Waiting for an [economic] miracle

Andrei Lankov writes in the Korea Times:

Kim Jong-il’s recent visit to China was somewhat unusual: instead of going straight to Beijing, Kim visited a number of sites which are associated with China’s economic development.

He went first to the port city of Dalian and spent time there inspecting the harbor and hi-tech centers located nearby (including even a semi-conductor plant operated by Intel). While in Beijing, he continued such visits.

Had this happened a few years ago, we would expect a wave of optimistic speculation: such interest in modern technology would have been interpreted as a sure indicator of North Korea’s readiness to launch Chinese-style reforms. This time, it seems that even the optimists have become tired of making prophecies which never come true.

Nonetheless, the trip once again demonstrated a peculiar feature which the North Korean regime shares with the now-extinct Leninist regimes of Eastern Europe. The Pyongyang leaders have an almost religious belief in the miraculous power of modern technology.

They hope that all their problems can be easily and quickly fixed once a proper technology is found and applied (of course, application has to be done by state). However, the social dimensions of the economic problems are ignored.

It sounds very non-Marxist: after all, the founding fathers of Communism explicitly stated that it is the social structure and property relations, not technology, which determines the economic productivity. But their supposed disciples would never agree that the economic woes of the Communist countries were brought by the less than perfect social system.

This unwillingness is understandable: social change might become dangerous for those who are in power. Therefore they have a vested interest in presenting their system as perfect.

So, if there are problems, those problems should have an easy technocratic decision ― and the only force which can find and introduce such decision is, of course, the regime in power.

When in the early 1950s the Soviet agricultural industry was clearly in trouble, Stalin decided to do something about it. His solution was a program of planting forest strips which would decrease soil erosion.

Stalin was also much interested in the grotesque promises of Trofim Lysenko, a notorious charlatan who was talking about “educating” plants into yielding greater harvest.

Lysenko also enjoyed the support of Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor. Khrushchev’s pet technology was corn production, and insisted that the nationwide switch to this wonder plant would miraculously raise productivity.

However, corn, being a Mesoamerican plant, did not grow well near the polar circle, and plants did not show any sickness of being susceptible to `education’. Russia, once a major exporter of grain, became an increasingly voracious importer of food.

Of course, the problems of the Soviet agriculture were caused not by the insufficient attention paid to corn production. It was the social problems that made the Soviet agricultural system so inefficient: farmers, being badly paid employees of the government-run farms, had no reason to work diligently.

When they toiled the small patches of their own land, which they were legally allowed, they showed a remarkable level of productivity. But this was not what the Soviet government was willing to see.

It was Mao’s China, though, which produced the weirdest examples of belief in wonder technologies. It reached its height during the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s.

Mao wanted small furnaces to be built everywhere: during the Great Leap even schools and farms were required to make their own steel in the backyard furnaces. Predictably, the home-made steel was useless because of the low quality.

Simultaneously, Mao told the farmers to use “close cropping.” Seeds were sown far more densely than normal on the “politically correct” assumption that “seeds of the same class would not compete with each other” (of course, crops were ruined).

The farmers were also ordered to plough two meters deep, since this would “encourage plants to develop extensive root systems.” The result was famine which killed between 20 and 30 million people. However, it seems that Mao and his henchmen never abandoned their belief in miraculous technologies.

North Korea is no different. Its leaders also are firm believers in the power of technology, if this technology is carefully selected by the state and introduced by its agents. Kim Il-sung, being a son of a farming family, paid special attention to the agriculture.

Among other things, he was a great enthusiast for terrace fields. He wanted to transform the barren hills of North Korea into rice-producing areas, and kept reminding his officials that no efforts should be spared to do so.

Predictably, the result was a disaster: in the 1990s terrace fields were washed away by floods while the few remaining became unusable since a large electric pump would be necessary to provide those high-rise fields with water.

Kim Jong-il shares the belief in wonders, but in his case the major hope is modern industrial technology, preferably related to computers (an approach clearly influenced by gadgetry).

The Dear Leader reputedly said that it was a great folly not to study computers, and most of his technological initiatives are clearly related to IT.

Since last year, for example, the Pyongyang streets have been covered with posters which tell about wonders of the CNC technology (in an unusual twist, the English acronym is used). CNC stands for “computer numerically controlled” technology and, to put it simply, describes computer-controlled industrial equipment.

It is remarkable that the present author heard the same slogans many decades ago, in the 1970s. Indeed, the Soviet leaders also had much hope about the CNC and worked hard to introduce it as a cure for the Soviet economy ― with the predictable lack of success.

Therefore, not much should be read from Kim Jong-il’s visit to Intel. He might dream of computer-operated giant plants, but he lives under severe political constraints, and these constraints ensure that North Korea will remain a very inhospitable environment for high technology (apart from some ultra-cool gadgetry for the chosen few, of course).

This might be changed only if the system itself will be changed, but this is clearly not what Kim wants.

Read the full story below:
Waiting for a miracle
Korea Times
Andrei Lankov


3 Responses to “Waiting for an [economic] miracle”

  1. tibor gaal says:

    Thanks for this article. I totally agree with that. I also heard in the english broadcast of Voice of Korea on shortwaves that they expect a miracle from CNC-driven technologies in the machinery industrial sector.
    Unfortunatelly socialist societies are not so creative initiating patents, build know-hows based on this really wonderful tool. North Korea applies the old CNC, but, now CNC Plus is also available in the world. I think they also need technological advancement and forget old technologies.

  2. Geoff says:

    Hey, don’t forget, the DPRK has recently mastered nuclear fusion! Problems are a thing of the past.


  3. tibor gaal says:

    Yes, you are right, Sir!