On October 29th, the Acton Institute was pleased to welcome author and National Review Senior Editor Jay Nordlinger to the Mark Murray Auditorium as part of the 2015 Acton Lecture Series. Nordlinger’s address shared the title of his latest book, Children of Monsters: An Inquiry into the Sons and Daughters of Dictators, which examines the varied fates of the children of some of the 20th century’s most notorious dictators. We’re pleased to present the video of Nordlinger’s talk here on the PowerBlog.
One month ago today, the people of North Korea learned that their Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, had died. While the news triggered hysterical shock in Pyongyang, the event brought new hope to those who work hard to penetrate North Korea’s hermetic society. One after another, many of these NGOs and ministries released statements postulating that maybe, just maybe, Kim’s youngest son and anointed heir—Jong-un—would break with family tradition by promoting genuine liberty for his people.
Such hopes are certainly understandable. Due in large part to the regime’s aversion to private markets, extreme poverty is a fact of life for large swaths of the population. The World Food Programme, North Korea’s largest distributor of multilateral food aid, estimated in 2011 that six million people needed food assistance, while one in three children were chronically malnourished. Such issues have been endemic since the mid-1990s, when an extraordinarily bad famine claimed millions of lives.
North Korea’s record on religious freedom is no better. Once dubbed the “Jerusalem of the East” for its large Christian population and deployment of missionaries, all manifestations of Christianity were eradicated as Kim Il-sung consolidated his power in the early 1950s. Understanding the dissonance between Christianity and utopian government schemes (such as communism), Kim reportedly commented: “We came to understand that religious persons can only be broken of a bad habit if they are killed.” Today’s North Korea has sustained this policy, throwing Christians into labor camps (a death sentence for many), executing them for Bible ownership, and punishing families to the third generation for any sign of Christian influence.
Optimists who see promise in the leadership transition contend that Kim Jong-un’s time attending school in Bern, Switzerland exposed him to the fruits of a free society. Chinese reformer Deng Xiaoping, they remind us, likewise benefited from his time in Paris. But the rule is not a hard-and-fast one; both Mussolini and Marx spent a good deal of time in relatively freedom-oriented countries (Switzerland and England, respectively), but still settled on philosophies and policies incongruent with freedom and individual dignity. Optimists respond that Jong-un seems to have taken to Western culture, as he is a big fan of NBA basketball and Michael Jordan. His father’s penchant for Elvis Presley and Rambo, however, never did translate into wholesale adoption of Western-style democracy.
Whatever our hopes, change in the near term is highly unlikely. While Kim Jong-il had some 15 years to prepare for leadership under his father’s tutelage, Kim Jong-un had one-fifth that, having been seemingly tapped after his father’s stroke in 2008. On the fly, he will be forced to learn the delicate balance of political power in that country. His first priority will be to consolidate power, proving his legitimacy to the political establishment as well as the highly influential military apparatus (to this end, expect more saber-rattling toward South Korea). Intent to retain their current clout and influence, the powers-that-be are not particularly enthused about the prospect of an economically free and spiritually rich North Korea; Kim Jong-un will thus have strong incentive to squelch dissent wherever it appears.
- The foundations have already been laid for heightened vigilance. After Kim Jong-il’s death, North Korean and Chinese border patrols were beefed up, new roadblocks and checkpoints were added, new barb-wire fencing was installed, and journalists were prevented from entering the border area. Small, tightly controlled markets were shut down (some of which have since reopened), and religious restrictions were tightened. Kim Jong-il would not have selected a reformist softy as his successor—and in Jong-un, he did not.
But what of a coup? Any sort of organized, successful upheaval would likely not come from the citizenry. After all, those reduced to boiling tree bark for dinner hardly have the wherewithal to overturn a highly consolidated and centralized system like North Korea’s. If anything happens—and at this point, the likelihood is small—it would likely emanate from the officer corps. There is said to be discontent among mid-level military professionals, many of whom have dedicated their lives to the regime and received little in return. Others may be bitter about the high military honors conferred upon Kim Jong-un and his uncle and close confidante, Chang Sung-taek—neither of whom was required to earn his way through the ranks. If an uprising along these lines did occur, the consequences would be far from clear, with liberty not necessarily an automatic result. “Revolution,” quipped a ruthless but clever Mao, “is not a dinner party.”
I pray that my skepticism is proven wrong. But until more promising evidence comes to light, new leadership in the halls of Pyongyang sadly signifies only a continuation of the brutal and miserable status quo.
A mere mention of North Korea brings to mind the repressive regime of Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. Although Kim has been satirized in the West as an impish consumer of cognac and NBA paraphernalia, his grip on society is both chilling and inescapable. The country frequently receives news coverage for its nuclear aspirations, unjust penal system, and horrendous human rights record. However, a recent academic study by Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland uncovers yet another facet of the North Korean case: the power and inevitability of markets in the face of economic despair.
Since the reclusive nature of North Korea precludes any serious study of public opinion and social change, Haggard and Noland pursued the next best sample: North Korean defectors. In Witness to Transformation: Refugee Insights into North Korea, the authors describe the results and implications of two surveys, conducted between 2004 and 2008, completed by approximately 1,600 refugees living in China and South Korea. While the study sample is not random, multivariate regression demonstrates that most of the findings are generally applicable to the North Korean population at large. Simply put, this study gives us a unique look into the collective heart and mind of an otherwise impenetrable nation.
Before delving into the surveys, the authors provide a brief history of the North Korean economy. Due to rapid mobilization of its labor base, as well as generous support from China and the Soviet Union, North Korea registered strong growth for the first several years of its existence. But in the late 1980s, as famines set in and the Soviet Union disbanded, the North experienced profound economic pangs. With famine at its peak in the 1990s, households came to rely on a range of coping strategies—limited consumption, barter, foraging, and purchasing food from emerging markets. Though marketization was catalyzed by the need for food, it eventually became instrumental vis-à-vis a wide range of consumer goods, as well. Indeed, the unofficial market became so significant during this time period that in 1994, it equaled 25 percent of the official output. Military and state functionaries became covert distributors, and the government even decriminalized certain market activities.
Haggard and Noland offer, however, that even when the government seemed to pursue pro-market reform, those measures were accompanied by simultaneous efforts to “reassert state control,” including an administered price structure and higher wage levels for certain groups. Such bipolar policymaking was unfortunately short-lived, as North Korea has since reversed a number of reforms that had been conducive to market activity.
It is difficult to imagine a situation more disquieting than the North Korea of today, where citizens continue to die of starvation and malnutrition due to dwindling supplies of food and insufficient work. But just as they did during the 1990s, North Koreans continue to turn to the market in their times of serious need. Instances abound: nearly half of South Korean respondents reported that all their income came from private business activities, while 69 percent said half or more of their income came from such activities. More than 70 percent of respondents in that group were involved in trading. In the China sample, 62 percent reported the market as their primary source of food, while 95 percent of non-farm respondents obtained some amount of food through the market. Haggard and Noland call this phenomenon ‘marketization from below’—also seen in Eastern Europe—in which market growth is “primarily a function of state failure rather than a proactive reform process.”
It is important to note that, unlike many of us, who come to embrace free enterprise after starting a business or reading Hayek, North Korean engagement of the market is borne of extreme desperation. After spending years under the yoke of a totalitarian regime that regulates almost every aspect of market and man, courageous Koreans have come to regard the market as a natural elixir to the malady of severe economic deprivation.
Unsurprisingly, involvement in the market often corresponds with other sorts of taboo activities, signifying a deep desire for personal autonomy. “Taken together,” write the authors, “these results point to a kind of ‘market syndrome’ in which participation in market activities is associated with higher arrest rates, more consumption of foreign news, more negative assessments of the regime, a greater willingness to communicate those views to one’s peers, and a greater propensity to cite political motives for emigration. On its own terms, the regime is right to fear the market.”
Given the persistence of harsh food shortages, as well as the delicate transfer of power to Kim’s youngest son, Jong-un, North Korea will attract increased attention and interest over the coming years. Against this backdrop, Witness to Transformation uses refugee testimony to paint a helpful picture of this infamously opaque, but increasingly important country.