical basis that draws upon the existing literature and the author’s own experience makes the book interesting both for a wider audience and for policy makers.

Ongoing instability and intermittently rising tensions on the Korean peninsula make this book especially timely. Its findings and conclusions such as its preference of an active approach of the international community over passive “strategic patience” along with acknowledgment that further talks with North Korea concerning its nuclear issue should be a two-way road might also have important practical implications.

Kim Jong-il, performing “On the Spot Guidance” in the high grass. | Image: KCNA

A Mundane Personalist-Party Hybrid System, with Legs

by Christopher Green

If the twin meta-narratives of the modern world are the expansion of capitalism and the process of state-making, that puts Hazel Smith at the center of the sweet spot with this book on North Korea. Taking the expanding role of market exchange and moves toward military rule over the state as binary reference points, in Markets and Military Rule she offers an energetic debunking of the thesis that brands the DPRK as unparalleled in human history and analytically inaccessible.

It would be a surprise if Sino-NK were anything other than supportive of this kind of endeavor. We have never had any truck with the notion that the DPRK survives as a state by being at its core somehow radically different to the 200 or so other states that happen to be in existence today. We have never really accepted the explanation that North Korea survives where the Eastern Bloc fell because it managed to localize – Koreanize, if you will – the Soviet experience. And we have never thought that what followed the end of Soviet tutelage was any more or less than a rather ugly and robust strain of post-colonial political reorganization and elite authoritarian dominance.

We are not alone. Every assessment of Markets and Military Rule to date – Tumen Triangle Project Executive Editor Jim Hoare for Asian Affairs, Kerry Brown for International Affairs, our own former Director of Research Robert Winstanley-Chesters for BAKS Papers (reproduced in amended form below), and every review here that precedes this one – has made the same solid point. “The DPRK is not unique but is similar to other post-communist authoritarian states,” writes Hoare; “There is nothing sui generis about their system,” notes Brown.

When Smith is in full flow, the cascade of her analysis takes us to the root of the Kim Il-sung regime’s profoundest failings. These are failings that any highly centralized autocracy would ultimately experience no matter what its task environment. Smith therefore rightly refuses to fall back upon uniqueness as a vehicle for the explanation of difference. “The contradiction of trying to produce creative and intelligent people who could contribute to economic development and at the same time operate as unthinking perpetuators of Kim Il Sungism was never resolved,” she explains. (p. 173) She adds that this resulted in intellectuals being endlessly admonished for “not being better revolutionaries,” and, reasonably enough, takes the admonishments as indirect proof that intellectuals were not entirely accepting of the Kim regime’s theoretical foundations. This tended to spur further controls and even less creativity, activating a feedback loop of monstrously inefficient proportions.

The only lingering conceptual doubt I have concerns the notion of “military rule” itself. It is the view of a whole lot of knowledgeable people that the military never had much authority in North Korea, even in the Kim Jong-il period. Kim, having prepared the network that became his ruling coalition since the 1970s, was in control from the get-go and it was the party that ran the state on his say-so. This is somewhat at odds with Smith’s explanation, which posits an unholy coalition between the Kim family and Korean People’s Army. (pp. 236-238)

North Korea is demonstrably a personalist-party hybrid political system, as Steven Denney explains using the very kind of theories and frameworks that Smith admonishes others to consider, so the balance of probabilities is that the party retained overall dominance throughout. A party like the Korean Workers’ Party fosters a system that gets all elites — including military commanders — to see things in terms of sunk costs. At the same time, individuals within the system can at different times wear different hats – some military, others civilian. The multi-hatted careers of Hwang Pyong-so and Kim Yong-chol – the latter an unconfirmed claim from a South Korean political party think tank just days ago – are plausible enough cases in point. The elevation of the National Defense Commission under Kim Jong-il brought the political structure into line with the Songun line about military dominance, but that does not mean that the party ceded control over the levers of power underneath — especially given the Party Organization and Guidance Department’s overweening HR privileges across the board.

It is somewhat incongruous also that, as with the above, so many of Smith’s insights in this book can be verified or expanded upon with reference to the direct testimony of serious-minded defectors from North Korea, yet she is leery of doing so. That intellectuals were not convinced by the system they inhabited can be seen in the (1998, so hardly new) memoir of Hwang Jang-yop. Indeed, the collapse in 1974 of any semblance of independent scholarly inquiry at Kim Il-sung University is recalled in detail in the Korean-language memoir of Hwang’s partner in defection, Kim Deok-hong (published in 2015, it was too late for Smith to make use of in any case). Jang Jin-sung has much to say about the Kim Jong-il transition in Dear Leader. Yet Smith spills a quantity of ink early on in Markets and Military Rule to say that defector testimony is all-too frequently untrustworthy due to institutional links to intelligence agencies and some NGOs — Jang Jin-sung is spared the chop for some reason — and that she does not allow her conclusions to rest on it.

“Uncritical reliance on defectors” is a serious matter, of course, and Smith is right to footnote it (p. 185) in addition to a passage in her introductory remarks. But I would argue that the term to be most wary of is not “defectors,” it is “uncritical” and probably also “reliance.” (Uncritical reliance on highly politicized defector stories can severely distort truth.) Uncritical reliance on anything is surely bad news.

Smith actually ends up proving the point. Among her secondary sources there are some that include, and in some cases rely on, the words of defectors. In the final third, which deals in detail with the markets and military rule of the title, defector insights make repeat appearances, from Andrei Lankov and Kim Seok-hyang’s published paper on market vendors to a handful of mass media articles. I am firmly on Smith’s side in encouraging young scholars not to focus their attention solely on defector testimony — that way lies danger and imbalance. But it should not be eschewed, either.

"Merciless Punishment for the American Imperialists!" DontsdfsdDon't

“Merciless Punishment for the American Imperialists!” Don’t let hyperbolic and increasingly ineffective state propaganda lead to hyperbolic academic conclusions about North Korea, Smith implores.

A Work of Reference and Return

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

North Korea is a sovereign space surrounded on all metaphorical, analytical, and conceptual sides by common sense. It is common sense that Pyongyang’s government is an autocratic, reactionary outlier, a dinosaur of politics and ideology, long past its expected expiration. It is common sense that its government, bureaucracy, elite, and leadership simply abrogate and neglect their commitments under any conception of a social contract between ruler and people, failing to provide sustenance, safety, or security in any sense. It is common sense that North Korea is a direct military and diplomatic threat to its immediate neighbors, its nuclear capacity one of the great known unknowns of global security calculation. It is common sense that North Korea uses nefarious and illegal means to fund itself, contravening international and national legislation at all levels. It is common sense that the only future for North Korea is collapse, dissolution, and absorption into the body politic of its threatened and more worthy southern neighbor, the Republic of Korea. It is common sense that its leadership and bureaucracy are culpable for crimes against natural law, order and humanity and must be punished according to the frameworks and statutes of international law. These things are all common sense, things we know, the corporeal body of vernacular, academic, and governmental consensus on a global level.

Common sense is of course as contested a terminological device as any other in these fractured, difficult times and the statistical grounds for many elements of common sense are widely critiqued and broken down. Indeed the contestability of the wider body of Liberal common sense is one of the key features of the public, media, and popular body politic of reaction post 9-11 and COP 15. What is never contested or contradicted of course is the terrain and ground of acceptable conversation and consideration that births and maintains such a common sense. Noam Chomsky in his analysis of what he terms “Cartesian Common Sense” decries the grounding of that common sense in the bed of expertise and apparently accumulated knowledge which sets (apparently coincidentally) its own shallow, meagre limits in order to essentially dictate the space of debate, speech, thought, and deed. While this reviewer cannot imagine Chomsky came urgently to Hazel Smith’s mind in the construction of North Korea: Markets and Military Rule, she cogently and coherently describes the space of academic, political and intellectual knowledge surrounding Pyongyang in intriguingly similar terms.

Professor Smith’s now famous maxim, appearing first in an International Affairs article, that North Korea was presented to history and the public as either “mad, bad or sad” by academic analysis and common sense, serves as the disappointed, frustrated starting point for this book. Markets and Military Rule is on the face of it an authoritative and comprehensive refresher course in not only the history of North Korea’s ideology, governmentality, economics, and military capacity and the narratives of the wider world’s diplomatic efforts and engagements with it. However, Smith equally provides a tart, assertive moment of reckoning for bodies of knowledge surrounding what we know about North Korea.

Extremely well organized and structured, Smith takes the perhaps uninitiated through the full panoply of North Korean historical periodization from the depths of Japanese colonial occupation to the imagined high points of triangulative socialism finally arriving back at the misery and “darkness” of the famine and what for Pyongyang seems like the death of both optimism and the future. In common with other interesting research from recent years, Smith moves in the final third of the book, to the second half of its title, exploring the extraordinary fact of North Korea’s accommodation with capitalist stores of value and an ad-hoc market system.

Unlike other work on the matter, Markets and Military Rule takes a holistic approach to the matter, considering the impact of capitalist modes and practices of being in the round and their impact on the social and familial spaces and politics of North Korea. In two fascinating sections in its later stages the book encounters empirically similar spaces to those investigated from an anthropological perspective through the interview material in Sandra Fahy’s recent Marching Through Suffering. Fahy’s interviewees experience death and misery on their doorsteps and in front of the local train station, crisis brought about by North Korea’s difficulties in the early 1990s and through the ebbing away of state support from peripheral and non-core populations in favor of marketized self-reliance. In common with the explosion of deprivation seen in post-Soviet Russia and the wider eastern Europe, the much vaunted and celebrated process of marketization is not entirely a good, but means that “In marketised North Korea, the worst off were the elderly, and adults and children who could not call on family support….” (p. 274)

Categorizing the impact of both economic marketization and acute social changes brought about by the diminution and diffusion of political control as “the end of the monolith,” Smith explores the ground of the new realities in North Korea through extensive use of UNICEF and North Korean Census Bureau statistics. This analysis reveals some extraordinary, yet virtually overlooked facts of the post-monolithic era, from the collapse in attendance rates at school, to the appearance of teenage pregnancy as a social issue and statistical fact in North Korea. (p. 273) Smith though is rigorously fair and just as the cracks in Pyongyang’s system are laid bare, so credit and comment is given focused on the utility and functionality of North Korea’s health infrastructure in the post-famine period. Professor Smith recounts progress in reducing infant mortality rates (p. 270) and success in the reducing the prevalence of both tuberculosis and malaria within North Korea’s population. (p. 271) While this success perhaps could be credited in part to the interjection of United Nation’s agencies such as the World Health Organization, Smith notes the WHO’s own assessment that such progress was due to “effective societal organisation.” (p. 271)

The notion of crediting North Korean capabilities and abilities where credit is due, may of course be anathema to some, but a hallmark of Smith’s empirical sensibilities have been her considered fairness, and Markets and Military Rule is no different. Likewise and perhaps returning to this reviews prognostication surrounding the notion of common sense surrounding North Korea, Smith is perfectly comfortable calling out obfuscation and prevarication when it comes to academic reliability. This book in a sense is a master class in the deployment of footnotes to add content to a discussion and weight to an argument or denunciation. Smith’s untangling of webs or circles of “common sense” surrounding in particular evidence for North Korean criminal activity, in footnotes on pages 36 and 37, for example, is extraordinary. Likewise Smith’s emplacement of North Korea within a more contextual frame of global deprivation and governmental failure (pp. 32-33) is an act of academic rigor seldom seen. Ultimately Markets and Military Rule serves as the most valuable of texts, a benchmark and at times an almost medicinal corrective to which the academic genre of North Korean studies could return to regain its epistemic and empirical bearings after moments of hyperbole and hyperventilation. Smith’s fine work will, this reviewer is sure, underpin academic courses and modules for the (English-speaking) world over.


1 Jacques Hersh and Ellen Brun, “Resiliency and Opacity: A Review of North Korea: Markets and Military Rule,” Sino-NK, January 5, 2015.

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