The long view and N. Korea
Apprehension hangs in the air as Korea starts 2012. The sudden death of Kim Jong-il in the closing days of 2011 put worries about North Korea back on the table at a time of great uncertainty in the world economy.
The year holds the potential for dramatic political changes with National Assembly elections in April and a presidential election in December. As a result, Korea will spend the year with intense focus on domestic, North Korean, and international issues at the same time.
Sudden changes in North Korea produce a torrent of predictions about collapse of the regime. Some predict a rebellion, others a coup and civil war, while others appeal to the inevitability of freedom and democracy. The problem with predictions about North Korea is the same as predictions about other events taking place: journalism in the future tense is speculation, not reporting.
A more constructive approach to thinking about North Korea is to channel the French historian Fernand Braudel and take the ``longue durée," or long view, of history. The long view focuses on the conditions and structures that move history over long spans of time.
In applying the long view to North Korea, we need to think about how political change has occurred in other societies. Several important conditions relevant to North Korea emerge:
Political change follows economic change. Economic groups and classes rise and fall slowly as they interact with new ideas, resources, and technologies. The rise of the merchant class and the decline of the samurai in Edo-period Japan, for example, slowly weakened the Tokugawa governments control over society, which helped create the conditions for the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Similarly, the rise of a merchant class in Italy and Northern Europe gave rise to the Renaissance that began in the 14th century.
In looking at North Korea, then, we need to think about which groups and classes are rising and which are falling. Few outsiders know the contours of North Korean society well, but we know that increased trade with China and the spread of private markets in the 2000s has created a nascent merchant class. Observers of North Korea often argue that this class prefers the status quo, but history suggests that, although the merchant class rarely leads change, it shifts its loyalty and embraces the new political structure quickly.
Political change requires facilitators. Rebellions and revolutions do not happen without an alternative built around some degree of organization. Again, the example of the Meiji Restoration is apt. Fearing that the weak Tokugawa government would turn Japan into a colony of the West, young revolutionaries from peripheral areas gradually united behind the cause of making a modern state with the emperor as a strong political symbol. Violent revolutions such as the American Revolution in 1775, the French Revolution in 1789 and the Russian Revolution in 1917 would not have happened without leaders who offered an alternative vision to the status quo.
The problem with North Korea is that we do not know whether there are any groups working underground to facilitate change. Nor do we know what alternatives they may be proposing. We know more about the military and the party, and we know that they supported Kim Jong-il and are supporting his son Kim Jong-un.
Political change follows new contacts. New contacts, both inside and outside a society, create new perspectives that lead to new ideas. To return to Edo-period Japan, American Commodore Matthew Perry's demand that Japan open itself to trade in 1853 made the Japanese realize how vulnerable they were, which provided the stimulation for anti-Tokugawa reform movements. Fast forward to 2011 when Facebook and Twitter helped anti-Mubarak activists in Egypt exchange information and organize until they were shut down at the peak of the demonstrations.
North Korea understands the role of contacts in providing impetus for change, which is why it tries so hard to limit contacts with the outside world. That North Korea remains the most secretive society in the world shows how successful the regime has been at restricting contact. The spread of private markets in the 2000s, however, has made that task more difficult and information about the outside world is getting in.
The above conditions suggest that political change in North Korea will come after further development of the merchant class and increased contact with the outside world. Such developments will stir thoughts of alternatives to the status quo that will eventually gravitate to a facilitated alternative. Changes in the 2000s have planted the seeds for such change, but the seeds have yet to germinate.
The long view, in turn, suggests that the seeds of change in North Korea will indeed germinate as they have throughout history, but that we do not know when. The question for South Korea, then, is how its interaction with North Korea affects the seeds. To that, nature provides a simple answer: water and sunlight.
The writer is a professor at the Department of Korean Language Education at Seoul National University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.