Daniel W. Drezner

The tragedy of communism’s permanent museum

One of the glib jokes I like to make is that one country in the world needs to maintain a communist, centrally-planned economic structure.  This would serve as a public service warning to future generations of policymakers.   Some of them would inevitably romanticize prior communist efforts as noble in their aspirations and unfairly maligned by the capitalist ...

One of the glib jokes I like to make is that one country in the world needs to maintain a communist, centrally-planned economic structure.  This would serve as a public service warning to future generations of policymakers.   Some of them would inevitably romanticize prior communist efforts as noble in their aspirations and unfairly maligned by the capitalist writers of history.  At that point, you get on a plane and fly them to the Last Remaining Communist Country in the World to show them just how bad real life can be. 

My nominee for this country was always North Korea.  China’s economy doesn’t really fit Stalinist dicta anymore; neither does Vietnam.  And keeping Cuba as a communist country is just a fabulous waste of culture and resources.  No, North Korea seemed to be the ideal museum of blinkered economic thinking. 

After reading Sharon LaFraniere’s heartbreaking front-page story in the New York Times about North Korea today, however, such jokes ring a little hollow: 

North Koreans are used to struggle and heartbreak. But the Nov. 30 currency devaluation, apparently an attempt to prop up a foundering state-run economy, was for some the worst disaster since a famine that killed hundreds of thousands in the mid-1990s.

Interviews in the past month with eight North Koreans who recently left their country — a prison escapee, illegal traders, people in temporary exile to find work in China, the traveling wife of an official in the ruling Workers’ Party — paint a haunting portrait of desperation inside North Korea, a nation of 24 million people, and of growing resentment toward its erratic leader, Kim Jong-Il.

What seems missing — for now, at least — is social instability. Widespread hardship, popular anger over the currency revaluation and growing political uncertainty as Mr. Kim seeks to install his third son as his successor have not hardened into noticeable resistance against the government. At least two of those interviewed in China hewed to the official propaganda line that North Korea was a victim of die-hard enemies, its impoverishment a Western plot, its survival threatened by the United States, South Korea, and Japan.

South Korea’s charge that North Korea sank one of its warships, the Cheonan, in March was just part of the plot, the party official’s wife said.

“That’s why we have weapons to protect ourselves,” she said while visiting relatives in northern China — and earning spare cash as a waitress. “Our enemies are trying to hit us from all sides, and that’s why we lack electricity and good infrastructure. North Korea must keep its doors locked.”  (emphasis added)

The emphasized part is what gets me.  The party official’s wife — presumably, one of the DPRK’s elite — has to work as a waitress to earn extra income. 

None of this is news.  Marcus Noland wrote about this here at FP.com back in March.  For a more detailed analysis, see his Peterson Institute for International Economics’ brief with Stephan Haggard.  The highlights from that brief: 

 

Respondents portray a judicial and penal system characterized by high rates of arbitrary detention and release. Horrific abuses are characteristic not only of the camps for political prisoners, but are found at all levels of the penal system. In the survey of more than 1,300 refugees conducted in China between August 2004 and September 2005, nearly 10 percent reported incarceration in political and correctional detention facilities. Among this group, 90 percent reported witnessing forced starvation, 60 percent deaths due to beating or torture, and 27 percent executions. These findings are broadly confirmed by a second survey of 300 refugees conducted in South Korea in November 2008, which also included more detailed questions about initial arrest and detention, the types of facilities in which respondents were held, and the conditions they witnessed while incarcerated.

The emerging portrait of the North Korean penal system suggests a vast machine that processes large numbers of people engaged in illicit activities for relatively short periods, but which exposes them to terrible abuses while incarcerated. This pattern serves to effectively intimidate; our surveys reveal an atomized society in which barriers to collective action are high and overt political opposition minimal. However, repression has not served to eliminate market-oriented activity, in part because of the continuing poor economic performance of the regime. Rather, our surveys suggest a changing political economy in which corrupt officials extract bribes from those in the market, exploiting their ability to limit entanglement with a brutal penal system.

 

There is another simple reason why a social revolution is unlikely to topple the North Korean regime — starving people might lack the energy to do anything other than search for something to eat. 

Developing… in the most depressing manner possible. 

One of the glib jokes I like to make is that one country in the world needs to maintain a communist, centrally-planned economic structure.  This would serve as a public service warning to future generations of policymakers.   Some of them would inevitably romanticize prior communist efforts as noble in their aspirations and unfairly maligned by the capitalist writers of history.  At that point, you get on a plane and fly them to the Last Remaining Communist Country in the World to show them just how bad real life can be. 

My nominee for this country was always North Korea.  China’s economy doesn’t really fit Stalinist dicta anymore; neither does Vietnam.  And keeping Cuba as a communist country is just a fabulous waste of culture and resources.  No, North Korea seemed to be the ideal museum of blinkered economic thinking. 

After reading Sharon LaFraniere’s heartbreaking front-page story in the New York Times about North Korea today, however, such jokes ring a little hollow: 

North Koreans are used to struggle and heartbreak. But the Nov. 30 currency devaluation, apparently an attempt to prop up a foundering state-run economy, was for some the worst disaster since a famine that killed hundreds of thousands in the mid-1990s.

Interviews in the past month with eight North Koreans who recently left their country — a prison escapee, illegal traders, people in temporary exile to find work in China, the traveling wife of an official in the ruling Workers’ Party — paint a haunting portrait of desperation inside North Korea, a nation of 24 million people, and of growing resentment toward its erratic leader, Kim Jong-Il.

What seems missing — for now, at least — is social instability. Widespread hardship, popular anger over the currency revaluation and growing political uncertainty as Mr. Kim seeks to install his third son as his successor have not hardened into noticeable resistance against the government. At least two of those interviewed in China hewed to the official propaganda line that North Korea was a victim of die-hard enemies, its impoverishment a Western plot, its survival threatened by the United States, South Korea, and Japan.

South Korea’s charge that North Korea sank one of its warships, the Cheonan, in March was just part of the plot, the party official’s wife said.

“That’s why we have weapons to protect ourselves,” she said while visiting relatives in northern China — and earning spare cash as a waitress. “Our enemies are trying to hit us from all sides, and that’s why we lack electricity and good infrastructure. North Korea must keep its doors locked.”  (emphasis added)

The emphasized part is what gets me.  The party official’s wife — presumably, one of the DPRK’s elite — has to work as a waitress to earn extra income. 

None of this is news.  Marcus Noland wrote about this here at FP.com back in March.  For a more detailed analysis, see his Peterson Institute for International Economics’ brief with Stephan Haggard.  The highlights from that brief: 

 

Respondents portray a judicial and penal system characterized by high rates of arbitrary detention and release. Horrific abuses are characteristic not only of the camps for political prisoners, but are found at all levels of the penal system. In the survey of more than 1,300 refugees conducted in China between August 2004 and September 2005, nearly 10 percent reported incarceration in political and correctional detention facilities. Among this group, 90 percent reported witnessing forced starvation, 60 percent deaths due to beating or torture, and 27 percent executions. These findings are broadly confirmed by a second survey of 300 refugees conducted in South Korea in November 2008, which also included more detailed questions about initial arrest and detention, the types of facilities in which respondents were held, and the conditions they witnessed while incarcerated.

The emerging portrait of the North Korean penal system suggests a vast machine that processes large numbers of people engaged in illicit activities for relatively short periods, but which exposes them to terrible abuses while incarcerated. This pattern serves to effectively intimidate; our surveys reveal an atomized society in which barriers to collective action are high and overt political opposition minimal. However, repression has not served to eliminate market-oriented activity, in part because of the continuing poor economic performance of the regime. Rather, our surveys suggest a changing political economy in which corrupt officials extract bribes from those in the market, exploiting their ability to limit entanglement with a brutal penal system.

 

There is another simple reason why a social revolution is unlikely to topple the North Korean regime — starving people might lack the energy to do anything other than search for something to eat. 

Developing… in the most depressing manner possible. 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner

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