Friday, April 17, 2009

Owning a country

I have read a lot over the years about the internal operation of totalitarian societies. So I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to read yet another book in that genre. But North Korea was much in the news, so I purchased veteran journalist Bradley K. Martin’s Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty. My fears were groundless, I found it deeply informative.

First, Martin is an acute and comprehensive observer. He seems to have read everything and talked to everyone that has emerged from the world’s most closed society. The mass of detail is absorbed fairly painlessly because his writing style is direct and engaging.

Second, North Korea is such an intense example of a totalitarian society that it shows the pathologies thereof in particularly luxuriant forms.

Finally, my own understanding of social processes has expanded, so I read the book with a more analytically informed eye.

There is a theory in political economy—advanced by the late Mancur Olson—that the longer the ruler’s time horizon, the more the interests of ruler and subjects converge. Since the longest such time horizon is hereditary rule, this helps explain the strong selective tendency for hereditary rule in human history.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—or the Kim Family Regime as US military personnel are wont to call it—provides a strong counter-example to the theory. It is precisely because the Kim family is so tied up in the current system, that it has proved so resistant to change.

And that system is a startling example of what Roger Kimball called experiments against reality. The entire society has been constructed on the principle that if everyone just has the right ideas, the right motives, anything can be achieved.

Defector, and former chief ideologue, Hwang Jang-yop made a particularly revealing comment about North Korea’s socialism in one family dynastic Stalinism:
In a situation where all means of production actually belong to the Great Leader, the economy itself naturally serves the interest of the Great Leader before all else. The national economy is nothing more than the household economy of the Great Leader. North Korea’s economy exists first and foremost to serve the Great Leader (P.193).
The point Mancur Olson made so fruitfully in analysing the Soviet Union under Stalin. Kim Il-sung was essentially Stalin, but one still deeply embedded in an intensely patrilineal culture rather than someone much less family oriented. Both had inner circles, they just used somewhat different selection processes to create loyalty. Kim Il-sung even personally bred loyalists, using his illegitimate children as loyal “eyes and ears” within the control (that is party-and-state) apparatus.

As Yoram Barzel explains, property-in-practice is about use, not legal form. Analyse Stalinism (and Leninism more broadly) in terms of its formal legal structure and its history makes no sense. Analyse it as a system of property based on who has use-through-control and it makes perfect sense. As in the person who controls the power being the effective owner of the country.

Socialism is bureaucratic. Bureaucracy is hierarchical: as is the politics of social transformation, of a revolutionary elite profoundly changing society. So, revolutionary socialism leads naturally to intensely hierarchical societies. And moreover, societies based significantly on birth at all levels: one’s birth in the right (or wrong) classes. Belonging to a reliable (or unreliable) family. In many ways, what looks “revolutionary” ends up displaying more intensively already existing cultural patterns shorn of any of the checks and balances of traditional society. Or even more thoroughly regressive, as in the revival of state slavery in mines and other labour camps.
George Orwell’s 1984 is no mere literary fantasy. If you were North Korean, Big Brother would watch you. Pyongyang’s internal spies and thought police were everywhere. (p.265)
Since the North Korean economic system is one where rewards have been disconnected with output, from 1990, starvation became an issue (p.265). Martin spends considerable effort outlining North Korea’s endemic economic difficulties and Kim II (Kim Jong-il) attempts—some bizarre, some halfway sensible—to deal with them. Martin spends even more effort trying to untangle the mind and character of Kim II. (And whether there is likely to be a Kim III: he quotes admiring remarks about the Thai system from Kim II and examines the prospects of his children, particularly his eldest son Kim Jong-nam.)

A conspicuous part of the North Korean system is its rampant militarism, which pervades all aspects of the society. It is more an armed camp than a country. Martin wavers back and forth about the risks that flow from said rampant militarism. He clearly think that, for many years, if the US had withdrawn its troops, war would have become very likely. Now, he seems to judge economic weakness has advanced so far—and, conversely, Kim II’s confidence in his power and ability to steer a successful course have increased sufficiently—that the militarism is mainly about keeping power internally and external strategic “cards in play”. A firm patience is his counsel for dealing with this armed camp of socialism-in-one-family.

Analysts of religion count North Korea’s official ideology of Juche as a religion, because North Korea has an eternal President. Which makes Kim Jong-il its hereditary Priest-King. It is difficult for a theocratic ruler to change fundamentally the ideas on which the legitimacy of his rule is based. Possibly the goals of development and national unity and grandeur can provide cover for vast changes (as they have in China) but there is plenty of scope for disaster on the way through. A pathological system and regime may yet disastrously inflict its pathologies on the wider world.

ADDENDA: Have added an appropriate link on labour camps.


  1. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—or the Kim Family Regime as US military personnel are wont to call it—provides a strong counter-example to the theory.
    I find this thesis rather unconvincing. Very few countries recognize North Korea as a 'legitimate' state, and Kim II as its 'legitimate' ruler. They might tolerate its existence for various practical reasons, but most do not bother very much to conceal how elated they would be if they woke up one day to find only one Korea on the map. Kim II's claim to power is not the generally unquestioned claim to power that the hereditary rulers of Europe enjoyed, in some cases right until World War I. Individuals and governments might have disliked Franz-Josef and his policy, but few held that his empire was not legitimate. Kim's position in this regard cannot compare to Franz-Josef's and is in fact much worse even than Stalin's or Mao's, because both of them — while alive — had been much admired by many (most?) in the Western intellectual circles. (As an aside, it seems plausible that at one time this admiration extended to Kim Ir Sen as well. It would be interesting to research how he came to lose it and how this loss developed.)
    Therefore, Kim II's relevant time horizon is shorter than it appears looking just at North Korea itself. This larger value has to be discounted for various external influences, risks and threats. However hereditary an owner of a powder keg dug in under the town market may be, the townspeople are likely to take a dim view. Both the valuation of the owner's rights to the keg and the owner's incentives will reflect this.

  2. Hwan: I am not sure that the question of how legitimate other countries find the Kim Family Regime matters all that much to the time horizon point. Surely, the regime could change to make itself more legitimate to other countries, if that was affecting its prospects for longevity. The problem seems to be more that the Regime sees maintaining its current structure as essential to its continuance, hence the divergence between its long term interests and those of its subjects.