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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Sources: Kyung-Ae Park and Scott Snyder on North Korea in Transition

by | January 31st, 2013 | 07:00 am

Kyung-ae Park (University of British Columbia, who just hosted a long-term delegation of North Koreans) and the Council on Foreign Relations’ Scott Snyder have pulled together a group of leading North Korea watchers, from across the political spectrum, to comment on where the country is headed. North Korea in Transition covers the waterfront, with contributions on everything from ideology and culture to high politics and the economy. The pieces provide an opportunity to reflect on the most important debates about the country; the full table of contents is included below, but we highlight the most important questions as we see them.

  • Charles Armstrong’s chapter on ideology raises—but of course can’t answer—the question of how propaganda is absorbed at the individual level. The puzzle of such systems is that they can orient citizens’ outward behavior, and create loyalties and shared myths. But at the same time, individuals compartmentalize and ideology can prove incredibly ephemeral if the regime passes. John Dower’s Embracing Defeat chronicles how quickly Japanese society changed once the lid was lifted on the repressive version of the emperor-centered political system. What do we make of this fact? Does ideology have a grip or not?
  • Ken Gause—one of our favorite NK watchers (on his recent work, see here  and here)—considers the role the party has and might play in the future.  The core question: will it simply be a hierarchical extension of Kim III’s power or a body that incorporates a wider array of interests at the top? Terence Roehrig complements this discussion with a consideration of the political as well as security roles of the military. Bruce Cumings takes a much wider approach, and sees the regime as a “combination of monarchy, anti-imperial nationalism, and Korean political culture.” The main point made by Cumings and the other political papers: forget collapse. The system is in equilibrium: Cha and Anderson provide a particularly compelling checklist of the reasons why an Arab Spring is not around the corner.
  • Nic Eberstadt provides an excellent review of the economy that steps away from the standard trope that state socialism or external shocks doomed the country to failure. Its much worse than that; state socialist systems in Eastern Europe managed to eke out decades of reasonable growth before the end game in the 1980s, and we don’t even need to talk about China and Vietnam. He tells a story about the gradual distortion of state socialism over the last two decades, from the better known (aversion to trade and consumers) to the less obvious (the decline of statistical and informational capabilities, the collapse—not the strength—of the central planning system). He makes a point we have made repeatedly: aid has no effect if policy isn’t right and can even make things worse. Brad Babson picks up the theme by asking how North Korea might be engaged.
  • Andrei Lankov—another one of our favorite observers of the country—picks up another theme near and dear to our hearts: the emergence of a de facto market economy (he has done some interesting qualitative survey work on the phenomenon with Kim Syeok-hang in Asian Survey in 2008 [North Korean Market Vendors: The Rise of Grassroots Capitalists in a Post-Stalinist Society). Woo Young Lee and Jungmin Seo ask a question also raised by Armstrong: whether the penetration of the market necessarily means the growth of countercultures, again an issue near and dear to our hearts. In Witness to Transformation, we found at least some evidence of it but were cautious; Lee and Seo are somewhat more hopeful.
  • Liu Ming (China), Haksoon Paik (South Korea) and Dave Kang (the US and the rest of the world) survey the major geopolitical relationships. The perennial question: can engagement work? Maybe I am reading the chapters through my own biases, but the central message seems to be that nothing seems to work very well. Sanctions have produced little, but neither has engagement; the latter may be the faute de mieux default, but even proponents are finding it harder and harder to gin up real enthusiasm.

This book is a really useful introduction, made richer by the diversity of the participants and the fact that it does not march to a single drum. If you want an overview of where we are in thinking about North Korea, this is a good place to start.

North Korea in Transition

Politics, Economy, and Society

Editors: Kyung-Ae Park, Korea Foundation Chair, Institute of Asian Research, University of British Columbia, and Scott A. Snyder, Senior Fellow for Korea Studies and Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy


Part I: North Korea’s Political System in the Transition Era

Chapter 1: The Role and Influence of Ideology, by Charles Armstrong

Chapter 2: The Role and Influence of the Party Apparatus, by Ken Gause

Chapter 3: The Role and Influence of the North Korean Military, by Terence Roehrig

Chapter 4: The Kims’ Three Bodies: Toward Understanding Dynastic Succession in North Korea, by Bruce Cumings

Chapter 5: North Korea after Kim Jong Il, by Victor Cha and Nicholas Anderson


Part II: Prospects for the North Korean Economy

Chapter 6: Western Aid: The Missing Link for North Korea’s Economic Revival?, by Nicholas Eberstadt

Chapter 7: Future Strategies for Global Economic Integration, by Bradley Babson


Part III: North Korean Society and Culture in Transition

Chapter 8: Low-Profile Capitalism: The Emergence of the New Merchant/Entrepreneurial Class in Post-Famine North Korea, by Andrei Lankov

Chapter 9: “Cultural Pollution” From the South?, by Woo Young Lee and Jungmin Seo


Part IV: Foreign Relations in the Transition Era

Chapter 10: Changes and Continuities in Pyongyang’s China Policy, by Liu Ming

Chapter 11: Changes and Continuities in Inter-Korean Relations, by Haksoon Paik

Chapter 12: North Korea’s Relations with the United States and the Rest of the World, by David Kang


Part V: Conclusion

Chapter 13: North Korea in Transition: Evolution or Revolution?, by Scott Snyder and Kyung-Ae Park