The man who terminated the 37-year misrule of Robert Mugabe last week and then took his job is a general named Emmerson Mnangagwa with a history as ominous as his nickname: “the Crocodile.” Long one of Mugabe’s most ruthless cronies, Mnangagwa’s resume includes leading Zimbabwe’s feared Central Intelligence Organization and dispatching the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade to Matabeleland in the early 1980s to wage a pogrom that killed up to 20,000 members of the minority Ndebele tribe. He draws support from the “war veterans,” a ruling-party goon squad that has beaten members of the opposition, violently seized the farms of white Zimbabweans, and redistributed their land to party loyalists. His cause is not the restoration of democracy or the relaxation of repression, but a succession contest between nepotism and cronyism, against Mugabe’s unpopular wife.
Even as the streets of Harare filled with Chinese Type 85 armored personnel carriers, the army swore that it was not carrying out a coup. Whatever you call it, some reports say that Mugabe’s long-time backers in Beijing green-lighted it. But if Mnangagwa wants to replace Mugabe’s dictatorship with his own, the crowds on the streets may have other expectations. They will demand jobs, food, and free elections. The generals could try to suppress them. The Ndebele still despise Mnangagwa for his crimes; his ascendancy could provoke a tribal schism or even civil war. This could all end very badly. So far, however, the coup and the street demonstrations that followed it have been bloodless.
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As the coup unfolded, I became absorbed in old documentaries about the creation of Zimbabwe and the decline and fall of its predecessor state, Rhodesia. Contemporary prognostications about events we later call “history” fascinate me. They reveal how often the consensus gets it wrong, how badly, and sometimes why. My interest in Zimbabwe is partially a function of its uses and limitations as an analogy to North Korea, but also because it’s is a beautiful country whose people deserved better.
I visited Zimbabwe for a few days in 1990, at the chronological midpoint between 1965, the year of Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence, and Mugabe’s recent fall. The UDI was a white minority’s desperate gambit to protect its supremacy from a rising tide of anarchic decolonization. Three years before the UDI, a young Robert Mugabe gave an interview to Morley Safer in Salisbury, now Harare. Two of the three things that struck me about Mugabe were his extraordinary eloquence and the moderation of his rhetoric.
The third striking thing about Mugabe was the unmistakeable effeminacy of his mannerisms, but only because he would later call gay men “worse than dogs and pigs.” In his younger years, however, Mugabe was obviously charismatic. I can see how he fooled so many people into believing that he was really an inclusive moderate. By 1962, however, he was already the mouthpiece of Joshua Nkomo’s Soviet-aligned Zimbabwe African People’s Union. The following year, he joined a breakaway Maoist faction that called itself the Zimbabwe African National Union. The schism between ZANU and ZAPU was also tribal. Mugabe and ZANU’s other leaders were of the majority Shona tribe; Nkomo and most of his ZAPU supporters were of the minority Ndebele tribe, a northern branch of the Zulu people. (I once spoke a corruption of Zulu well enough to impress Africans, and non-Africans who’ve never heard click sounds; sadly, I forgot most of it long ago.)
After Ian Smith’s Rhodesian government refused to negotiate a return to majority rule, Mugabe and Nkomo formed an uneasy alliance and launched a guerrilla war. China armed and trained ZANU, and both ZANU and ZAPU adopted a Maoist strategy of infiltrating into rural areas to sow insurgency. ZANU did not “look east” or turn to China in response to western sanctions after it took power; it has been in China’s orbit since the early 1960s. One could argue that war was justified; people who are denied any peaceful means to claim their fundamental rights have a right to take up arms to reclaim those rights. But ZANU and ZAPU often fought their just war by unjust means. In the brutal Bush War that followed, they attacked farmers, villagers, and even civilian airliners.
The Rhodesians had the upper hand until 1975, when Portugal withdrew from Angola and Mozambique, and Rhodesia found itself nearly surrounded by guerrilla safe havens. By then, Rhodesia was isolated diplomatically and under crippling oil sanctions. An arms embargo prevented it from rearming itself. Guerrilla attacks taxed the morale and resources of a beleaguered white minority. Rising insecurity in the countryside cost the government revenue it needed to pay for the war effort. In 1979, Margaret Thatcher convinced Smith that he couldn’t hold out. Reluctantly, he agreed to one-man-one-vote elections. A black majority radicalized by civil war and polarized by tribe voted Mugabe and the ZANU into power.
Before she was famous, Samantha Power wrote at length about how Mugabe, for all his early promises of inclusion, moderation, and continuity, quickly consolidated power and gradually wrecked the economy. Not long after his inauguration in 1980, “Good Old Bob” (as the vanquished whites optimistically called him) visited Kim Il-sung in Pyongyang and met his totalitarian exemplar. He returned “a different man,” awed by Kim’s “absolute power and the apparent adoration of the North Korean people.” No one has chronicled the dark history of this “engagement” better than Benjamin Young did for NK News. Mugabe never achieved the same degree of totalitarian control as Kim Il-sung, but he certainly gave it a go: on the very eve of his overthrow, the editorials in his government newspapers could have been ghostwritten by KCNA.
Pyongyang also helped Mugabe subdue his potential rivals, the ZAPU. In the early 1980s, he sent the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade into ZAPU’s Matabeleland stronghold in a brutal campaign called the Gukurahundi. The campaign killed up to 20,000 people, drove Nkomo into exile, and forced ZAPU to accept absorption into the ZANU. To this day, many Zimbabweans loathe North Korea for this, but it may be just what Pyongyang had in mind this week when it boasted of its “unsparing material and spiritual assistance to African nations.”
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In 1990, when Robert Mugabe had been in power for ten years, I took a temporary job in South Africa. To a kid living on a vast, landlocked prairie, this was an irresistible chance to see the world and witness history. I arrived in Johannesburg three months after Nelson Mandela was released, as the repeal of Apartheid laws and the removal of “white only” signs were daily occurrences. (Apologies for the poor quality of my photography.)
[Johannesburg, May 1990. People dancing in the streets.
They were singing, “He’s free.”]
[Randontein, Transvaal, July 1990. A week before, the empty white spaces on
this sign said, “Whites Only” in English and Afrikaans. I came back
this day and saw that it had just been painted over.]
[Durban, Natal, June 1990. A calm, peaceful, low-key anti-Apartheid protest.
By then, the protesters were pushing against an open door. Moments after
I took this picture, a friendly policeman offered to take a photo of me
in front of the demonstration. I wish I could find that photo.]
In July, some friends and I decided to drive north across Zimbabwe to Victoria Falls, and then back through Botswana. By then, South Africa was already thick with ex-Rhodesian emigres called “whenwes.” If a whenwe heard you were visiting Zimbabwe, he’d give you plenty of travel tips and some dire warnings, and he might ask you to bring him back a bottle of Mazoe Orange.
The Zimbabwe I saw was a place where the roads were still being fixed, the buses still ran, the children still went to school, and food was still available. It was functional but moribund. There was no new construction, and little seemed to have been built since the end of the war. Conditions were far better than in Zambia or Mozambique, but not as good as in Namibia or Botswana (a small, stable, well-governed country thanks to an unsung hero named Seretse Khama who proved that black majority rule works perfectly well under principled and honest leaders who reject statist ideologies and embrace free markets).
Zimbabwe also showed me how dictatorships crush their people between the hammer of tyrannical efficiency and the anvil of economic inefficiency. Hyperinflation was still a few years away, but the government was propping up the currency with confiscatory exchange rates. Many merchants preferred South African Rand, and the black market knew what the money was really worth.
[The Zimbabwe Dollar in better days. These notes were printed
three years after Mugabe came to power. They were almost worthless in 1990.]
I won’t say whether I smuggled a few South African Rand into Zimbabwe to evade the official exchange rate and the functional confiscation of the money I’d need to make it to Victoria Falls, but I will say that in such a severe police state, this would have been an exceedingly stupid thing to do. Perhaps a person foolish enough to this in his youth shouldn’t have judged poor Otto Warmbier so harshly.
Zimbabwe was also the first place I felt physically afraid of a government. Most people were either cheerfully resigned or suspiciously dour. A few seemed ambitiously despotic. Our route took us through Matabeleland, where the Fifth Brigade had so recently done its gruesome work. The whenwes had warned us that the roads were not safe at night, but we drove them anyway. We’d already wasted too many hours at the Beitbridge border post being searched by suspicious border guards for smuggled Rand until, in their exasperation, they waved us through.
The reward of Victoria Falls more than compensated for this. No photograph or video can do it justice; nor can words describe the experience of seeing it, of hearing it from miles away, of feeling its quaking bass through the soles of one’s feet. It is still the most extraordinary place I’ve ever been. If you’re at work, put in some earbuds or close your door. Then, mute the video and start the audio file I’ve embedded below it. Finally, play the video on a full screen. You’ll thank me later.
We headed west for the Kazangula border post and crossed into Botswana. By then, I expected that things would only get worse in Zimbabwe, and they did. A few years later, amid rising inflation and unemployment, a pro-democracy opposition movement arose. Mugabe blamed the few remaining white farmers for supporting the opposition, appealed to racial hatred, and sent his war veterans out on a campaign of intimidation, confiscation, and murder that drove almost all them into exile. Without one of its main sources of foreign exchange — tobacco exports — Zimbabwe’s economy collapsed. A country that had been a major food exporter slipped into famine. As in North Korea, the regime used the famine to consolidate its hold on power.
The government’s most pervasive form of intimidation is also its most effective: the denial of food. While international aid groups try to feed Zimbabweans in rural areas, city folk must buy their maize and wheat from the sole distributor—the Grain Marketing Board. In order to get food they are often forced to produce a ruling-party membership card or to chant such slogans as “Long live Robert Mugabe!,” “Down with whites!,” and “Down with Morgan Tsvangirai!” Last year the former speaker of the parliament, Didymus Mutasa, stated, “We would be better off with only six million people, with our own people who support the liberation struggle. We don’t want these extra people.” [Samantha Power, The Atlantic]
Mugabe finally ran out of other peoples’ money to
steal nationalize, with predictable results.
I don’t know what Zibabweans have to complain about, they’re all trillionaires pic.twitter.com/LSjUiKpNVm
— David Burge (@iowahawkblog) November 15, 2017
Later, Zimbabwe gave up on its national currency and adopted the U.S. dollar (by which time, Mugabe and his top cronies, including his wife and The Crocodile, were blocked out of the dollar system for political repression and stealing elections). Apparently, no one in Mugabe’s government knew about Gresham’s Law. As soon as the banks had U.S. dollars, Zimbabweans rushed to withdraw and hoard them. When the government rationed withdrawals, people slept in the streets near banks just get to the teller’s window before the cash ran out each morning. Last year, the government printed low-denomination “bond notes” pegged to the dollar. Two months ago, a dollar bond note was worth just 80 U.S. cents, and the government threatened to arrest merchants who charged higher bond note prices.
Zimbabwe lost plenty to Robert Mugabe — three million people, at least half of its economy, and 95 percent of its jobs — but at least it still has North Korea. In recent years, Mugabe sold the Pyongyang Zoo two baby elephants (at $10,000 each) and other animals. He sent his congratulations for North Korea’s missile tests. Other commercial ties to Pyongyang may or may not have been strictly legal (see pages 16 and 24). Mugabe even chose the now-U.N. designated Mansudae Overseas Projects Group to build a statue of Joshua Nkomo for $5 million. Zimbabweans who remembered North Korea’s role in the massacre of Nkomo’s alleged supporters were outraged. In September, the U.N. Panel of Experts asked Harare to come clean on its dealings with Mansudae and threatened to designate the local companies that dealt with it. Shortly before Mugabe’s overthrow, the government promised to “investigate.”
You don’t have to embrace the Crocodile to see his coup as a potential opportunity to influence events for the better. The new regime has an interest in delivering a better standard of living. To deliver that, it needs foreign investors to return, and to induce investors to return, it must first reassure them that it won’t confiscate their investments, and that Zimbabwe will be safe and stable. Investors will want Harare to get sanctions lifted and avoid doing anything to invite more of them. That gives the U.S., Japan, Britain, and Europe leverage. We can send humanitarian aid, offer technical help to get industry back on its feet, and dangle the prospect of improved trade relations. In exchange, we should demand economic, political, and legal reforms. We should also demand the expulsion of the North Koreans and (as UNSCR 1718 requires) the seizure of any property of designated entities like Mansudae.
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The limits to Zimbabwe’s utility as an analogy to North Korea should be obvious. Mugabe could never build a personality cult like Kim Il-sung did. Zimbabwe’s British parliamentary system and judiciary retain enough self-respect to maintain their procedural roles. The elites can travel abroad or emigrate. Last year, there were large anti-Mugabe protests. The state press gives North Korea’s a run for its money, but state censorship of opposition media has relaxed in recent years, and Zimbabwean newspapers and websites reflect a variety of viewpoints.
Still, most Zimbabweans may be more isolated than this evidence suggests. Although Zimbabwe claims a high literacy rate, many of its poor still have only a primary school education. The economic crisis drove many teachers out of the country. Outside the cities, few people speak English. High unemployment means that few of people have meaningful access to uncensored media or the time to consume it. Mugabe might have concluded that so few people would read the opposition press that relaxing censorship posed little real risk to his rule. And in any event, no vote could ever restrain him.
So, despite the limitations of Zimbabwe as an analogy, does Mugabe’s fall offer any lessons for North Korea watchers? I think it does, despite those limitations.
1. Engagement with Pyongyang only ends well for Pyongyang. It does not end well for foreign investors, for gullible reporters, for South Koreans, or for Africans. It never changes Pyongyang for the better, and sooner or later, it infects the engager with Pyongyang’s repressive and corrupt ways. Africans should remember Zimbabwe’s experience, where Pyongyang’s influence cost thousands of innocent Africans their lives.
2. A change of government will end as well or as badly as the political culture it arises from. The unaccountable, statist, and Maoist ideology of the ZANU-PF made its descent into Big Man totalitarianism, corruption, and famine inevitable, just as Seretse Khama’s commitment to openness, democracy, and free markets helped the desert country of Botswana, Zimbabwe’s neighbor to the west, achieve the highest Human Development Index in sub-Saharan Africa, including highly industrialized South Africa.
Like Botswana, Zimbabwe has large deposits of diamonds and platinum. Unlike Botswana, Zimbabwe’s deposits sit underutilized because of political risk, poor infrastructure, uneven energy supplies, and government meddling. In January, the government foreclosed on a swath of platinum leases. In May, it took control of the diamond mines (Mugabe and his cronies were already stealing the profits). Why does the “resource curse” afflict Zimbabwe and not Botswana? For the same reason it afflicts Angola, which has diamonds and oil, a much lower HDI, and a Marxist government. This does not bode well for Zimbabwe. Its statist kleptocracy won’t change as long as its government and people see confiscation and redistribution as the answer to whatever ails them. It needs a popular constituency for government accountability, individual rights, property rights, and the rule of law. That constituency won’t be built overnight.
For the same reason, a Choe Ryong-hae regime would probably behave like a muted form of the current one until a constituency arises to demand a less confiscatory and more accountable government. The question is whether the downfall of Kim Jong-un would unleash changes that would allow such a constituency to form. My sense is that North Koreans have a far better-developed sense of what they’re against than of what they’re for. Of course, there are things we could do to help change that. It’s all a question of resources, time, will, and vision.
3. To have an enduring influence on events, one must have an enduring influence on a people.
4. Once a tyrant falls, the flow of history seldom confines itself to the channels laid out by those who engineer it. Revolutions become what they unleash. They tend to unleash grievances of sect, race, class, and tribe because tyrannies incubate those grievances. Spain’s coup in 1936 unleashed class grievances; the 2003 invasion of Iraq unleashed sectarian grievances; and the 2011 popular uprising in Syria unleashed grievances of sect, tribe, and ideology. In each case, civil war followed. The ZANU and ZAPU radicalized rural Zimbabweans during a brutal civil war. Mugabe maintained his power (and destroyed Zimbabwe’s economy) by exploiting racial, tribal, and class grievances that Mnangagwa will not easily contain. The people have taken to the streets, and he has much to lose if he turns his guns on them.
5. It takes force to oust a tyrant. Mugabe maintained the appearance of democracy, but this was a sham. By the time his popularity waned, his control over the army was secure and the opposition wasn’t a real threat to him. When the people voted against him, he falsified the results. When they didn’t support his new constitution, he ignored the result. His place was secure as long as the generals’ interests aligned with his own. He would have died in office if he hadn’t tried to pass them over and install his wife as his successor.
6. Tyrants alienate their generals at their own peril. A North Korea watcher might cast an cast an envious glance at how a succession struggle between Grace Mugabe and the Crocodile — and a suspicious case of food poisoning — escalated into a rift and rumors of a purge, and may have forced the hands of the army and the war veterans. I give Kremlinology sourced to Korea’s National Intelligence Service only an even chance of being true, but NIS-sourced reports over the last two weeks claim that Kim Jong-un has either reprimanded, demoted, or purged two of his top minions, Hwang Pyong-so and Kim Won-hong, possibly at the instigation of Choe Ryong-hae. (Two years ago, Choe was also reported to have been purged, only to return stronger than ever, so take the new reports with a grain of salt.) There may also be a wider “inspection” of the military underway. True or not, Hwang and Kim (and Choe) saw what happened to Jang Song-thaek. They face far higher stakes than The Crocodile, whether they take the risk of moving against Kim Jong-un or wait patiently for their turn to face the guns.
7. No single factor brings a tyrant down by itself. Rhodesia might have survived sanctions, but it could not survive the combination of diplomatic isolation, oil sanctions, an arms embargo, declining tourist revenue, Chinese and Soviet support for ZANU and ZAPU, and the collapse of colonial governments all around it. Mugabe’s demise resulted from a combination of self-inflicted economic wounds, capital flight, foreign sanctions, diplomatic isolation, an exodus of the educated, and a failure to plan an orderly succession despite his advanced age. In each case, a small ruling elite acted in its own interests after concluding that the status quo was unsustainable. In each case, the elites sought to engineer a controlled descent to protect their own interests. Historically, more of these plotters crash more than land.
8. A resistance movement that cannot defeat a state militarily can still defeat it diplomatically, economically, and thus politically, by denying it essential external support, and by breaking or dividing the resolve of its oligarchy. Such was the case with the ZANU and ZAPU guerrilla war, and with the Nicaraguan insurgency, which forced a free election that brought a democratic opposition to power.
The best plausible outcome for North Korea may well be a coup d’etat. It is both a paradox and historically natural that liberating change can begin when a cabal of ruthless and undemocratic men seizes power. This happens when they conclude that the tyrant whose bidding they’ve done is leading them to ruin or represents a threat to their survival. As with the Soviet Union in 1991, they may think he’s changing too much, too fast. As some historians now suspect of Stalin’s demise, the plotters may feel that they’re next to be purged. As with Rhodesia, they may see that sanctions are depriving them of the means to feed the soldiers, police, and civil servants; and to maintain control of the countryside. As with South Africa in 1990, they may feel the world is closing in — that the loss of exterior financial and diplomatic support, combined with the spread of subversive information, is costing it the support of both the elites and the downtrodden. And if we can see evidence of a constituency for change outside Pyongyang, surely the crocodiles can see it, too.
In taking the risk of removing Kim Jong-un, the crocodiles could unleash forces that would overflow the confines of their own ambitions. We should hope so. They aren’t any less tyrannical or ruthless than Kim Jong-un, but they might be less impulsive and more pragmatic, and won’t have the awe of dynastic rule behind them. The greater the external pressures and internal demands for change, the more pragmatic they’re likely to be. We should also be ready to be pragmatic, including by offering assurances that in a reunified Korea, they would be given some degree of clemency for their crimes and their children would have promising futures. Elements of this may be difficult to accept, but it may be the only way.
The right policies and the right information strategies can do much to catalyze these sentiments. To argue that any one element of that policy (information operations, sanctions, or diplomatic isolation) will not do it alone is as true — and as irrelevant — as arguing that a case of food poisoning did not bring down Robert Mugabe. Pyongyang’s military strength can no longer mask its political and financial weaknesses. Those are the weaknesses we should seek to exploit.