North Korea – Markets and Military Rule

North Korea_Markets and Military Rule

Author(s):  Hazel Smith

ISBN:           978-0-521-72344-2

Publisher: Cambridge University Press

Year:           2015

Price:          $32.99

Reviewed by Francis Schortgen, Associate Professor, University of Mount Union, U.S.A.

Reclusive, unpredictable and oppressive, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) remains, to borrow from Winston Churchill’s description of the Soviet Union in the late 1930s, a modern-day “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Given its periodic saber-rattling and belligerent rhetoric, coupled with its ongoing nuclear weapons program, it should not be surprising that military and security concerns define the primary analytical framework for studying North Korea. This securitization paradigm, however, has done comparatively little to enhance our understanding of the DPRK’s domestic dynamics in concrete, adequate and reliable ways (Smith, 2000). Much of the prevailing DPRK discourse in recent years appears to have been dominated by efforts to assess the short- to medium-term prospects and predict the timing, nature and dynamic of what is conventionally assumed to be the impending collapse of the North Korean regime. The contextual deficiencies and analytical shortcomings of these efforts, meanwhile, have been so glaring as to lead one notable North Korea scholar to openly wonder about the statute of limitations of consistently inaccurate predictions of collapse (Cumings, 2011)

As a contribution to the ongoing debate and speculation of the DPRK’s future, North Korea: Markets and Military Rule dismisses the prevailing clichés that define much of the contemporary North Korea narrative as simplistic analytical frames that merely perpetuate a “distorted and misleading picture of North Korea and North Koreans in the 21st century” (p. 10). The fundamental aim of Smith’s work is to elucidate the substantive changes that North Korean society has experienced as a result of a gradual and expanding process of ‘marketisation from below’ since the 1990s. The author succeeds in this effort by offering a deeply contextualized perspective of the evolving nature and underlying dynamics of North Korean society from the days of Kim Il Sung to the present.

In short, North Korea: Markets and Military Rule is meant to be a corrective to much of the conventional analysis based on “tired and unhelpful stereotyping that characterizes so much of the analysis of North Korean politics and economics” (p. 4), and a challenge to studies grounded in the prevailing analytical frameworks and conceptual lenses to mount a more concerted effort to analyze, explain, and understand the “Real North Korea” (Lankov, 2013). In this regard, Smith’s painstaking illustration of social and economic transformation complements an earlier study that argued the post-totalitarian nature of North Korean politics (McEachern, 2010). In both instances, the myth of a monolithic North Korean polity has begun to fade under the pressures of contextual evidence and insights.

As a point of departure, Smith begins her narrative with a historically-grounded exposition of the formation and nature of a distinctively North Korean national identity. Although it may not be readily apparent to the reader at the outset, the notion of national identity, as the author maintains (and returns to at the end of the book) is indispensable to explaining the degree of lingering national cohesion despite the documented failure of the North Korean regime to achieve a “monolithic unity of state and society” (p. 126). Indeed, the very efforts marshalled towards the “maintenance of a member of the Kim family as official Leader of the state” (p. 65) are unmistakably steeped in conceptions of national identity and nationalist credentials acquired over the course of a long-standing anti-colonial struggle.

In a narrative that extends from Kim Il-Sungist era (early 1950s-early 1990s) to the military-first era (late 1990s-present) governments, Smith paints a detailed and compelling picture of social and economic transformation. In Part II (“The Rise and Fall of Kim Il Sungism”) of the book, Smith proceeds to systematically outline and demonstrate how policies and actions pursued by the DPRK regime in the name of “necessity of monolithic ideological leadership” (p. 117). These included, among others, a rigorous emphasis on ideological education and revolutionary discipline as well as unwavering commitment to mass mobilization efforts. Originating from a wartime template, mass mobilization and ‘revolutionary discipline’ may have been appropriate as a temporary practice of state-building in post-war North Korea. Yet, they gradually became a permanent fixture of the North Korean polity in a deliberate effort to cement the “legitimacy, wisdom and exclusivity of Kim Il-Sung’s leadership” (p. 103) and to ensure that the government become a mere transmission belt for the party.

As Smith convincingly documents, the institutionalization of Kim Il Sungism took clear precedence over attempts to build an viable and sustainable economic infrastructure. Considering the considerable energy with which the regime extolled the political benefits of ideological education––even going so far as to maintain that “ideological education was as important as technical solutions to economic problems” (p. 102), while simultaneously and consistently criticizing the extent of bureaucratism––the parallels with the ‘red versus experts’ debate that had taken hold in Maoist China in the 1950s and 1960s appear all too real.

Moreover, consumed by an obsession to maintain tight political and ideological control over its population, the DPRK leadership failed to recognize that mass mobilization efforts do not so much sustain as undermine economic development over time. The DPRK in effect embraced what Smith calls a “Sisyphus” economic model, all the while remaining surprisingly oblivious or indifferent to the many inherent flaws that all but guaranteed economic decline and collapse. By the early 1990s, rather than confront the harsh realities of ideological excesses and economic mismanagement and shifting emphasis from ‘politics in command’ to ‘economics in command’––as China had done in the early post-Mao years under the direction of Deng Xiaoping––the DPRK regime simply “retrenched around the priority of regime survival” (p. 208). The debilitating societal dislocation, made worse by a devastating famine that ravaged North Korea in the early 1990s, laid bare the breadth and depth of “dissonance between government pronouncements and edict and day-to-day reality” (p. 224). And with that, Kim Il Sungism had effectively run its course.

In Part III, Smith proceeds to shed a clarifying light on the nascent marketization dynamics that were to emerge in North Korea’s socio-economic sphere in response to the very real strategic inflection point––ideological and economic––that the subsequent military-first era governments could not possibly avoid anymore.

Depicting the onset of marketization as a default mechanism, Smith takes the reader on an extensive journey to elucidate the effects on the Party, law and order, armed forces, and the family. Despite military-first era governments’ attempts to depict de facto marketization as merely a ‘temporary necessity’ rather than to acknowledge and accept the need for a “fundamental shift in economic philosophy” (p. 247), the trend of ‘marketization from below’ has shown remarkable staying power. In fact, the Kim Il Sung-era policy of ‘self-reliance from above’ inevitably started giving way to a ‘self-reliance from below’ dynamic in response to long-standing governmental ineffectiveness in economic matters and continued prioritization of regime security over economic policy. With local officials justifying the ‘marketization from below’ as being in line with long-standing government self-reliance (juche) propaganda – thus effectively transforming the Party, at least at the lower levels, into the “major vehicle for the marketisation of North Korea” (p. 220), the stage appeared set for marketization to begin making an indelible impact. Among the most notable might well be the nascent marketization of the social structure in light of the fact that the relationships of North Korea’s young generation with the government, as Smith argues, differ fundamentally from those of their parents and grandparents,.

The singular explanatory value of North Korea: Markets and Military Rule lies in the simple fact that it provides a richly contextual perspective of the subtler and consequential dynamics unfolding in North Korea’s domestic socio-economic space; dynamics that are by and large missed in much of contemporary analysis. As the author succinctly concludes, “Instead of the victims or villains that populate the standard clichés, we should see North Koreans for what they are: the agents of change in North Korea” (p. 332). Given their perceived ability to induce change within the system, the arguments presented in this book beget an obvious follow-on question: can North Koreans also be seen as agents of change of the nature and structure of the regime as well?

Even though she does not pretend to suggest a deterministic connection between ‘marketization from below’ and regime change, Smith does acknowledge that “political change in North Korea is much more likely to come about from within than from an external intervention against which the government could mobilise nationalist sentiment in its defense” (p. 330). At present, there is no telling how and when––or even if––the current wave of marketization might transform into a serious political challenge. Given its strong ideological opposition to radical ‘marketisation from above’, all the while tacitly accepting de facto ‘marketization from below’, the regime appears to remain confident in its ability to command “residual loyalty to the state” on the grounds of national identity. With that observation, the rationale for beginning this study with an elaboration of national identity as an analytical framework comes into clearer focus. For as Smith argues, “[T]his sense of northern identity is a tangible factor in understanding why many North Koreans continue to hold ambivalent views about their leadership and country” (pp. 331).

The author may not have elaborated about how or why ‘marketization from below’ could (or could not) grow into a challenge of the regime itself. But it should also be noted that this was not the primary research focus and, as such, this should not be seen as a fundamental criticism or shortcoming of what by all accounts is an impeccable researched and richly contextualized piece of scholarship. If anything, it in fact speaks directly to the uniquely analytical relevance that the author’s detailed and compelling exposition of marketization dynamics will have for any future scholarly attempts to ascertain the prospects of regime change in North Korea. North Korea: Markets and Military Rule provides a welcome and authoritative perspective on actual dynamics within North Korea at a time when, its urgency notwithstanding, analyses that offer a more nuanced and balanced understanding of the real North Korea remain far and few between.

Cumings, B. “Why did so many influential Americans think North Korea would collapse?” In S. H. Kim, T. Roehrig & B. Seliger (eds.), 2011, The Survival of North Korea: Essays on Strategy, Economics, and International Relations, pp. 44-63. McFarland & Co.
Lankov, A. 2013. The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
McEachern, P. 2010. Inside the Red Box: North Korea’s Post-Totalitarian Politics. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
Smith, H. (2000). “Bad, mad, sad or rational actor? Why the ‘securitization’ paradigm makes for poor policy analysis of North Korea.” International Affairs, 76 (3), 593-617.

Suggested citation:

Francis Schortgen (2015), Review of “North Korea – Markets and Military Rule”, by Hazel Smith, East Asian Integration Studies, Volume 8, no. 3,