My thanks to one reader and one commenter who have drawn my attention to Brian Myers’s latest piece in the Wall Street Journal. Here, summed up, is Myers’s central thesis:
These changes do not reflect a sudden shift in policy. Despite the world media’s tradition of referring to North Korea as a “hardline communist” or “Stalinist” state, it has never been anything of the sort. From its beginnings in 1945 the regime has espoused–to its subjects if not to its Soviet and Chinese aid-providers–a race-based, paranoid nationalism that has nothing to do with Marxism-Leninism. (This latter term was tellingly dropped from the constitution after the collapse of the East Bloc.) North Korea has always had less in common with the former Soviet Union than with the Japan of the 1930s, another “national defense state” in which a command economy was pursued not as an end in itself, but as a prerequisite for rapid armament.
North Korea is, in other words, a national-socialist country–one lacking imperialist ambitions, to be sure, but one that must still be seen on the far right and not the far left of the political spectrum. [Brian R. Myers, Wall Street Journal]
Commenter Arcane thinks this is silly. I don’t, and would advise against ever dismissing Brian Myers lightly. Myers is one of the few truly astute, knowledgeable, and clear-minded observers of North Korea writing on the subject today. He reads and speaks Korean fluently, is an especially careful observer of its propaganda, and also happens to be an extraordinary writer. Recently, he has been increasingly strident in his determination to purge (apologies) the term “Stalinist” from descriptions of contemporary North Korea. Indeed, much of the media coverage of North Korea is superficial and seems to have been written by reporters with very little understanding of the subject matter (the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler and the AP’s Matthew Lee come to mind). There are times when I wonder whether Myers takes that propaganda too much at face value, discounting the possibility that North Korea delivers varying messages to different regions and classes, perhaps through its “cable radio” system, but this is only my speculation. I would never go so far as to disagree with Myers outright unless I felt fairly secure about my own knowledge of the subject matter. That’s why I tend to think that if Myers is mistaken about anything here, it’s not in his analysis of the North Korean system but in his assumptions about Stalin, or the very necessity of distinguishing Stalinism from fascism. I find the distinction between socialist statists of the “left” and the “right” to be especially useless, given the lack of any real functional difference between them.
I agree with several of Myers’s main premises — that Kim Jong Il’s regime has emphasized nationalism and racism more than socialism recently, and that the regime’s ideology hasn’t been rigidly Stalinist for decades. Clearly, Kim Jong Il has inherited some residual elements of Stalinist governance from his father, such as its perfection of the police state and the cult of personality, the methods of its labor camp system, and his use of hunger as a tool of class warfare — even mass extermination. It is also true that Soviet and Soviet-trained officers established the DPRK on a Stalinist model of organization, and launched several Stalinist purges shortly after consolidating power. Of course, Stalin’s inspiration for the Great Purges of the 1930’s was Hitler’s 1934 Night of the Long Knives. Hitler himself sought inspiration from a formerly Communist newspaper editor who reintroduced nationalism and a role for the Church in his own brand of socialist statism. Goebbels helped Hitler steal votes from the Communists by incorporating May Day, state control of factories (though from a distance), and redistribution into Nazi ideology. Hitler abolished labor unions, as did Stalin in every practical sense. The Soviets became mere organs of state control shortly after 1917.
Stalin certainly wasn’t above racism or nationalism. He launched multiple race-based pogroms, most notably against Jews, Chechens, Ukrainians, and Koreans. He wasn’t above nationalism, either; during World War II, his propaganda apparatus ceased to emphasize socialism, extolled the virtues of defending Mother Russia, and drew comparisons between Soviet troops and the defenders of Moscow in 1812. Stalin was no paragon of Marxist economics. His New Economic Policy was a retreat from state control over the means of production, just as North Korea was forced to recognize, to a degree and for a while, the dissolution of state control during the Great Famine. In both cases, state control was reestablished after there were fewer mouths to feed and matters stabilized again.
Stalin was not a dedicated anti-fascist. Early on, Stalin’s generals and Hitler’s got on well enough for Stalin to host the secret training of the first panzer units, in violation of the Versailles Treaty. In 1939, Stalin and Hitler’s non-aggression pact regained much of the territory Russia had lost in 1917, at Poland’s expense. “Mein Kampf” suggests that while Hitler saw this accord as a temporary tactical necessity, Stalin really thought he’d reached an enduring accord with Hitler. Stalin repeatedly ignored credible warnings of the German invasion in 1941 and was in a state of shock — secluded in his dacha — for days after the Germans did invade.
To say that Kim Jong Il’s regime is fascist and racist is correct. There is a clear similarity between Juche and Fuhrerprinzip, and Hwang Jang Yop suggests that Kim Jong Il drew inspiration from Hitler. North Korea has no ethnic minorities to persecute except the infants, born and unborn, of repatriated refugee women (South Koreans’ apathy about these revelations speaks volumes about their own beliefs about race). North Korea assures the continuation of its ethnic purity by assuring that those children do not survive their mothers’ initial interrogation. No long-term resident of South Korea — particularly in palpably xenophobic Busan — would honestly suggest that xenophobia and racism exceeding the global norm are uniquely North Korean characteristics. This element of North Korean ideology probably found easy acceptance among North Koreans, and plenty of South Koreans as well.
I also agree that by the time of his death, Kim Il Sung had transformed North Korea’s cultish ethos into something far more similar to Japan’s state shinto than to Stalin’s Russia. After all, State Shinto was the system under which most North Koreans had grown up. To argue that this isn’t Stalinist, however, may be pointlessly polemic when all of the aforementioned systems had common roots and common principles: the devaluation of individual life and dignity; the supremacy of the state and its military; the deification of the dictator; extreme nationalism and the extermination of ethnic minorities; and as much state control over the economy as current conditions can tolerate. One can even speculate that Kim Jong Il might be said to have out-Stalined Stalin. Had Yakov, Vassily, or Svetlana had the wherewithall to continue Stalin’s reign, might the Soviet Union have evolved in the same way that North Korea has? The unfolding failure of socialist economics and the absence of a common unifying ethnic origin suggests as much. What else might Dear Leader Vassily Stalin have had to fall back on?
Myers ends with an admonition to those who impute rationalism upon Kim Jong Il and who continue to believe that he can be forced to negotiate his own disarmament:
Kim is aware that he cannot disarm without committing political suicide. This unfortunately means that negotiations with Pyongyang, whether bilateral or multilateral, can never bear the sort of fruit that dÃ©tente with the Soviet Union did.
Some in Washington have suggested that negotiations can nonetheless be an effective adjunct to sanctions, the hope being that the U.S. can chatter away with the Kim regime until it finally collapses from a lack of funds. But if North Korea is not a communist country, there is no reason to expect it to fold like one. Party propaganda derides the old Soviet Union for nothing so much as the way it went down “without a shot.” With the Dear Leader’s uranium centrifuges spinning every hour, running out the clock seems a very dangerous strategy indeed.
If Myers is right about this — and I believe he is — then we eagerly await his suggestion of an alternative. I still believe that that concentrated and sustained sanctions could bring the regime down, but the sanctions we’ve imposed thus far aren’t sufficient to do the job and are probably calculated to pressure, rather than collapse the regime. As I’ve noted repeatedly, there are many more sanctions we could impose but haven’t. That’s probably because the current political leadership doesn’t “get” the basic truth that Myers speaks here.
I also accept the possibility that sanctions won’t be enough, in which case, the only alternative to the unacceptable alternative of an OPLAN 5027-style invasion is to subvert the state by exploiting something Myers appears to discount — the discontent within North Korea itself. Certainly there is plenty of discontent: look at the rising number of North Koreans who are voting against Kim Jong Il with their feet, or their rising willingness to express their discontent with hunger, corruption, and restrictions on market trading. But what North Koreans still lack is any coherent concept of what system would replace the existing one, how its accession would change their lives, and why its realization is worth the risk of their lives. Once that concept takes root — something that cannot happen until North Koreans have the means to communicate with each other and the outside world — it’s only a matter of weapons, tactics, courage, and time.