Hazel Smith’s North Korea: Markets and Military Rule

June 10, 2016 7:00 AM

Hazel Smith has written a sweeping book on North Korea that summarizes her long engagement with the country entitled—quite simply—North Korea: Markets and Military Rule. Despite our differences—on which more below—I am in fundamental agreement with the basics suggested by the title: that the country is some kind of hybrid family-military dictatorship—with all of the foreign policy implications that flow from that fact—and it is simultaneously a state socialist economy that is fraying badly as a result of ineluctable marketization processes. Much that we need to know about the country flows from these two fundamental facts and Smith’s account therefore places the emphasis on exactly the right issues.

Smith, who directs the International Institute of Korean Studies at the University of Central Lancashire, takes a long historical approach to the North Korean problem, drawing on an extraordinary range of outside sources and closer attention to North Korean writing than most of us have patience for. Her history is not just the standard postwar survey that is a tiring feature of the continuing parade of North Korea books. Rather, she begins with a fascinating chapter that summarizes long-simmering debates in the highly-politicized Southern and Northern historiography about the country. National myths are not limited to who fought the Japanese or the Americans, but which half of the peninsula is the true heir to the early Korean kingdoms. 

The book then works through the colonial era as the crucible of Kim Il Sung’s nationalism—along lines pioneered by Bruce Cumings—but with an important interpretive twist: that the Korean war was not simply the origin of the great division of the country, but the foundation for the peculiarly leaderist, totalizing and mobilizational approach to political organization that is the Kim dynasty’s hallmark. She provides a clear-eyed view of the disabilities of the state socialist model and its “intrinsic flaws” (Chapter Six) while noting the complex social stratification the model also entailed (Chapter Seven).

Smith’s interpretation of the famine is of interest to Marc Noland and me for obvious reasons, and I found little in the empirical material in the famine chapter with which to quarrel. The story is similar to that told in her earlier Hungry for Peace (2005) and our Famine in North Korea (2007). She discounts North Korea’s self-exculpatory claims about the weather and emphasizes the slow-moving response to the transformation and collapse of the Soviet Union and outright policy failures at home. The marketization process that these developments set in train—what we call “marketization from below” and she calls “marketization by default”—are spelled out in Chapter Nine around an organization that shows the reach of marketization into all components of the social structure, from the household to the party and army and to the realm of social norms. Later chapters extend the story by noting how North Korea is witnessing the worst of both state and market failures, resulting both in increasing inequality in social provision (Chapter Eleven) and in the social structure itself, where the nouveau riche with party links appear to be in the ascendant (Chapter Twelve).

Smith rightly traces the emergence of military-first politics to the famine period as the regime worried not only about the fraying domestic social order but the vulnerability of the country to outside attack. As she puts it in an apt conclusion to the chapter on military rule, it proved a tactical success—the regime survived—but a strategic failure as the country witnessed even further economic divergence from the South.

Two chapters on the country’s nuclear program tread somewhat more familiar ground, but with one particular twist to which I return: Smith places particular emphasis on how the human rights debate about the country has become deeply politicized, most notably in a long critique of the Commission of Inquiry process she provides in a separate piece for Critical Asian Studies. She closes with a chapter that reminds us that political and social change in North Korea is more likely to emanate from domestic political forces, although she argues strongly that a settlement of the nuclear issue would facilitate the process; in that regard, she comes down strongly on the side of a more forthcoming American diplomacy.

In sum, this is an excellent one-volume survey of North Korea, encompassing the full array of issues from the humanitarian and social to the nuclear question.

So where are the lines of controversy? Smith is known for a cleverly-titled 2000 essay called "Bad, Mad, Sad, or Rational Actor: Why the 'Securitisation’ Paradigm makes for Poor Policy Analysis of North Korea." The core point of the piece is that we are blinded by an array of caricatures that are of little use in understanding the country, and she sets up the very purpose of the book as an effort to dispel some of them. But Smith’s caricatures are themselves caricatures. Depending on exactly how they are cast there is in fact a case to be made for each of them.

The first caricature is that North Korea is “a military fearsome state that poses a serious military threat to its neighbors and to the world’s only superpower, the United States.” Yet most American analysts are perfectly aware of North Korea’s profound structural weaknesses. Nor do they—unlike politicians seeking to drum up business—think of the North Korean leadership as irrational or mad. The concerns are different. The very militarized nature of the North Korean political economy that Smith describes so well in fact generates a host of uncertainties and security externalities: proliferation activities, including in the Middle East; conventional probes such as those along the Northern Limit Line and in August of last year on the DMZ itself; the development of capabilities that could be destabilizing in crises; and if not irrationality then unpredictability. Moreover, North Korea creates uncertainties not only for the United States but for all of the countries in the region including its dominant patron in Beijing. Simply imagine a Northeast Asia with a reforming North Korea—even a communist one—willing to negotiate its weapons program and you can see how costly North Korea’s grand strategy is to its neighbors.

The second caricature Smith wants to dispel is that North Korea deliberately starves its people. Smith and Marc Noland and I have tussled over this issue before in a lengthy and heated back and forth in Asia Policy in 2008 that in my view still bears re-reading. For the record, Marc Noland and I state unambiguously in Famine in North Korea—and I quote—that “we find no evidence that particular segments of the population were deliberately starved, as was the case in the Ukraine under Stalin and Cambodia under Pol Pot…” But this misses the point: Smith’s own account provides extensive evidence that informational failures, lack of accountability and in the end the absence of human rights played a crucial role in the famine. Moreover, as she argues these factors help account for ongoing challenges to human security and in the stagnation the country has experienced; indeed, this appears to me to be a central theme of Smith’s work. Whether we should hold human rights over the head of the North Korean regime like a cudgel is a quite legitimate policy question. And whether North Korea looks better or worse than some other developing country on a particular metric can be debated. But neither of these debates subtract from the fundamentally political origins of North Korea’s economic and social failures that Smith herself traces.

Finally, Smith is intent on debunking the myth that North Korea is a criminal state. On the empirics, we actually agree with Smith that illicit activities have almost certainly attenuated, although largely because outside actors have actively sought to curtail them. And North Korea is hardly the only jurisdiction to be engaged in criminal activities. But the “criminal state” claim is in some ways a much broader one than Smith suggests: that a regime that is in no way checked or bounded by law at home is similarly likely to take a completely instrumental view of international law and convention as well. While this post was being written, my colleague Marc Noland commented on North Korea's passage of an anti-money laundering law, designed disingenuously to get into the good graces of the international financial community. Yet no sooner was this written than reports surfaced that North Korea is probably responsible for hacks on Asian banks which, in one case, resulted in a direct theft of $81 million from Bangladesh’s central bank (New York Times coverage here). If this is not a criminal state, what is?

On one final caricature, however, I am in complete agreement with Smith: that Orientalism is alive and well in both demonizing North Korea as a whole and in deploying tropes that do little to deepen our understanding of the country. In the long sweep of her narrative arc, Smith manages to capture in a single volume the paradoxes and frustrations that come from the study of North Korea, a country that is simultaneously stuck and groping forward at the same time.

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Stephan Haggard Senior Research Staff

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