Lankov on DPRK Social Change II

Andrei Lankov writes in Newsweek:

North Korea will never follow the Chinese path because its circumstances are profoundly different. The biggest factor is the existence of a rich and free South Korea across the border. Southerners share the same language and culture as the dirt-poor North, but their per capita income is at least 20 times higher—and at the moment, average North Koreans are ignorant of the gap. The regime’s self-imposed isolation is so draconian that even owning a tunable radio set is a crime. If North Korea started reforming, it would be flooded with information about South Korea’s prosperity. This would make North Koreans less fearful of the authorities and more likely to push for unification with their far richer cousins, just as the East Germans pushed to rejoin the West.

Knowing all this, North Korea’s rulers will do whatever they can to maintain control. Given the weakness of its Stalinist economy, this means coming up with new ways to squeeze aid from the outside world. In order to keep the money flowing—with as few conditions as possible—Kim is likely to continue engaging in risky brinkmanship and blackmail. To survive, Pyongyang has to be, or appear to be, dangerous and unpredictable.

But such tactics could easily lead to disaster. The only way to avoid this is to replace the regime.

That’s easier said than done: Military options are unthinkable. And sanctions won’t work either, since China and Russia are unlikely to cooperate fully. Even if Moscow and Beijing did go along, the only likely result would be a lot of dead farmers. North Korea’s great famine of 1996–99 demonstrated that the locals do not rebel when oppressed, even under terrible circumstances. North Koreans are terrified, disorganized and still largely unaware of any alternative to their misery.

But there’s a way to change that equation. The past 15 years have seen the spontaneous growth of grassroots markets in the North and partial disintegration of state controls. Rumors of South Korean prosperity have begun to spread, assisted by popular smuggled DVDs of South Korean movies. The world’s most perfect Stalinist regime is starting to disintegrate from below.

The best way to speed things up is for Washington and its allies to push for active engagement with the North in the form of development aid, scholarships for North Korean students and support for all sorts of activities that bring the world to North Korea or take North Koreans outside their cocoon. Such exchanges are often condemned as a way of appeasing dictators, but the experience of East Europe showed that an influx of uncensored information from the outside is deadly for a communist dictatorship.

Pyongyang understands the danger of such exchanges, but it needs money and technology badly enough that it might allow them nonetheless—so long as they fill its coffers and don’t look too dangerous. This is even more the case when exchanges ostensibly benefit members of the elite. For example, a scholarship program to study overseas would go mostly to students from top families. Yet this wouldn’t limit its impact: experience of the outside world will change these young people and turn some of them into importers of dangerous information. A similarly small step helped to unravel the Soviet Union: the first group of students allowed to study in the U.S., in 1957, numbered just four and were carefully selected. Yet two grew up to become leading reformers, and one of them—Alexander Yakovlev—is often credited as having been the real mastermind behind perestroika.

Read the full article here:
Andrei Lankov


2 Responses to “Lankov on DPRK Social Change II”

  1. Benoit says:

    I agree! That was in fact the open goal of ROK’s “Sunshine Policy”; opening contacts between both countries using investments in the Kaesong industrial zone and other economic aids. Workers working in the zone would then help spreading information from outside.

    Unfortunately, the hard liners stopped this aid, and now situation is worse!

  2. Mike Madden says:

    Despite the best intentions of the 2000 Sunshine Policies, it is highly unlikely workers in the KIC would be in any position for “spreading information.” Lankov’s essay is a delightful addition, particularly for conclusively ridding DPRK discourse of the “open China” precedent for North Koreans.

    But it is a tricky business because Central and East Europe are also terribly incompatible models for the DPRK. One, because countries such as the former Czechoslovakia and Hungary experimented with large and small policy changes (and not just Budapest ’56 or Prague Spring) well ahead of the transition. Secondly, twenty years later, our CEE friends are still going through the transition, in some cases painfully. We have such placid connotations to the change in CEE of the Berlin Wall coming down, the Velvet Revolution and the ouster of Ceaucescu that we forget numerous growing pains–EU and OSCE auditors in Bulgaria, the political and financial problems in Ukraine, the election protests in Moldova (where the President is a Communist) and its ongoing conflict in the Trans-Dnister (Transnistria) region. Of course, this is ignoring the big purple Sphere of Influence in Tiblisi and Minsk.

    Under a complete reunification scenario in the DPRK, or at least the DPRK changing its system, what we’d have to imagine are the current second- and third-tier KWP leaders dividing into political factions and vying for operational control over the military, state-owned corporations and strategic mining and energy assets. This survey of the elite does not account for several hundred thousand criminal and political inmates being turned loose from detention and other demographic nightmares such as decommissioned military personnel, a few million displaced peasants and gang warfare in the coastal cities of South Hamgyong Province.