North Korea: Where Ignorance is Power

By Patrick Lee

North Korea: A totalitarian state. A place which, much as he tried to avoid doing so, Christopher Hitchens could not help but to draw parallels with Orwell’s 1984, the novel and the state each beginning their nascent stage within the same year. Hitchens observed it was almost as if Orwell’s novel was used as a guidebook of how to operate a totalitarian regime. A regime that imprisons its own civilians in concentration camps, entire families being sent to facilities for the crimes of long dead family members (crimes such as attempting to flee the country), until three generations of that family has served its sentence, without trial. The most recent, and conservative, estimates according to the British Home Office show that 138, 000 people are currently held in detention centres, of which 130, 500 are political prisoners. Many of these people die in the camps.

This then, is the very broad context into which Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Google, has wandered in to when claiming that “As the world becomes increasingly connected, their [North Korea’s] decision to be virtually isolated is very much going to affect their physical world, their economic growth, and so forth, and it will make it harder for them to catch up economically.” Schmidt’s words relate to the fact that, like all totalitarian states, free information is illegal. In North Korea no citizen (besides the Kim family and a few elite military officials) is free. Again according to the Home Office, citizens are denied free speech, free press, assembly, association, religion, movement and workers rights. Of course there is no independent media; no opposition political parties; very little internet access, of which limited amount is heavily censored and domestic instead of global; and heavily restricted mobile phone use. Most citizens of North Korea are lucky to get electricity throughout the day. The most interesting spectrum through which to view Mr Schmidt’s comments is with the knowledge that protests do occur in North Korea (albeit very limited protests) based upon occasional severe laws and restrictions on domestic black markets.

In Blaine Harden’s book Escape from Camp 14 (the account of Shin Dong-Hyuk’s escape from North Korea) we get an insider perspective on how North Korea cannot feed its people. Black markets thrive throughout the country, with the army often making deals with civilians for food supplies. Malnourished North Koreans are infamously an average three inches shorter than their South Korean neighbours. During national famines in the past (particularly during the 1990’s, when an estimated three and a half million North Korean people starved to death) Kim Jong-Il was lenient on the black market revival, despite this contradicting the communist ideology of the state. This may, however, have been down to the fact that the army was also starving.

Now things get interesting, and one has to ask the question of Google’s Mr Schmidt: Why now? There are two main narratives to consider in why Mr Schmidt’s comments may actually be, rather than facile and obvious, prescient and accurate. The first narrative concerns the fate of most isolationist economies and communist states. Whereas considering North Korea from the perspective of an educated Westerner living in a liberal trade economy renders the reasons behind its status as a Third World seemingly obvious.

Lenin, the father of the dependency theory, posited that capitalism bought itself initial success through exploitation and market monopolisation of the underdeveloped world. He differed from Marx in his assumption that rather than the final fall of free market capitalism coming from the internal working class, instead the global proletariat would fight the final revolution. This seemingly liberal idea has had nothing but illiberal consequences for Third World economies. Dependency theory led to policies such as import substitution, whereby high tariffs against imports are introduced in order to encourage internal growth. In North Korea, and other communist states, the economy withdrew entirely from the global capitalist trading system and instead integrated nationalised industry and economies. Dependency theory fails though, when noticing that less developed countries, particularly in the east, have experienced extreme economic growth and better living standards when abandoning economic autarky and embracing export-led growth. Veblin, an early liberal trade theorist, predicted that those late to modernization would in fact have an advantage over early starters due to the ability to import contemporary technology rather than develop it, and in the case of recently developed Asia he has been proven right.

Traditional liberals may argue, as Francis Fukuyama anticipates, that the economic boom in countries such as South Korea comes at the sacrifice of social justice; that draconian policies and exploitative worker rights have helped support the new economy. In fact South Korea, among others, has steadily decreased income inequality over generations. Compare these results with isolationist states and those which utilise import substitution policies, such as those of Latin American countries, and North Korea. What convinced those late to the liberal market after World War Two to adopt economic change were the clear benefits of global capitalism: better living standards, lower inequality, healthier democracy, improved education and health.

As Orwell suggests in 1984 the power of a totalitarian regime stems from the ignorance of its people. North Korea cannot keep its population blind to the huge advances of the West and its neighbours forever. There can be few more encouraging signs than the chairman of one of the leading corporations in the world, and one that specialises in free information, calling for less isolation for the regime. Liberals will argue that Google itself represents an exploitative corporation. The obviously corollary to this is to point out that more obvious exploitative, less-egalitarian option between the two opposing sides.

The second narrative that must be considered is to ask why Schmidt has made this comment now. Is North Korea close to the period of change that it must undergo? In his first New Year’s Day speech, Kim Jong-Un celebrated the internationally illegal launch of the Kwangmyongsong 3-2 rocket, which released a satellite that now illegally orbits the Earth; and other internationally illegal rocket launches. At the same time, however, he encouraged “great reunification programmes common to the nation in the new century and milestones for peace and prosperity”. He has encouraged peace talks with the South, while behaving aggressively toward them. There are two ways to interpret this behaviour: Firstly, following the South Korean December elections and the coming to power of Park Guen-Hye, Kim Jong-Un is attempting to persuade Guen-Hye to abandon previous South Korean president Lee’s aggressive policies toward North Korea. Prior to Lee, South Korea was a great provider of aid and resources to its starving and aggressive isolationist neighbour. Lee, however, introduced “Vision-3000”, a policy which led to less aid and an approach to the North which insisted on non-proliferation and denuclearisation as an absolute must, the acceptance of which would be met with aid on an “unthinkable scale”. This aid, Lee told the North, would help to increase the average per capita annual income to the level of $3,000 (US) in North Korea. The “carrot on a stick” policy failed, however, as it was essentially too aggressive, particularly as it included the “May 24” measures which prevented any South Korean from coming into contact, or doing business with, any North Korean. Put simply: Kim Jong-Un wants to return to the days where the North Korean’s continued to exploit the South’s generosity and naivety.

The second interpretation is far more nuanced. Perhaps, Kim Jong-Un recognises the need for economic change. He has assigned a party official to oversee the army, a very courageous decision for a country that relies heavily on its militant power and loyalty and has a democratically unprotected government. He has utilised and empowered his uncle Jang Sock Taek, who has travelled to the West and (reportedly) encourages economic reform. Perhaps with his missile launches, Kim Jong-Un is appeasing his military officials who rely on aggressive policies toward the West and South.

Simultaneously, newly elected South Korean president Park Guen-Hye, while being criticised for being too similar to her predecessor Lee in her punishment of North Korean nuclear provocation, may be the catalyst for a North Korean paradigm shift. While her advisors have publically demanded an apology from the North for the Cheonan attack, it seems that Guen-Hye is open to talks before the North begins a denuclearisation programme. She wishes, initially, to promote North and South exchange offices to promote cultural and social interchange in areas such as public health and education. The idea, publically, is to build trust between the two nations. It would have the consequences, however, of surreptitiously but effectively educating North Korean citizens to the benefits of non-isolationist regimes, and expose them to the lies of the Leader. Kim Jong-Un, perhaps recognises the benefits of this offer, which is much more attractive than the Vision 3000 plan, which demanded absolute capitulation to South Korean demands.

While the US government publically peddle Mr. Schmidt’s comments as “not particularly helpful”, which is the immediate obvious response, this view turn out to be myopic. Perhaps the best chance of engaging with North Korea is to demonstrate the advantages of Western based economics and free information. Change in North Korea will come from within rather than by direct external force, and this fact is absolutely necessary for continued relations between the East and West. Mr Schmidt is not only absolutely right in his statement, but he has made them at exactly the right time.


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