Tuesday, December 20, 2011

North Korea: Doomed For All Time?

With Kim Jong-il finally, finally dead, and his son Kim Jong-un set to take charge of what is quickly shaping up to be the world's first and only communist monarchy, two questions are heavy on many people's minds: now who's going to control the weather with his mind, and does this mean things might start to improve on the far side of the 38th parallel?

It's tempting for people to think that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is on the cusp of change. This is not the case. It doesn't matter that Kim Jong-un was educated in the West or that it's the twenty-first century and Pyongyang's Soviet sugar daddy is long since gone, or that power will likely end up residing with the generals anyway. Over the last sixty years, the North Korean leadership has dug the country into a rut so wide and so deep it may never pull out of it.

Well, I'll admit that "never" is a pretty big word. Nevertheless, despite overly optimistic people who seem to think that this could mark a new beginning for the people of the north, I can't help but think that even if North Korea was to become a free, open, truly democratic state tomorrow, it might take a hundred years to repair the damage that successive generations of Kims have done through neglect and pursuit of their mad cult of personality. Overseas a lot of people seem to take it for granted that the natural result is for the two Koreas to reunify, yet from what I understand this prospect is particularly unpopular in South Korea itself.

It's not hard to see why. South Korea struggled for sixty years to get where it is today, and spent much of that time groaning under a military dictatorship that the United States stood behind because it was a stable bulwark against the Communists up north. During the Cold War, North Korea was actually better off in some respects than South Korea, thanks mainly to Soviet patronage. Today, two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, North Korea is the biggest old-school communist state left, a pure relic of the Cold War. Its economy is a tattered basket case. Some people cite the example of West and East Germany - forgetting that outside East Berlin, East Germany at least possessed a functioning infrastructure.

It's easy to figure out where North Korea is from space. Just look for the spot where there isn't anything. Photo courtesy NASA.

North Korea talks a big game, but its industrial plant seems to be mostly left over from the 1970s and isn't getting any less rusty. Perhaps the only really modern industrial area in the entire country is the Kaesong Industrial Region, a parcel of land just north of the Demilitarized Zone where South Korean manufacturers have been able to set up shop, and where the North Korean workers are paid a fraction of what their counterparts in South Korea would earn and significantly less than workers in China, even.

This, I think, is the most lileky future of North Korea once the Kim dynasty crumbles or becomes irrelevant. Not unification with South Korea but a precarious existence as the World's Sweatshop, as Randy McDonald predicted to me back in 2008. In decades to come, "MADE IN NORTH KOREA" labels may be as ubiquitous as "MADE IN CHINA" ones are today - and really, that may be the only way for North Korea to lift itself out of the hole it's been dug into. No one is going to invest the trillions of dollars necessary to bring North Korea into the modern world just for the sake of it. It's a harsh future, true, but at a certain point, the situation reaches a certain point in its trajectory that nothing can meaningfully change it.

That's the legacy of the Kims - grinding their country to a powder so fine that one day there'll be no choice but to build it anew.

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