North Korea: A Prisoner of Its Own History
Paul French's book 'North Korea: The Paranoid Peninsula. A Modern History' survives 2nd edition
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Book Info

Author: Paul French

Title: "North Korea: The Paranoid Peninsula. A Modern History"
(2nd revised edition)

Publisher: Zed Books, London, NY, 2007

334 pages
A globalized and interdependent world is deep in a financial crisis. Responding to the new tough realities, individual states and regional communities adjust their production and consumption mechanisms. Flexibility and common sense help the economic systems survive and recover. Only North Korea -- the last "orthodox" communist state -- has no plans for change. Experts predicted North Korea's imminent collapse in the early 1990s, but it remains defiant and ignorant to the obvious necessity of modernization. The country remains locked in a self-destructive cycle, where ideology controls the politics and faulty policies kill the economy. Self-imposed isolation and external sanctions keep North Korea poor but stable, providing the regime with unconventional opportunities for survival. Isolated and paranoid, it may well stay around for another century.

Paul French's book "North Korea: The Paranoid Peninsula. A Modern History" (first published in 2005) is now in its second edition, revised in 2007. It offers a profound and comprehensive analysis of the DPRK's political and socio-economic peculiarities and examines the phenomenon of this country's obstinate denial of reality. A director of Shanghai-based Access Asia, Mr. French boasts the first-hand knowledge of North Korea that positions him well to judge its business practices and domestic policies. Relying on open-source material and personal observations, the author provides a dispassionate analysis of what is known about the situation in this highly secretive state.

In the first edition of his book, Paul French simply argued that in order to understand the DPRK's behavior and diplomacy, it was necessary to understand the country's misguided economic policies. After its publication, many significant events came into play. Starting from 2005, North Korean companies were effectively cut off international banking systems and trade. In response, in 2006, the country conducted a nuclear test which changed the balance of power in the region and prompted Washington to resume bilateral talks with Pyongyang. The region and the world have obviously changed, making this second edition of the book necessary to answer many new questions. Why did North Korea see no alternative to going nuclear? Why does it still stubbornly refuse to reform?

As before, "The Paranoid Peninsula" attributes all the evils which continue besetting North Korea (famine, excessive military spending, its crumbling industrial base and infrastructure) to the all-embracing nature of economic planning. Openly talking about mistakes and lost opportunities, the author blames the North Korean leadership for excessive adherence to a command economy: "The DPRK has failed not primarily because it is run by a leadership obsessed with the cult of personality or because it is a one-party state entirely devoid of democracy, though neither of these truisms about North Korea has helped its development, but because it subscribes to the failed concept of the Soviet-inspired socialist command economy that insists on a centrally planned system." Staying impartial, as all business people should, Mr. French formulates the central thesis of his book by saying that "the DPRK is a failed state and therefore liable to become unstable unless engaged enthusiastically and strategically."

To explain what brought North Korea to the present state of affairs, the author brings together the political, ideological and international factors. The inherent contradictions of the command economy are seen as the main reasons for the failure to introduce the elements of market opening and mercantilism in this communist country. Mr. French believes that only by jettisoning the core economic theory, based on the outdated principles of Marxism-Leninism and Maoism, will North Korea overcome its mounting economic problems. However, to reject this economic theory means to admit the failure of Juche ideology and the regime created by Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.

The author undertakes a detailed examination of the philosophical basis of Juche (self-sufficiency and independence) ideology, which he calls a "state religion" and the leadership system, which he describes as a "revolutionary dynasty." Every aspect of public life in the country is dominated by these two omnipresent concepts, which inculcate in the Korean populace an obsession with dogma and the personality cult. Issues related to the North Korean economic system, reform, and regime survival are discussed and juxtaposed with Chinese and Soviet models. Of particular interest is the case study of Sinuiju, an experiment which turned into "an unmitigated disaster and revealed the almost total lack of understanding in Pyongyang of economics, fiscal policy, the law of supply and demand, or international business practice."

The unraveling of the nuclear crisis is also discussed in some detail. But the focus is placed on the economic implication of the stand-off and its ramifications. Without defending the DPRK, the author criticizes the US for the policy failure in dealings with both Pyongyang and Seoul. He points out that American policy towards the peninsula "has always been one of reaction and not anticipation" and ultimately "fell between two stools." The belligerence of Washington, in the author's view, left Pyongyang paranoid and insecure. Interestingly, the rise of Military-First (Son-gun) ideology in North Korea is attributed to the growing fear of possible reform and engagement. The Cold War confrontation and national division, concludes the author, continues to affect the economic systems, international relations, social development and national psychologies on the peninsula.

"The Paranoid Peninsula" does not spare strong language describing the North as "autarkic, sclerotic, schizophrenic, Orwellian, anachronistic, a pariah or suicide state." Indeed, North Korea is committing suicide by not addressing its protracted industrial and agricultural stagnation, or by pursuing a diplomatic policy of belligerence while suffering from famine and other humanitarian crises. There is also a pertinent observation about North Korea's habit to posit every issue in historical context and constantly refer to the past. That makes it appear to be "a country with a past but no future." The DPRK resembles "a prisoner of its own history" with no escape plan from the "cycle of decline and collapse."

Despite being pessimistic about the prospects of meaningful change, the author believes that the notion of reform in the DPRK has not totally disappeared. After the retreat from the "economic measures" of June 2002, the country has managed to boost light industrial production and successfully launched the Kaesong Industrial Zone. The ongoing dialogue with Washington gives Pyongyang some hope that eventually bilateral relations will be normalized. Paul French is particularly critical of Washington's "double whammy" of cutting off North Korea's access to cash and foreign markets. As a result, he argues, the growth and proliferation of Kaesong and Kaesong-like projects has been stymied, and the pro-reform element in Pyongyang, known as the Chrysanthemum Group, has lost influence. The recent closure of Kumgang Resort and the restrictions imposed on crossing the DMZ and access to Kaesong Industrial Zone are a clear victory for conservatives within the ruling clique.

Nevertheless, this reissue of "The Paranoid Peninsula" leaves the reader with a greater sense of hope and cautious anticipation of changes for the better. In the concluding section of the book, Paul French seems to be siding with the Chinese, not American, view on the problem and makes three major points. First, that North's economy is in poor shape but is not about to collapse; second, that Kim Jong-il is rational, pragmatic and firmly in political control; and third, that Pyongyang is willing to trade its nuclear weapons for security guarantees and economic assistance. In other words, if the external circumstances are right and the domestic situation is stable, North Korea might be able to change and modernize. Speaking allegorically, the long-term "prisoner" might have a chance to see light of the day after liberating himself from the fears and obsessions associated with the past. The tragedy of the paranoid peninsula is that it is not solely up to the Korean people as to when and how this problem is going to be resolved.
This article was commissioned by the journal Acta Koreana and is scheduled to appear in its Dec. 2009 issue.

2008/12/06 오후 3:37
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