LOS ANGELES — Under the communist system — as history has taught — you get to persecute potential opposition parties, warehouse political prisoners and pervert the country’s patriotism with a noxious Orwellian poison of prickly but pervasive paranoia.
At the same time, you get a society without entrepreneurial energy, a workforce without productivity, and an economy with little wealth, except for that of the uncaring elite. What’s not to like about communism if you’re an autocrat?
The truth is, communism, as a way of organizing an economy, has such a bad track record, even die-hard communists are starting to disown it. In China they began “amending” it with the rise of the late Deng Xiao Ping, successor to the historic but mad Mao Zedong. Now the term of art for that communist country is “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Figure out what that means and I have a career opportunity for you with the Chinese Propaganda Ministry in the Central Propaganda Department.
Communist economies that fail to develop indigenous characteristics, as it were, run the risk of becoming failed polities (examples: the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe). That message now looks to be accepted even in Pyongyang, one of the last of the die-hards.
Recently a top North Korean official was seen conferring with counterparts in communist Vietnam, which as everyone knows has been pursuing an economic policy of — ahem — “socialism with Vietnamese characteristics.” That pursuit has re-energized Vietnam: The growth rate for 2008 could be as high as 9 percent, and anyone who has visited the once-divided country recently cannot help but be awed by its economic vibrancy.
Presumably, the North Korean elite look less fearfully at the Vietnam model of development because it enshrines the hegemony of the one-party system while still proposing to liberate the entrepreneurial economic talents of workers. In effect, China and Vietnam offer North Korea a kind of “one-country, two-systems” compact wherein the polity remains fixed as the economy becomes liberated to do its economic thing.
Throughout Southeast Asia, in fact, the one-party approach is often more highly regarded than a multiparty one. India is a multiparty democracy but its growth rate is less than China’s.
The per capita income of Singapore — not exactly a wild carnival of competing parties — now, astonishingly, edges that of Japan, which looks to be tilting toward multi-partyism after decades of the Liberal Democratic Party’s near-single-party hegemony.
North Korea’s system has served only the interests of one party. Wanting to maintain its pedestal of privilege, the Pyongyang gang tried to brainwash the populace that everything was going to be OK. But it wasn’t. Only when almost everyone in the country but the caviar elite was dining on mud cakes did the gig look to be up and the emperor started looking around for new economic clothes.
It’s ludicrous when you think about it. When the visiting North Korean delegation showed up in Hanoi, it touched down in a decades-old ramshackle Soviet jetliner, whose original version made its debut in 1967. The Vietnamese delegation greeting the North Koreans whisked them to a five-start hotel in a Mercedes.
Vietnam began its reforms — called Doi Moi — in the late 1980s. The economy has been sailing forward ever since. The feeling of the country seems less communistic the further you go south toward Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), but there is no doubt who is in charge.
Vietnam used to be divided into North and South, just as Korea still is (and Germany once was). Today, the south of Vietnam feels more like the south of Korea — where a one-party system ruled until 1987, when martial law was dropped. Vietnam’s north is where the country’s capital is — Hanoi — and where the Communist Party lodges its national government. It’s not remotely as bleak as Pyongyang, but on the other hand it nowhere resembles the delightful circus-like chaos around Ho Chi Minh City.
Just as two Vietnams now exist as one, perhaps someday two Koreas could exist as near-one, perhaps under some Korean-style formula of one-country, two systems (the vision for Hong Kong’s immersion into China articulated by the late Chairman Deng).
Should the two Koreas ever be united in any shape or form, look out! This would yield a total populace of about 72 million (compared with a united Germany: 82 million). South Korea, with 49 million, is already the 12th-largest economy in the world. It has strong unions and tremendous workers. International brands like Hyundai, Samsung and Kia compete almost everywhere.
The incompatibility of the political systems of the North and the South would seem to doom any kind of significant association, except that the people on both sides are so Korean to the core that it is hard to imagine anything getting in the way of some sort of fraternal confederation. Something tells me the two Koreas will go for it.
Professor Tom Plate, a board member of the Burkle Center for International Relations at UCLA, is a veteran journalist. Copyright 2007 Tom Plate