Thoughts on North Korea

I finished that book on North Korea. It was pretty good and comprehensive and it’s got me thinking.

One thing in particular that the book pointed out was that for the first few decades, the jury was out on which half was doing better. In fact in the 50’s North Korea’s economy and standard of living was better than the South—the Japanese factory cities as well as the minerals were in the north whereas the South had the farmland. By the end of the 60’s they were about even and then by the end of the 70’s, the South was far ahead. This graph illustrates it since 1970.

As it turns out Kim Jong-il was maneuvering into the top leadership starting in the 70’s. Unlike his father who based his claim on power with his embellished reputation as a freedom fighter which won the hearts of the masses, the son found his power base in the military. To keep those people happy he had to put larger amounts of the economy into the military and that wealth that went into the military was a drain on the economy so the standard of living declined.

As you probably know North Korea has the typical dictatorship and all its trappings like political prisoner camps, nothing resembling due process or habeas corpus, a brainwashed populous, purges where they actually kill people and not just fire them, a bribery system, and a small elite.

The Chinese woman I work with, who’s on a long term visit to the lab, probably thinks I’m weird when I ask her questions about North Korea, but there are several aspects that interest me. It’s the last Stalinist communist country, with glorious leaders. If you’ve seen video or documentaries on the country, in addition to the typical soviet gloom overshadowing everything, the country is stuck as some kind of 1950’s bizarro-land. Not only that, but the country has managed to remain isolated and the people have been misinformed to unprecedented levels. Another thing is that it appears that the leadership is presently trying to pass the baton to the third generation, a generation born in the same decade as us.

My heart goes out to the North Koreans. I think it’s reasonable to expect North and South to eventually reunite in the long run. However the Korean economic gap is orders larger than the German gap when they reunited. However I feel bad for them not just because they’re denied wealth, they have to live in a terrible country.

There are several courses of action we could take. Of course in all of this, there’s as much history and sentiments in east Asia that we as outsiders don’t get as somewhere like the Middle East.

1. Bombs away!

The main concern in any action is that Seoul, the South’s capital and largest city is within artillery range of the North. Ten million people, one quarter of the South, live in Seoul. Also the second largest city, one third as large, Busan, is on the coast next to Seoul.

If things escalate into a hot war, then the North will get at least one round off since anti-missile weapons work by tracing the flight of a detected missile back to its launch site which can then be destroyed.

Then obviously the North will collapse quickly as the central government is destroyed and then we’ll have a huge humanitarian mess on our hands. There will be twenty million people to feed without a functioning modern economy. What will they do for jobs? Who pays to get them up to speed? Who will pay for all the infrastructure they’ll need?

In the recent events, like the sinking of a South Korean ship, despite what appears to be their intention it’s highly unlikely those with power actually want war since at best they’ll lose their elite lifestyles. In fact they do stuff like that to create an event which the can use as spin to force people to rally around a potential new leader.

2. Cold shoulder

Stop giving any support or aid at all. Instead of helping to propagate a slow-festering humanitarian disaster in the North, they might fall into another full famine.

One result might be that people stop accepting the regime when they can’t feed them anymore and it'll collapse. However, another result might push the population to demand that the country acts since they’re death-bound and desperate anyway. I think the second result is more likely especially since the author of the book reported hearing that sentiment as being the only way the people of the North can get rid of the Kims and save face.

3. Status quo

This would be to continue doing what we’re doing. It is the cheapest action.

North Korea proves the saying ‘knowledge is power’. The Kims control information 1984-style. They drew the curtains closed in the 50’s as the North was in its initial upswing ahead of the South. Their previous experience was Japanese colonialism. Since then, the North Koreans largely believe that they live in a workers’ paradise that’s the envy of the world. With the government or party as the only information source generations have grown up being taught that the US invaded them instead of the other way around.

Nowadays, Chinese cell towers are close enough that cell phones work in some parts of the North. People modify their government fixed radios to get normal stations and videotapes of South Korean media circulate around and some people are able to get glimpses of the outside world. Things like this help to chip away at the Kims’ support which is what happens as people learn of the real world.

There are good signs that things could change: last December there was a currency revaluation that went wrong for the government creating widespread resentment as what little money people had built up was wiped out and it appears they've had another bad harvest.

4. Embrace

The goal of this would be to open economic channels which would then allow information to creep in, not to mention as the economy grew, either people would have to start to be able to have access to economic freedom which leads to political freedom or resentment would build.

Of course, their party already controls the media so even if the free trade zones in the North, the areas where foreign companies are allowed to open factories for the labor, were expanded to tens of thousands of workers their immediate influence would be small. Even if we removed the military threat to the North as we embrace them, I’m sure they’d never allow their people to find out there's no reason for their giant military anymore.

There’d have to be other ways created to get North Koreans on visits out of the North and more foreigners into the North where they can interact. Perhaps a proposal as simple as inviting Northern university people to study in the west might be accepted.

As an engineer, I’ve thought about ways to ease the flow of communication and media in the country. The US already has the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, but there are other things that could be done. If I controlled things, I’d keep the big things the same, #3, but also do subversive things. The most obvious would be to fund the production of simple, small, free radios that can be carried back into the country by people crossing the border with China. Other things could be made like videotapes of South Korea and the world and what they’re missing.

In the end I doubt much will change soon. I figure China has a huge interest in keeping things the same and they already have a short leash on the North. At present the North is a buffer between China and American-friendly South Korea and Japan. Of course I wonder if they’ve thought about how we would justify keeping an army in a unified Korea and even Japan without there being a threat.

Then again China might want us to fight a war and then fund most of the money on the rebuilding simply to drain us. I am worried that as Afghanistan drags on without an exit in sight, not to mention our dismal economy, a North Korean war might become a convenient excuse to pull out of that engagement.

In the longer run, as the standard of living in China rises, labor there will cost more and factories will move elsewhere to places like Vietnam. As the cycle repeats and labor continues to cost more in even the newer places, the North will look like an even better place to have a factory, especially for South Korean companies, and perhaps that will eventually motivate some kind of action.

On the bright side the North has shown signs of adapting since the fall of Soviet Russia. It is known that the government has an office which is charged with getting foreign money and they do it by trading. They’ve also started to go lighter on the families of people who commit political crimes or defect.

One thing we can do to help is to help bolster the South since the North is very envious. When the South hosted the Olympics in 1988, even the common Northerners heard about it and realized the level the south had reached in the world to be invited to do that. Subsequently the North spent a ton of money trying to put on a show the following year with a big event for the second world. That helped to mess up their economy as well as bringing in a bunch of foreigners. It also temporarily forced the North to raise the standard of living in their capital for show, meaning the stores actually had stuff to sell, which gave the local people a taste of the possibilities.