The North Korean Model

5 June 2010


I would like everyone to raise their hand who would like to see their country follow the North Korean Model of development… you know, “Juché” (or “Chuch’e”), “Kim Il Sungism,” nuclear brinkmanship, and all those glittering generalities about self-reliance. Ah! I see that the generals of Burma have all raised their hands. Let’s give the generals a round of applause for ensuring the poverty, isolation, and misery of the people living under their rule!

Kim Jong Il: an inspiration to the dictatorial community the world over.

The BBC has reported that the Burmese military regime is seeking to build nuclear weapons (Burma ‘trying to build nuclear weapon’). The BBC story even quoted the Norway-based broadcaster Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) as explicitly claiming the Burmese generals are following the model of North Korea. While this is merely the journalistic equivalent of hearsay, we need not have access to any inside information to see that this is the “natural” evolution of the ideology and ambitions of the Burmese generals.

We already had evidence of the Burmese generals’ megalomania in the building of a new capital city, Naypyidaw, at Pyinmana. This is another classic strategy of tyranny. There is also the predictable socializing within a bubble of sycophants and well-connected businessmen who have become wealthy because of monopolies maintained by political favor. The marriage of General Than Shwe’s daughter is said to have been catered by Asia World Co. Ltd., Burma’s biggest conglomerate headed by notorious drug lord Lo Hsing Han, while Burmese tycoon Tay Za’s Htoo Trading Company paid for many of the other arrangements. Even more predictably, there is the maintenance of a disproportionately large military, with the regime using special privileges to members of the military in order to curry favor and ensure loyalty.

Burmese regime cronies Lo Hsing Han and Tay Za.

Nuclear weapons, useless as they have become because of their “untouchable” status as weapons that trigger an unacceptable escalation, are perceived to guarantee impunity. In fact, this is not true. Many nuclear-armed nation-states find their options for acting constrained to a surprising degree of detail by various political factors, both domestic and international. But the dream of impunity dies hard. It has been said that power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. In the same spirit it could be observed that impunity corrupts, absolute impunity corrupts absolutely. And this is precisely what fascinates (or seems to fascinate) the contemporary dictator: the possibility of absolute impunity. The tyrant hears the Siren song of absolutism and cannot tear himself away. As a consequence, he pilots the ship of state directly toward the song of the Sirens and ultimately runs aground on the rocks, with the result being national shipwreck.

To be sure, North Korea has demonstrated a truly remarkable degree of impunity, and the world community continues to tolerate if not appease the regime. Most recently, if not most outrageously, North Korea almost certainly was the culprit in the sinking of the Cheonan, in which 46 lives were lost. The South Korean establishment bent over backward trying not to blame the North Koreans, but evidence continues to mount, especially since the sunken ship has been raised from the deep. If you can sink another country’s naval vessel without consequences, what else might a dictator contemplate? For this reason alone one might be able to understand why aspiring dictators might look to North Korea as their model.

Goose stepping soldiers are always a favorite accoutrement of dictators.

As incomprehensible as it is that any political leaders would be willing to impoverish and isolate the peoples over which they rule, even for the dubious reward of unmerited adulation, we must make an attempt to understand it, because it is the way of the world. In The Imperative of Regime Survival I made a first effort in this direction. In Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Worse Than War (which I have mentioned in this forum a couple of times) the author emphasizes the difficulty of understanding how and why large numbers of people can be recruited into active participation in genocide, as most people are sickened even to hear about such things, much less participate in them. It is a difficult problem, and as interesting as Goldhagen’s book is, I don’t think that he was able to answer the question, though it is to his merit that he framed the question as strongly as he did.

They REALLY know how to goose step in the DPRK.

For similar reasons, I cannot explain how or why large sectors of the populations of nation-states cooperate in endeavors that ultimately end in national ruin. I do not maintain that the question is essentially unanswerable, but an adequate answer would run to volumes and would, for the sake of thoroughness, have to visit many dark corners of the human mind. There is a large element of human perversity here, but there is also much that appears perverse at a distance but which when exposed to the light of observation and reason would betray its secrets rather more readily than we expect. Such an investigation would be a worthwhile undertaking, but we will not embark upon it today.

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One Response to “The North Korean Model”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by katia amore, Nick Nielsen. Nick Nielsen said: Burma pursues the North Korean model of development: Good luck! […]

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