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Leave it to China
By Daniel M. Ryan
North Korea is a real enigma. It flip-flops between psychotically bellicose and laughably klutzy. Last Saturday’s cult-of-personality celebration of Kim Il Sung’s 105th birthday, heralded by threats of another nuclear test, ended with a North Korean ICBM-type missile ending up in the drink after exploding. If North Korea had a shadow of a free press, that splodey-test would have been a huge embarrassment to the leadership.
In a nutshell, that bellicose-to-screw-up cycle sums up why North Korea is so difficult to get a handle on. Not unlike the Arab nations, the North Korean leadership has a habit of making scary-sounding threats that are followed by little or nothing. Sometimes, they pull off something dangerous – like last year’s underground nuclear-bomb test that rattled even China. But surely enough, they fumble the ball so badly that the leadership looks once again like a conglomerate of clowns. Add to all this the notorious cult of personality, so alien that we who were born in freedom find it very difficult to take it seriously. That’s the reason why Kim Jong Un has been so easy to make fun of.
At the abstract study-hall level, there’s a case to be made for leaving North Korea alone because it makes for a superb bad example for the world. Officially Marxist-Leninist, although its Communism is adulterated by its doctrine of autarchy, it arguably has the worst human-rights record of all nations. Since it spans the days when human-rights floggers slowly lost their pro-Communist bias, the Wikipedia article on its history reads like a choppy mishmash of pro-Communist propaganda, straight fact and anti-Communist muckraking. La Wik’s entry neatly illustrates the limitation of its normally-reliable guidelines: if a tree falls in the forest, Wikipedia can’t say so unless a “reliable source” records its fall. Even you taking a picture of the tree, proving that it did fall, ain’t good enough: Wik counts that as “original research.” Since the “reliable sources” of the late 1940s turned a hawk’s eye to Syngman Rhee’s South Korea but an obediently blind eye to Kim Il Sung’s North Korea, La Wik gives the impression that North Korea went about its Communizing with little terrorization and that South Korea was worse. So it’s an exercise for the head-scratching reader to wonder why North Korea turned into a godawful terror state for No Reason Whatsoever.
Oddly, North Korea is unique amongst Communist countries in that it has no visible samizdat or dissident network. What few facts we have about the place come from the few high-level defectors from it. Much of the data about its awfulness is inferential. We do know that its variant of Communism emphasizes “self-sufficiency” (Juche)and “military first” (Songun), and that there’s been some grudging tolerance of black-market activities to suture some of the worse wounds on the economy. But other than that, it’s an enigma. Even its bellicosity is questionable when paired with those screw-ups.
But it’s a common-sensical, if counter-intuitive, bet that Un is a lot smarter than his clownish appearance lets on. As George Orwell informed us in 1984, a system governed by a loony ideology requires the self-controlled psychosis of doublethink. Even Big Brother has to practice doublethink: not because he’s worried about being thrown to the Gulag, but because he’s worried about setting an example. If he slacks off, it’s only a matter of time before the whole Inner Party goes wobbly. That’s why real-world Big Brothers like Nikita Khrushchev shifted from brutal cynicism to glaze-eyed mantras about the coming Communist Cornucopia and then back again. If you’re the top boss of a system governed by a crack-brained ideology that’s impossible to scale beyond a happy-clappy classroom or neighbourhood barbecue, you have to be a high-functioning partial psychotic. In Kim’s case, it means lapping up the cult-of-personality flattery but not letting it get to his head.
The North Korean system, psychotic though it is, would be surprisingly hard to dislodge. Its “military first” component has the fingerprints of someone who learned well the history of the Roman Empire. Surprisingly for a people whose identity came from successfully rebelling against a King, there was never any successful people’s rebellion against the Roman Empire even during its most predatory phase. Instead, Romans who reached their breaking points fled to the barbarian woods. Their mighty heritage notwithstanding, they knew that there was no way they could collectively defeat the very powerful legions. So, they took the “cowardly” way out and ran away. The lesson is clear: strong army, strong regime. Significantly, very significantly if you’re one of those who sees North Korea as a de facto absolute monarchy, Kim Jong Il gave his blessing for his sister to marry a North Korean army officer. The King does not give his blessing to a marriage of his sister to a cipher.
As noted above, there’s no hint of any active samizdat or resistance movement. This coheres with a picture of North Korean subjects as beaten down to the point where they slog along in drudgish compliance. It’s depressing to admit, but those people are too beaten down – too brainwashed, if you will – to be of any use in a war of liberation. When your spirit is broken to the point where you see slavery as your lot in life, you’ll sloggingly comply with any master. The idea that you’re a free person will be incomprehensible to you; you’ll believe in your bones that you were born to wear a saddle on your back. If U.S. troops liberate a North Korean village, they’ll find that the liberatees will look at them, blinkingly, as if spellbound. Either that, or cheer in a way that’s plainly servile (and will be all-but-indistinguishable from the servile cunning of a Nork agent.) It’s not a question of opportunism: the folks at the bottom have been too beaten down even for that. Like beaten-down prisoners, they’ll only show that they’re free people by escaping.
Therefore, any war plan that as much as hopes for the support of the North Korean people is an exercise in folly. Any would-be liberators will face the six-million-strong North Korean army and will find that the liberatees’ chief interest will be staying out of the way. If those poor souls do show some spine, it’ll be the same kind of spine that the Romans trapped in the late Empire showed: the spine to flee and make do in a new land.
That’s why China has an interest in propping the Kims up, even if North Korea is otherwise a pain in their necks. It’s a relic of the olden days of messianic Communism; the Chinese regime started moving away from those days decades ago. China is now a fast-growing system of authoritarian quasi-capitalism, with the socialist component resembling a nation-wide shakedown racket. Like any wise mafiosi, the Chinese government is careful to dole out as well as take in. As a result, the Chinese spirit is an odd combination of grit-your-teeth and open boosterism: the kind that brands a critic or government-numbers-skeptic as a buttinsky furriner who wishes China ill. This boosterism makes China amenable to buttering-up.
North Korea have moved beyond messianic Communism is a profoundly different way, one that undoubtedly makes the Chinese leadership see “li’l Kim” as embarrassing (or deeply amusing.)
Nonetheless, the Chinese leadership prop-up the Kims for a very hard-headed reason. If the North Korean regime become weakened, the spirit-crushed folks at the bottom will exert the only spine they can muster: getting the heck out. If that occurs, the two Chinese provinces adjoining North Korea will endure a refugee crisis much worse that the one Europe is groaning under. The only alternative, from the Chinese point of view, is to endure a unified Korea under a government that is not aligned with its interests. That geopolitical outcome will create a lot of heebie-jeebies for them.
The crucial takeaway is that the Chinese leadership does not love or admire Kim’s regime; like the proverbial marriage in haste, they put up with him. That means they do not have any emotional block against disciplining “little Kim” if he gets out of hand. They’ve already shown signs of losing patience. After North Korea’s nuclear test last year, which did cause earthquakes in China, they’ve increasingly shown signs that Kim has crossed the line. Despite the “self-sufficiency” credo, North Korea depends a lot on trade with China. The latter sent a significant message last February by cutting off their purchases of coal from the former. That surely hurt the North Korean economy.
Contra that embargo, which led to China buying coal from the United States, the Chinese government said last Thursday that its overall trade with North Korea has increased overall by a huge amount. That announcement was not a statement of solidarity. Given that China cut off coal to implement tougher United Nations sanctions, a better interpretation is that China is saying that it can turn the screws a lot tighter. This take coheres with China moving 150,000 troops to the North Korean border. They could have been placed there to deter a flood of refugee escapees in the event that they do turn the screws tighter, in addition to sending a message to Kim Jong Un that he has crossed the line.
President Trump is wise to delegate the task to the rulers of China. Because of the now-thin socialist tie and the fact that they’re neighbours, plus the fact that China has made something of a client state out of North Korea, the Chinese leadership knows a lot more about how North Korea ticks than any of us do. As explained above, a war of liberation is not feasible with a populace that’s been beaten down so badly that their only lunge of freedom is escape. China has shown so far that it’s going along with the U.N., and there’s good reason to infer that the Chinese leadership sees doing so to be in their own national interest. We need not extend trust to China so long as we trust in their national self-interest.
Daniel M. Ryan, as Nxtblg, is shepherding the independently-run Open Audi Initiative Prediction Market Shadowing Project. He has stubbornly assumed all the responsibility and blame for the workings and outcome of the project.