My trip to North Korea 11 years ago was one of the most depressing times in my whole life. I have never seen a sadder country. It was not simply an issue of appalling poverty: In 1989, the shelves of stores in Moscow were also barren, and Beijing still sported a maze of miniature slums — the notorious “hutongs” where foreigners inevitably got lost and slightly nauseated. The sadness of North Korea was of a different kind; it was the sadness of a people scared to breathe.
Even infamous dictators Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler failed to bring their respective nations to the heights of totalitarianism reached by North Korean leader Kim Il Sung. In 1989, everyone in North Korea was wearing a Kim Il Sung badge. Men in the streets had huge, shiny ones pinned to their chests. People in the Foreign Office wore tiny, well-designed badges. Every tall building in the city was a disgusting sight because you knew it had been built with slave labor. Every foreign visitor was closely followed by plainclothes men, who were also frightened and underfed. In the town of Wonsan, I was nearly shot by two Kalashnikov-toting soldiers because I had attempted to take a picture of the local marketplace. All you could see on TV were pictures of the “great leader” and his puffy son, the heir presumptive. The media was advertising two brightly colored revolutionary flowers: “Kim Il Sung flower” and “Kim Jong Il flower.”
In 1989, the heir presumptive had five years more to wait until he would become ruler. In 1994, when Kim Il Sung died, many thought that Kim Jong Il’s reign would be short-lived. Everybody still remembered the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the shooting of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Yet now, Kim Jong Il has been in power for six years — a very impressive term in this modern world of impeachments, free elections and a global mass media. More than that, he has initiated great change, having hosted a summit with South Korean President Kim Dae Jung in Pyongyang.
Undoubtedly, this was a historic summit. The Korean Peninsula is one of the last territories on Earth still caught in the grip of the Cold War; a place where national identities remain defined by capitalism and communism. In comparison with North Korea, Cuba is a relaxed Caribbean resort with bargain prices and a funny dictator.
Now this Cold War relic is being defrosted. The North and the South are talking to each other and things are going to change pretty soon. The question of what kind of change will occur on the Korean Peninsula remains unanswerable.
Kim Jong Il and Kim Dae Jung have been discussing reunification, but what kind of reunification can occur when one regime is atrocious and oppressive and the other is democratic? Clearly, North Korea must change before reunification can take place.
As was the case in Russia, history shows that liberalization generally leads to the collapse of authoritarian regimes. So is it fair to say that soon the world will witness a German-style reunification on the Korean Peninsula, with the North’s communist regime forsaking its identity and enthusiastically defecting to the capitalist South? An abundance of consumer goods and high standards of living are powerful incentives. If the fate of the former leaders of East Germany serve as any guide, Kim Jong Il may end up regretting his current rapprochement with the South and ending his days in jail or in exile — perhaps in China.
Speaking of China, it provides an example of how a communist nation can maintain a dictatorial regime even after engagement with the outside world. The Chinese Communist Party, which threw open China’s doors in 1979, still appears reasonably happy and healthy a decade after the Tiananmen turmoil.
Although its situation is very different from that of the two Koreas, China is also a divided nation. While Taiwan is too small to count as an alternative to China, no matter how rich and free it might be, the example of Hong Kong shows that China has successfully overcome the “communism vs. capitalism” syndrome.
So will Kim Jong Il fall from power or continue to maintain his oppressive regime in spite of his new relationship with Seoul? Recently there has been a lot of talk about a “special” East Asian way, based on Confucian values — which are naturally alien to Western notions of democracy.
I side with the first scenario: Kim Jong Il has dug his regime’s grave. China has succeeded in keeping its regime for one simple reason: The state has provided its people with a dramatic increase in living standards, a growing economy and a better life in general.
This is particularly the case for China’s elite. The unique, Chinese blend of communism and capitalism, a “state capitalism” of sorts, is giving the Chinese elite new power based on money rather than ideology. Everyone seems to be happy about the arrangement. The West gets cheap goods and China’s elite gets lucrative revenue.
There is no way North Korea can replicate China’s experience. Other countries have already monopolized cheap production. The only potential source of revenue for the North Korean elite would be economic aid from the South. Embezzlement is exciting, but corruption is infinitely better. Embezzlement, a form of grab and run, is a short-term gain, while corruption can be turned into a family business. But you cannot have corruption unless your country produces something.
If Kim Jong Il fails to lavishly feed his elite, he will fall. The number of people he has to keep happy is impressive: It includes not only Cabinet ministers and the army but also customs officers, concentration-camp guards, clerks preparing death warrants and, last but not least, soldiers serving in firing squads.
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