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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Sources: New Books from Bechtol and Lankov

by | May 30th, 2013 | 07:00 am

Two North Korea hands have recently published new books. Bruce Bechtol, author of the 2010 Defiant Failed State, provides an account of the last several years entitled The Last Days of Kim Jong Il.  As with his earlier work, Bechtol provides useful summaries of North Korea’s military capabilities and tends toward the more alarmist end of the spectrum: North Korea as serious threat rather than nagging irritant.

The first chapter notes that as North Korea’s conventional capabilities have declined, it has shifted attention to asymmetric options: long-range artillery, missiles and special operations forces. A chapter on the Cheonan and Yeongpyeong shellings shows how such forces are deployed in practice, and walks through the controversy on whether the North Koreans were culpable. Bechtol spends a chapter pondering the prospect of a pre-emptive nuclear strike by North Korea—an event to which we attach a probability of zero—before concluding with chapters on support for terrorism—primarily through opportunistic arms sales–and the succession.

The central question, however, is whether the peninsula is stable or not. Bechtol goes back and forth on this crucial question. The tone of the book emphasizes the risks, and the Northern Limit Line is indeed dangerous. But some of these risks have been attenuated—as Bechtol acknowledges—by tightening up the deterrent. Others, like a bolt-from-the-blue nuclear strike, do not keep us up at night. Opportunities for weapons sales have also clearly been on a downward slide since their heyday in the 1980s, and more recently as a result of the combination of PSI and UN sanctions. Bechtol rightly notes that the problems of technical cooperation with the Iranians are much harder to interdict.

Although we did not have Bechtol in mind, a counterpoint is provided in our reflection on why the peninsula may be more stable than it looks (here and here).

Andrei Lankov is an endlessly entertaining analyst of all things North Korean, from his fascinating histories of the early postwar period (From Stalin to Kim Il Sung: The Formation of North Korea and Crisis in North Korea: The Failure of Destalinization 1956)  to his short columns on daily life (North of the DMZ). Among his many contributions to the debate is his belief that information is the key to destabilizing the regime—and that we should go for it—and his deep, Russian cynicism that the Kim dynasty will ever negotiate in good faith on anything.

His new entry with Oxford is entitled The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia.  The book pulls together all of Lankov’s work into a unified statement, weaving together long-run historical forces and developments at the individual level. In a long historical chapter, Lankov outlines what it is particularly hard for outsiders to grasp: how the regime that Kim Il Sung built constituted a perverse equilibrium. Initially just another of the many “people’s republics,” the shift towards the cult of personality was permitted by the Sino-Soviet split and Pyongyang’s ability to play the two patrons against one another. He has a personal feel for the well-known elements of the domestic political order: the control of outside information, pervasive surveillance, the organizational life. But Lankov has long noted the additional twist of acquiescence; how adequate material progress and nationalist tropes could generate passive or even active alignment of citizens with the regime.

Lankov sees the collapse of the Soviet Union, the onset of the famine and the process of marketization from below as a pivotal change; he tells his version of the story—with more entertaining anecdotes than Famine in North Korea—in his second chapter. But his third chapter develops an argument that he owns: that the presence of the South and its economic success makes it virtually impossible for the regime to pursue a serious reformist course. Who wants to be a second-rate South Korea? Aid-seeking nuclear blackmail is the external face of muddling through; Lankov underlines how the Sunshine policy played into the North’s procrastination his chapter on the evolution of the nuclear issue.

The end of the book is the part that bears closest reading. Lankov believes that the leadership is incapable of reforming the system, but that things are not as bad as often portrayed; it can muddle through. But this fact does not necessarily portend well for the regime over the longer-run. Crises are not driven by deprivation but by widening inequalities, resentment and growing belief that things could be–and could have been–better. Lankov portrays North Korea as a system vulnerable to sudden crisis. He notes a variety of ways a half-baked reform could unleash serious political pressures, from outright rebellion to factional in-fighting. Strong countervailing pressures—including external ones—would quickly “stabilize” North Korea, but who intervenes—China, South Korea, a multilateral force—is the crucial question.

Lankov’s policy prescriptions don’t show much patience for the usual inside-the-beltway debates. He explains—persuasively in our view—why neither the sticks (sanctions) or the carrots (inducements of various sorts) will ever budge the regime off center. His strategy is to go long and to focus on regime change. According to Lankov, the Communist experiment in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe collapsed because of information: the gradual recognition on the part of citizens that their countries were lagging behind the rest of the world. Lankov thus strongly favors “engagement,” but not the quid-pro-quo kind; rather, he wants more people-to-people contact. This has long been a mantra of ours as well: “get people in, get people out.”

He closes with a cautionary tale of “being ready for what we wish for.” Lankov highlights problems we have not even begun to think about in the Korean case, such as what happens to property in the North that was expropriated from families now living in the South? What about transitional justice? All around, an engaging and thought-provoking statement by one of the best in the business.