Economic reforms in NK forecasted to accompany political liberalization

It is too early to say with any certainty, but appears increasingly likely that Kim Jong Un and his advisors are going to initiate reforms in North Korea, generally in emulation of the well-tested and very successful Chinese model. Of course, the major emphasis is on transformation of industrial management and property relations, or to put it more bluntly, the slow introduction of capitalist market relations in what once used to be the world’s most perfect specimen of a Stalinist economy. However, political reforms seem to be almost unavoidable as well.

If the experiences of China, Vietnam and other reformist regimes are any guide, we might expect reforms to be accompanied by political liberalization. It is not widely realized in the West, but Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization reforms in the Soviet Union in 1950s were accompanied by what might have been the greatest reduction in the level of government repression which had ever occurred in world history without regime change. In the late Stalin era, the Soviet Union had about 1.2 million political prisoners, but throughout 1960-85, the number would never exceed 2,000, and was usually significantly lower. Post-Mao China also saw a comparable reduction in the level of state terror. So, we can expect that similar things will happen in North Korea as well if and when it starts reforming itself.

However, well-meaning North Korean reformers are likely to be disappointed by domestic and international reaction to liberalization. If the experience of the world’s worst dictatorships is any guide to North Korea’s future, one might expect that this liberalization will make the human rights situation in North Korea appear to be worse, not better, than before.

This sad paradox can be best illustrated by the Soviet and Chinese experiences. In the late 1930s the Soviet Union was arguably the most repressive police state the world had ever seen. Nonetheless, it had a great number of admirers among the ‘progressive’ Western intelligentsia, who saw it as a brave experiment and denied reports about mass executions and wide use of torture as “reactionary propaganda.”

Suffice to say that Jean-Paul Sartre, a beacon for Western intellectuals, accused publically one of the first political defectors from the USSR post-World War two. The defector was Kravchenko, and he was accused by Sartre and his followers of being a CIA agent and also of fabricating the existence of prison camps in Stalin’s USSR.  Fifteen years earlier, in the early 1930s George Bernard Shaw, another intellectuals’ sage and Nobel prize winner, assured all that the Soviet population was well fed. George Bernard Shaw visited the Soviet Union right at the height of the Ukrainian famine which ended up killing a few million farmers.

Indeed, we can pour scorn on the silly statements of Western intellectuals about the Soviet Union, but we must also keep in mind that at the time there was precious little evidence to show the real state of affairs in the Soviet Union. Since the Soviet state was exceptionally powerful, it could easily censor all information about prison camps, executions of ‘class enemies’ and starving farmers. No foreigner would be allowed to visit areas hit by famine, let alone prison camps. And no Soviet citizen would dare to pen a private letter, let alone an article where such unpleasant facts would even be hinted at.

The 1950s liberalization changed everything. Survivors of the camps returned to their native towns and villages, and soon were to discover that they could share their stories of torture and abuse with relative impunity. Some of them even penned memoirs which were in due time smuggled out of the country and published. To a large extent it was possible because the authors of such texts came to understand that in the new situation they were unlikely to be killed or even imprisoned again for telling such stories.

Moreover, genuine dissent began to develop out of these new conditions in the 1960s. The overwhelming majority of people who went to prison under Stalin were apolitical (innocent bystanders, if you like) or even sincere supporters of the communist government. From the 1960s onward, though, there was a significant and growing number of people who aired their contrarian views on political topics. These people still risked imprisonment, but unlike the earlier era, prison terms were relatively short and most of them were not arrested immediately. They could talk to foreign journalists and spread the word about unseemly parts of Soviet life which had, in the times of Joseph Stalin, been safely hidden from the outside world.

As a result, Western observers in the 1960s were confronted with a tidal wave of revelations about police terror, judicial torture and mass executions in the Soviet Union under Stalin, as well as evidence of what appeared to be grossly non-democratic practices in the contemporary Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Overwhelmed by this evidence, the Western left admitted the obvious, and turns their backs on the Leninist model of socialism.

Some of the starry-eyed intellectuals, including the indefatigable Jean-Paul Sartre, switched their admiration to Mao’s regime in China. At the time, China was experiencing the most murderous part of its contemporary history, but effective police control ensured that the ugly picture remained safely hidden from the outsider’s prying eyes. However in due course, in the late 1970s, China also had its relaxation which produced a great number of exposes about Mao era crimes and also much disappointment among Western far leftists.

It seems highly plausible that North Korea will follow suit. If in the next few years it becomes a more liberal state, we are likely to learn much more about the human rights abuses of the Kin Jong il and, especially, Kim Il Sung era – and these abuses rival, and perhaps exceed, those of Mao’s China and Stalin’s Russia. So far, only a couple of dozen of former prison camp inmates from North Korea have managed to escape overseas, and most of them prefer (understandably) to remain silent, being afraid for their lives and the lives of their loved ones in the North. Nearly all of these people come from relatively mild (by North Korean standards) prison camps, and so they were not subjected to the worst excesses of the regime.

Things will inevitably change, if reforms go far enough. The number of former prison camp inmates who manage to escape the country will be counted in the scores of thousands, or perhaps the tens of thousands. These people, and perhaps residents of North Korea itself, will write about their experiences. As a result, it will become impossible to deny evidence of gross human rights abuses.

At present, a significant part of the South Korean left still plays the same role as John Paul Sartre and George Bernard Shaw, dismissing reports of the camps as malicious propaganda, or rather propaganda-driven exaggerations. Such assertions will become unsustainable in the face of a flood of evidence. And this bound to have a serious impact on the how the North Korean regime is perceived on the left flank of South Korean politics (the right has no illusions about the Kim family), as well as on the relations between two Korean states.

One should also expect the emergence of genuine dissent, and perhaps even an independent labour movement inside North Korea. Dissatisfied North Koreans, of course, exist now, but they remain silent or disappear overnight without trace. These unknown would-be North Korean dissenters do not have voices or faces yet.

In a more liberal North Korea, we are likely to know much more about the victims of the regime – even though (in fact because) these victims will be treated with much greater lenience. They will start looking like human beings, with their families and their personal histories for all to see. We will know why they were arrested – like, say, an attempt to reduce the working day at some sweat shop from 14 to merely 10 hours, followed by an unsuccessful strike. Once again, such evidence if starts to spread in large quantities will become undeniable and have a massive impact on South Korean society, especially its left-leaning part.

This is probably not an encouraging story, but a long time ago Alexis de Tocqueville noticed that for a bad government it is always safer to remain bad and that attempts to improve things may backfire. And for outsiders, a significant improvement in the human rights situation in the North might appear to be all too similar to a drastic deterioration in the situation.

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