When the quality of information is poor, try to shrink the space in which you have to search for the estimate. It’s like knowing you lost your keys somewhere in your house. This technique, “fencing the problem”, was introduced in Russian Casualties estimate; a technique note. It receives further application in these articles.
The fence is made of high quality almost-facts that are likely to contain the estimate. If the estimate contains a line of reasoning that jumps the fence, it’s discarded. The open-source information that comes from North Korea itself is poor quality. So to construct a fence, let’s look outside. There can be multiple concentric fences, the inner ones made of progressively lower quality “almost-facts.” This is a form of “fuzzy logic.” Let’s now consider the outermost fence.
The outermost fence is made of Kim’s options for the system he inherited:
- Make no changes.
- Appearance of change, or temporary change, with no lasting effect. A difference that is no difference can for a time change the way the regime is seen by the world; the release of political dissidents, who are subsequently re-arrested.
- Tweak it, changing low level details. I.e., “Shoe repair shops are now permitted away from place of residence.” There has been gradual appearance in North Korea of small scale private enterprise.
- Tactical change, minimal but real, to deceive an adversary, yet acceptable to the power base.
- Bend it. The Soviet New Economic Policy of 1922, which snapped back into a massacre of peasants.
- Break it. This is rare while a ruler is alive. Myanmar, where the ruling military clique chose a new direction, may be the singular example.
One would think that the the more absolute the power of the ruler, the more change the ruler could accomplish. Historic examples suggest exactly the opposite. Maintaining grip on power consumes most of the energy of the dictator. Change requires initiative in the power structure. Initiative risks loss of grip on power. The stakes are high, because loss of power frequently results in death of the deposed ruler.
Absolute rulers sometimes liberalize temporarily, giving the appearance of change, for these reasons:
- For foreign aid.
- To play power blocs against each other.
- To tempt hidden dissenters to expose themselves, so they can be destroyed.
- As a social experiment, as with the Khrushchev Thaw and Mao’s Hundred Flowers Campaign. But both rulers were powerful thinkers, forged in the Bolshevik mold to be authentic revolutionaries.
We think we aren’t interested in the second list. We want North Korea to choose Option 5 from the first list, to bend the system. Bend, because the nuclear effort has absorbed a large part of state resources for more than a decade. The only carrot we have to offer is economic, which implies opening, which implies liberalization. But the stability of the N. Korean state relies on just:
- Enough cash to pay the salaries of the nomenklatura, and for the material perks of western luxuries that keep them happy.
- Enough cash for the nuclear program, which is part of the myth of the state.
- Fuel supplies.
- The minimal prosperity required to prevent starvation at the bottom from creeping upwards.
Borrowing a term from systems theory, there is likely to be an island of metastability, conditions of a stable regime close to the situation before sanctions. Kim knows the island, and he is rowing towards it. It’s not a great island; it is only a temporary refuge against eventual decay. Kim executed around 370 nomenklatura in that period. But it is familiar. Only a brilliant intellect ventures beyond the familiar.
We should look for contradictory precedents. Among states other than the Stalinist offspring, there are many. The Second French Empire of Napoleon III began as a dictatorship that liberalized over two decades. But among Stalinist states, history is bereft of examples of significant change with these criteria:
- Small country.
- Without ruling transition.
- Absence of revolution.
Belarus, unique as a new, post-Soviet Stalinist state, is worth a look, as a more observable version of North Korea. The country exists in a metastable state of backwardness that Alexander Lukashenko hopes will not decay before he dies. The country has deindustrialized, to the point that it makes a few tractors. It has revived serfdom.
What is the possible exception? To be a revolutionary requires creativity, or receptiveness to new ideas. If not a great thinker, the revolutionary is well above average. But like Venezuela’s Maduro, every revolutionary thinks that his revolution is the last. Change is abolished, until the next great, or nearly-great thinker comes along.
This is the outermost factual fence of the problem. Since North Korea is so hard to observe, it is composed from the external world. Consisting of almost-facts, it allows for the small possibility that Kim Jong-un is more than competent, that he contains the seeds of greatness. Since Kim Jong-un inherited a system, there is no evidence that he is revolutionary at all.
Greatness is rare. So what does this mean for Kim’s strategy?
To be continued shortly.
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