Saturday, December 15, 2018

North Korea is Calling. Where's the Libertarian?

People who are passionate about things tend to have a near savant ability to turn any feature of conversation back around to their topic of obsession. For many of those who lean libertarian in their philosophy and politics, it's either foreign policy (end the wars) or economics (End the Fed). In my case, it's North Korea. I have been studying the country for around seven years and there isn't a topic I can think of where I can't pull out some DPRK related story or use a news item about the country to underscore some libertarian concern elsewhere.

I have touched on a number of North Korea-related things in my own writings (or should I say, I have brought out topics of libertarian interest in articles on North Korea), but I try to avoid injecting strict lines of ideology into my work because so much of it is supposed to be based on things like the interpretation of satellite imagery, and less outright social and political commentary.

The libertarian side of the political spectrum, of course, isn't for want of publications or think-tanks. From large outfits like Reason and CATO to countless smaller bloggers who may only have a few hundred regular readers, a lot of things get discussed. But what I have noticed is that there seems to be a shortage of articles dealing with North Korea. That isn't to say they don't exist, but, from my perspective, North Korea is a pool whose depths can never be fully plumed and, unfortunately, rarely are. Now, that could be because I am a DPRK wonk, but it's not exactly a super obscure area of research, either.

Unlike having to draw from the past to show how socialism fails or that the natural state of being is freedom, North Korea offers us a live, real-world drama that is unfolding before our very eyes. And this drama demonstrates with ever greater force how the underpinnings of libertarianism are not only valid, but the outcome of greater liberty is shown to be unavoidable. Exploring the past offers tremendous value to any form of study and commentary but relying on the past to carry an argument also runs the risk of being less relatable to those who didn't experience those events in some way.

Most of my life has been lived after the Cold War. Often quoted people like Mencken or Rand are distant voices whose own lives and views were shaped by events very few of today's population lived with. And so, I return to North Korea. It is a communist hold over that has been undergoing a slow-motion evolution toward greater freedom and openness, not because of orders from on-high, but driven by the people from the ground up; an ultimate expression of libertarianism in action.

I have countless ideas for articles, most of which I am certain I will never write. So at the risk of losing out on page views but in the hopes of spurring on interest in this field (as well as giving liberty-minded people new examples to use to bolster their message), I want to run down a few main topics that should offer a lot of depth to anyone willing to write about it.

1) Women's Rights

Image source: BBC/GETTY

Yes, I know, the only rights are individual rights, but North Korea is the most collectivized country one can think of. Individuality is severely suppressed, and group mindsets are the norm. Women's groups, youth groups, worker's groups, are all mixed with the historic Confucian traditions regarding sex and family. Despite technically being granted equal rights, for much of North Korean society, the woman retained her traditional role; unable to find agency for herself and at the mercy of both the state and her husband (domestic abuse is a rampant problem). However, in the years following the 1990s famine, women have become the driving force in the marketization of the country. They have also been brave enough to take full charge of their lives and make up the majority of those defecting the country.

The general opening of society as a result of economic growth and a rising middle class has also given women greater agency in their personal lives. Dating, hereunto largely a family/state arranged matter, has become something the younger generation can now actually engage in. Sneaking out of the house, holding hands, and taking nighttime walks have all become part of life. And the overall understanding of how sex works (which has been medieval in many instances for both boys and girls) is now helping women take charge over their lives, be safer, and no longer exist solely as the property of their husbands. Even the more "seedier" side of things has become more common with older women renting out extra rooms for an hour or two for couples to get to know each other.

With their hard work and immense bravery, the economics of North Korea have changed drastically over the years. And since economics affects pretty much everything else, most of the other topics flow from this point.

This NK News article from 2013 and Reuters' "In North Korea, men call the shots, women make the money" have good rundowns on the topic.

2) Access to Information and Communication

Open-access to information is nonexistent in North Korea, and information and communication controls are among the tightest in the world. However, that veil has begun to show cracks. 
The practice of control is a balancing act. If you enact measures that are too strict or that move the bar too rapidly, you risk setting off rebellion in the form of black markets in goods and information, which could eventually lead to the collapse of the regime. If your new attempts at control aren't tough enough, you risk the people ignoring them, which, in turn, can also lead to the collapse of the regime.

North Korea has, thus far, managed to be responsive enough and harsh enough to prevent open acts of revolt on large scales, but also acquiesced enough to respond to the desires of the people. This has allowed the government to survive for 70 years, but the trend is still the same: greater freedom. One day, this will either lead to massive and brutal crackdowns to save the ruling class, or it will have North Korea finding itself sitting in the place of an open and free country. And while the North Korean government may currently be more advanced technologically than its people, the story in the rest of the world is that of average citizens finding ways around censorship and control. There is no reason why the people of North Korea will be any different when it comes to closing this gap.

North Korea was one of the last hold outs when it came to allowing cell phone use. In 2002 approximately 20,000 North Koreans had cell phones. These users were the country's elite. Today that number has swelled to nearly 4 million people and users now extend to every strata of society. Telecommunication infrastructure has likewise grown by leaps and bounds and today there are at least 920 cell phone towers in the country, with new ones coming online all the times. Use of cell phones in a country where even getting a landline requires a substantial government approval process, has helped enable trade among citizens, trade across borders, the sharing of otherwise banned information and political gossip, facilitate escapes, and much more.

Granting cell phone use is, of course, also used by the government to promote its own ends (the same can be said for allowing market activity). It gives the government new tools for surveillance and new sources of cash (the DPRK has partnered with the Egyptian company Orascom and this nets the country millions in revenue). At the same time, they also provide the people with ways to avoid the government, to earn money under the table, and to breakaway (even if ever so slightly) from the all-powerful grasp of Pyongyang. As mentioned, it's a balancing act for survival to the eyes of the government. 

Access to the global internet is impossible for all but a few hundred to a few thousand highly trusted individuals. However, the country does have its own "walled garden"; a closed intranet system that can be accessed at schools, libraries and other institutions. Here too, the computers needed to use the intranet means there are disk drives and USB ports all over the country. This has led to the country being flooded with otherwise highly illegal content like South Korean TV shows, news from Chinese sources, and even Hollywood films. This outside information has, more than anything else, been the vehicle that has helped break the spell of the Kim family. Today's youth no longer worship the leadership or believe that their country is the greatest on earth. It helps give them tools the government has worked hard to eradicate like, critical thinking skills. With access to more information, the lies and controls of this 70 year old system begin to fall away.  

3) Housing, Consumer Choice, and Leisure

2017 International Trade Fair. Source: Kyodo News.

North Korea is ostensibly guided by the Juche Idea, which is often translated as "self-reliance". This is supposed to mean that North Korea should develop itself free from outside control or reliance on external aid. Under this philosophy, the goal of building their socialist paradise can only be achieved by feeding themselves, developing their own technology, creating their own unique art, and producing their own goods and services in their own way. In theory, it's a form of autarky. In practice, however, North Korea is heavily dependent on the outside world. From an economic perspective, this isn't necessarily a negative thing. It shows that trade is the life blood of any country and that reaching out economically enables survival, as opposed to the ideas of would-be isolationists.

The result of trade is economic growth. That growth means disposable income, a rise in private property, and a middle class (or jangmadang) for the first time in generations. Where people had been wholly dependent on the government's Public Distribution System prior to the famine and economic collapse, the invisible hand of the market has shown that even after recovery, nothing can compete with people making their own choices.

Pyongyang has grown from a collection of Soviet-style block apartments to one with rows of modern-looking high rises and futuristic districts. Greater wealth and choice breed the desire for more choice and better living conditions. In response, the government has built ski resorts, new beachfront properties, improved infrastructure, and has recently began to build new kinds of parks in every major city. This has all been a result of the government bowing to public pressure. But the government isn't the only player. Private citizens, upstart companies (legal, black market and grey market), new military endeavors, and other entities have risen to fuel construction booms.

People's desires for modern apartments means military carpentry groups (the best skilled in the country) are paid to fulfill their wishes. This puts money into the hands of military families and the military itself, which in turn helps the government overcome problems related to sanctions (more on sanctions below). New mining companies means greater levels of resource extraction and thus higher levels of trade with China. A ton of coal goes out, flat screen TVs come in.
Again, this leads to more money in the hands of the people and broadens their range of choices. And all of this trade means people are travelling around the country more than ever. What used to be a difficult process of obtaining travel permits (as you are not allowed to leave your city without permission) has now become a fairly straight forward system of paying bribes. This means the government gets their money and the people can earn theirs through trading. All of this internal travel and trade also results in people wanting to move to new towns. The result that is residency permits are now widely bought and sold (the houses themselves still technically belong to the state), which helps to fuel further residential growth and construction. 

It's all a rather large self-supporting cycle borne from people taking matters into their own hands. An ineffective and highly restrictive system has turned into an albeit messy but functional process through which people make their own choices and help grow the economy, reaping the benefits of consumer choice in process. 

4) Long-term Sanctions Don't Work

That long-term sanctions don't work, is something libertarians have understood for a very long time. Be it the Soviet Union, Vietnam, Cuba, Iran, or North Korea, sanctions overwhelmingly harm civilian populations and the poorest stratum of society far more than the elite, leadership classes. Sanctions are also an act of violence, and so are incongruent with many of the values espoused by the nations who so often vote for and enforce them. Sanctions fail at a fundamental level because, by their very nature, they challenge people to overcome them. Whether it is outright avoidance, developing methods to lessen their effect by becoming more efficient in the affected sectors, or developing ways to get around them by inventing new technologies, sanctions act as a kind of evolutionary pressure selection system, but for economics. North Korea is no stranger to this.

The goal of sanctions is to pressure the government into giving up their weapons of mass destruction. Specifically, their nuclear and ballistic missile programs. But North Korea has been under various sanction regimes for decades, and today not only do they have fully functional nuclear weapons, but they have the capacity to fire a missile and hit any part of the United States they wish. This has been accomplished through a mix of sanctions avoidance (by working with other rogue countries and with the assistance of China) and the forced development of domestically produced weapons components. Instead of stopping WMD development, North Korea just took the long view and used many indirect routes to accomplish their goals.

Similarly, sanctions have only had a limited effect on the lifestyles of the country's elite. Luxury goods continue to flow into the country and North Korea has been making their own cloned versions of popular electronic devices, such as the iPhone. The country has also found the hundreds of millions needed to construct ski resorts and beach condos, high rise apartment blocks and 4D theaters.

In both the military and domestic spheres, the growing development of their internal economy (which had languished for many years) has enabled the creation of an ever-expanding middle class. This unique mix of official and unofficial, domestic and military economies provides each of these sectors with crossover support. In other words, there's a lot (relatively speaking) of money being made all over the place and that has allowed the regime to overcome sanctions in many ways.

5) Average People Can Force Change

North Korean defectors reaching South Korea in 1997. Source: AP

As Alex Gladstein, member of the group Flash Drives for Freedom, has said, "History has told us that outside information and culture have helped end dictatorships in many places around the world". From workers rising in Poland and creating Solidarity to the bold actions of average people at Tiananmen Square, to even the current Yellow Vest movements in France, when the people have had enough, governments will respond. Trying to stop dissent with force is only the final move before a government either relents or is overthrown. History has shown us this countless times.

Through legal and illegal economic activity, reclaiming personal agency, gaining knowledge about the outside world, breaking through indoctrination and learning that your country isn't a socialist paradise, engaging in normally common tasks like switching apartments or crossing a border, through all of these people are daring to have more and to be more than what their government decides. And because of this, the Kim regime has had to make changes. They have had to acknowledge that a famine happened and that it was "partially" the fault of government policy. They have had to allow the growth of market activity. They had to turn a blind eye to property ownership in many instances. And they have had to allow in things like cell phones and personal computers.
The recurrent theme? For a regime to survive it must bend to the will of the people.

The examples I have given (and in so many other ways) all provide evidence that people can indeed change things. The axiom that all governments are derived by the consent of the governed applies just as much to liberal democracies as it does to totalitarian states. If the people get fed up with something, governments are going to have to make changes or start shooting. North Korea has been smart enough to make limited official changes and wise enough to turn their eyes away from what is going on in the streets. 

There are many paths toward liberty and not all of them are clean. North Korea's path has been rather messy. From rampant corruption (which is needed to bypass the official Party line on economics) to the fact people are still executed for trade and passing on South Korean dramas, this hasn't been an easy journey, but there is still no doubt it's a national journey that is opening up the country to the world more and more.

None of this is to say that North Korea has turned into some laissez-faire utopia. North Korea is still the most repressive, centralized, and cruel regime in existence. However, the trend from total control to greater liberty has been inexorable. Today's Northern citizen has more de facto freedom, economic choice, and access to information than at any other time in the history of the country. And all of this continues to grow. There's no need to focus on the Cold War or the Soviet Union to find examples of the never-ending drive toward freedom. We can watch it happen every day in North Korea. The full cycle from tyranny to liberty may take years more to complete, but, make no mistake, it is happening, and we should use North Korea as both a warning and as an example to the world.

To bring things back to the title question, where's the libertarian, I hope I have shown that these five areas are filled with potential content, and that they serve as inspiration for liberty-minded writers to take on these subjects and more within the setting of North Korea.

--Jacob Bogle, 12/15/2018