Lankov on CNC technology

Pictured above (Google Earth): a Pre-renovation satellite image of what is now the Huichon Ryonha General Machine Plant, one of two known factories which produce CNC machines.

I have posted several times on the DPRK’s growing use and promotion of CNC technology (here and here). In his most recent column in the Asia Times, Andrei Lankov mentions his exposure to this technology from his younger days in the Soviet Union:

An interesting confirmation of the trend is the current fad for CNC (Computer Numerical Control) technologies – computer automation at factories. The CNC craze is often associated with Kim Jong-eun, the most likely heir to the North Korean throne. Indeed there is good reason to believe that this is the case, but it doesn’t really matter whether this fad is sponsored by Kim Jong-eun or someone else. Rather, what is important is that this naive belief in the power of intelligent machinery that will miraculously transform the North. (See Happiness rolls over us like a wave, Asia Times Online, Feb 26, 2010)

Incidentally, when the present author was a Soviet teenager, back in the 1970s, he frequently read similar stories in the then-Soviet media. The Soviet leadership of the Leonid Brezhnev-era also invested some hope in the miraculous power of CNC technology. CNC is actually quite a sound idea and works very well if used in the right social and economic conditions.

However, such conditions were absent in the Soviet Union of the 1970s and are also seemingly completely absent from North Korea of today.

So, Pyongyang’s expectation for CNC, mobiles and computers are unfounded. These technologies, or for that matter any other technology, are unlikely to have any serious impact on the future of North Korea as long as the country’s social and political system remains unchanged. However, North Korea’s leadership cannot see or accept this.

The heavy official promotion of CNC stems from what Lankov calls “technological fetishism” (which would be a good band name), a condition he describes this way:

The logic behind technological fetishism is not that difficult to understand. The root cause of economic stagnation experienced by Stalinist regimes is the intrinsic inefficiency of the Stalinist economic model. But the potentates of such regimes as well as their henchmen could not admit such things – at least, openly.

For Stalinist leaders, the social system was perfect, or at least had to be presented as such. Therefore the only conceivable reason for obvious economic difficulties had to be technological issues. Being hard-core modernizers, Stalinists shared the modern belief in the power of technology as a force that could change people’s lives.

So by DPRK official logic, now that the DPRK has overcome imperialist economic blockades of the motherland and acquired vital CNC technology, economic growth lies just around the corner.¬†Unfortunately for the people of the DPRK, real economic progress is always just ahead–but never now.


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