Day: September 9, 2012

“Kim Il Sung will always be with Us,” or what I learned in NK (4)


This is my final post about NK; here is one, two, and three. The post title comes from a remark a local guide made to me, and that is the standard KIS image in the pic.

7. The Korean People’s Army is pretty much everywhere.

This is easily the most militarized state I’ve ever been in. Soldiers and other uniformed military are everywhere, and units of KPA were doing all sorts of even banal things, like going to the Pyongyang fun fair, together en bloc. Guards carried automatic weapons openly in public with disturbing frequency. And the KPA was pretty clearly a captive, exploited labor force. Again and again we saw KPA young men fixing roads, constructing buildings, working in the fields, felling trees, and doing all sorts of things with little connection to actual soldiering – and doing all these dirty tasks in uniform, looking very uncomfortable and overheated. Guides regularly told us about a ‘heroic, glorious’ KPA work brigade that built that or this, but all I could think of was how miserable those young men looked making bricks or hoeing a field in the August heat while in a uniform wholly unsuited for the job and probably getting paid zippo. This wasn’t the army – it was impressed labor in a workers’ state. Ironically, if there’s any one thing East Asia has in abundance, it’s construction companies; SK, Japan, and China love building white elephants. What a shame then to waste your 20s as semi-enslaved labor building a crappy highway for the KPA that no one will use anyway, because no one owns a car.


8. Don’t Personality Cults face Time-Constraints as They Age?

Another thing I kept wondering about is how long this whole ideological structure can lurch on, when everyday takes North Koreans further and further away from the actual life and exploits of KIS. In the first post, I noted that NK felt like a neopatrimonial absolute monarchy or even theocracy – mostly focused on the persons themselves of KJI and especially KIS as a Korean-communist version of Jesus. So if NK isn’t even Korea anymore, but the “Kim Il Sung state,” then how long can it hang on – or to be more specific, remain ideologically coherent – without KIS around? If the whole show is built around one or two guys, and they aren’t around, then isn’t there a time limit to how long such an ideology can actually remain convincing to anyone? For example, we saw students using computers at a university. KIS (d. 1994) never saw any computers and provided no guidance on them. So as computers become more common in even NK, how can that be connected to a personality cult whose traits are frozen in time, i.e., KIS’ lifespan, 1912-94?

This problem strikes me as inevitable for any highly personalized system. At some point everyone, even Stalin, dies; time continues to tick by; eventually new generations grow up for whom this stuff isn’t even a distant memory, it’s just ritual. Maybe the ‘KIS state’ can sorta work 18 years after his death, but what about 50 or 100 years? George Washington, a similarly lionized founder, may have been such an inspiration to early Americans that he was offered the kingship of America, but it’s hard to imagine a ‘George Washington state’ by, say, 1850. At some point, the sheer passage of time would undercut any such personalistic regime, no?

Maybe NK is aware of this, because it looks like they’re trying to replace one personality with another in the personality cult (KJU replaces KJI replaces KIS), but doesn’t that violate the basic premise of a personality cult – that one awesome personage (Hitler, Stalin, Mao) instantiates everything great about a certain national community? (If you’ve actually studied personality cults and their longevity, please chime in here). So instead of NK being a personality cult, I guess it’s now a ‘family cult’? Does that even make sense? Can that work if the latest guy in the family line has almost no accomplishments at all? At least, KJI had the nukes.

As the pics in this post show, KIS is everywhere, but he’s been dead now for almost 20 years. I guess that is not too far in the past yet, but inevitably it will be. Time marches on, and no matter what the regime does, eventually KIS will become a distant memory – a frozen almost mythic great leader, again like George Washington is to Americans perhaps, but not an actual present figure guiding the state. The personality cult of KJI was already a struggle and less convincing. KJI never equaled his father in terms of (real or apparent) successes, like struggling against the Japanese or founding the DPRK, and there aren’t nearly as many statues and such of KJI as there are of KIS. Is KJU just up to the task? I doubt it. People are mortal and can’t be institutions, no matter how powerful they are.

Similarly, the cult felt frozen because it rehearsed again and again for us the ‘glory days’ – KIS’ guerilla war against the Japanese, the founding of the DPRK, and the Korean war. (Not surprisingly, the propaganda wildly overblows KIS’ role in both the defeat of Japan and the creation of NK; there’s almost no mention of the American, Chinese or Soviet role in any of this. And apparently NK won the Korean war too.) So if you’re a N Korean, you really get it that KIS did some great stuff in the 40s and 50s. Ok. But what about the other 60 years since then? There’s almost nothing. What did KIS do in the 60s or 70s or 80s? I have almost no idea judging by the statuary, the murals, the parks and locations we visited, the talks we got, etc., because it all focused on the independence struggle and the Korean war. (KIS smiling and pointing to a dam or the metro hardly compares with defeating Japan, and sheer volume of imagery of the latter over the former makes that pretty clear.) But the further in time these glories recede, the more it becomes stale no matter how much it gets mythologized. At some point, the past is past, and nothing we saw told me that NK has a strategy for the future.


9. A Few more Notable Observations

a. Just to reinforce just much NK really is the KIS state, NK runs an alternate ‘Juche Calendar’ whose point of origin is the year of KIS birth. So 2012 is Juche year 101. This was all over the literature we received.

b. Forgetting where I was for a moment, I asked our guides if they had email addresses so I could send some pictures. None of them had one. When we were showed computers (see we’re modern), they all ran on bootlegged copies of Windows XP, and the ‘internet’ was actually a NK intranet. No surprise there, but notable nonetheless.

c. Corn was planted in almost every accessible nook and cranny of the countryside. We saw it constantly – up and down in hills in crazy-quilt patterns, or in gullies and ditches next to roads at terrible angles – all of which will be pretty hard to access for harvesting. We took that to be a mark of just how food-desperate the country was.

d. Dilapidation was everywhere. We saw people starting trucks by cranking the engine with a crowbar (I don’t think I’ve ever seen that outside of the movies). On the Soviet-era plane we flew to Mt. Paekdu, the overhead bins had no doors. If we’d hit turbulence, imagine the bags flying all over the place smashing into people’s heads. Flush toilets outside of Pyongyang were a luxury. Beds were flat boards with a blanket on top. Brownouts and back-up candles were common; hot water was not. The roads were atrocious; everyone began to avoid the back of the bus.To be honest, it kept reminding me of traveling in southern Africa where nothing worked right and our drivers kept saying ‘TIA.’

e. I kept wondering what SK will do with all this commie crap when they finally take over (and I do think NK will collapse one day). The historian in me says it’d be a terrible shame to rip it all down. It’s history, whether we like it or not and shouldn’t get airbrushed out. The political scientist in me says the opposite: tear it all down ASAP as symbols of possibly the worst government in the history of East Asia and get on with reorientation toward democracy. Tough question.

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog.


Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Methodological Tools: Social-Network Analysis Alert

Is the society depicted in this film historically accurate?
Let’s perform a social-network analysis!  

Here’s a helpful hint: the “realism” of social networks in the Iliad, Beowulf, and the Tain tell us squat, zero, nothing, zilch, not a bit about their historicity.

From the New York Times (h/t Daniel Solomon):

Archaeological evidence suggests that at least some of the societies and events in such stories did exist. But is there other evidence, lurking perhaps within the ancient texts themselves? 

To investigate that question, we turned to a decidedly modern tool: social-network analysis. In a study published in Europhysics Letters, we use a mathematical approach to examine the social networks in three narratives: “The Iliad,” “Beowulf” and the Irish epic “Tain Bo Cuailnge.” If the social networks depicted appeared realistic, we surmised, perhaps they would reflect some degree of historical reality. 

 Social networks have been widely studied in recent years; researchers have looked at the interconnectedness of groups like actors, musicians and co-authors of scientific texts. These networks share similar properties: they are highly connected, small worlds. They are assortative, which means that people tend to associate with people like themselves. And their degree distributions are usually scale-free — a small number of people tend to have lots of friends.

Shorter version: “if the social networks depicted in a cultural epic appear realistic, then the social networks depicted in that cultural epic appear realistic.”*

Once upon a time, Cosma Shalzi wrote an excellent post on physicists and social-network analysis. However, in this case, the problem seems not to be a failure to familiarize with the existing literature, but idiocy.

*For theoretically specified values of “realistic.”


The Triumph of Liberal Internationalism?

Robert Golan-Viella reflects on a tectonic shift in partisan foreign-policy debate, i.e., the fact that the Democrats have the upper hand. He chalks this up to campaign politics: the key to a Republican victory runs through the economy. I agree that there are “strong critiques” of Obama foreign policy and that “leading Republicans aren’t making them.” But I don’t think this is “politically smart,” insofar as leading Republicans are making attacks on Obama foreign policy–just not very good ones.

As Blake Hounshell noted on twitter of the latest broadside from the Romney campaign:

I expect that I will return to this theme on a number of future occasions, but I should note that this is something quite similar to what’s been happening on the domestic politics front.

While there’s plenty of room to eviscerate Obama, the Republicans have painted themselves into an ideological corner from which they’re forced to make a lot of deeply questionable claims. This is what happens when you’ve convinced your base that the label “socialist” is broad enough to include a center-right President whose major domestic initiatives — national Romneycare, a tax-cut and infrastructure oriented stimulus, a cap-and-trade approach to reducing carbon emissions — were mainstream Republican positions only four years ago.

Indeed, the fact is that Obama foreign policy doesn’t look that much different from what Bush was doing in the later part of his second term. Sure, the Obama Administration cancelled an inferior BMD program and replaced it with a better one (props to Sean Kay for that phrasing). But on Iraq and Afghanistan Obama largely followed the path developed toward the end of the Bush administration. Even its position on Iran is evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Obama’s more explicit offer to engage with Iran  highlighted Teheran’s intransigence; to the extent that it “worked,” it did so by generating greater international support for tougher sanctions — it convinced other countries to get behind preexisting US policy. Even the “Israel” issue is often more about style than substance (cf. Erik Voeten on the status of Jerusalem).
In that sense, it isn’t surprising that Russia has become a focal point. The “reset” policy really was a break from Bush foreign policy. On the one hand, though, that “break” has worked to secure Bush administration objectives, such as expanded transit routes to Afghanistan via Russian territory. On the other hand, we can imagine that McCain administration might have been much more aggressive on Georgia and not have pursued New START. I can see a case for recalibration of the US policy toward Tbilisi, but August 2008 pretty much revealed the limitations of full-throttle support for Georgia.
Nuclear-weapons policy, however, provides an opening for real attack on the Obama Administration. But once again, we’re not getting substantive criticism about nuclear doctrine but rather blog-serious level discourse about selling out US interests to Moscow on BMD and the aggregate size of the US nuclear arsenal. Recall that US-Russians relations have deteriorated lately precisely because Washington won’t capitulate to Moscow on matters such as Syria policy or EPAA.

One lesson of this, I think, was that we didn’t need all of that “security Democrat” handwringing during the first five years after 9/11. Remember all those people who were in a tizzy about how liberals and progressives needed to come up with “new thinking” to respond to the neoconservative challenge? That all looks pretty silly now. The Obama Administration’s foreign policy fits pretty squarely within the broad liberal-internationalist tradition, albeit with, on some issues, a significant lean toward its “pragmatic realist” variant. Indeed, with a few exceptions — such as the aforementioned disaster that was US policy toward Georgia — the Bush administration basically abandoned neo-conservativism after the 2006 midterms.

That’s not to say that we won’t get another taste of neoconservative crusading bluster if Romney wins. My guess is that his impulses aren’t in that direction, but foreign-policy novices often go where their advisors take them. But I think what the record of the past two decades suggests is pretty clear: Republican and Democratic foreign-policy centrists never needed to “rethink” anything. Their ideas have acquitted themselves quite well. Neo-Reaganite foreign policy? Not so much. 


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