Tuesday, January 14, 2003

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Prospect theory predicts that, when faced with sudden reversals in fortune that present no-win scenarios -- like North Korea -- pundits will envisage best-case outcomes as a way of advancing their preferred policies. This is rarely done for tactical reasons, but rather because in situations like the current one, frustration with the range of depressing alternatives leads human beings to sketch a sunnier outcome than one should realistically expect. We prefer the riskier strategy because the possible rewards are great, even though the likelihood of that outcome occurring is small.

Which brings me to Nicholas D. Kristof's op-ed. He argues:

So how can we undermine North Korean propaganda and totalitarianism? By imposing sanctions and increasing its isolation? Or by engaging it and tying it to the global economy?

The answer should be obvious, for there is no greater subversive in a Communist country than an American factory manager. People will hear stories from his housemaid's third cousin's neighbor's friend about how he has five pairs of blue jeans (!), a beer belly (!), blows his nose on tissues that he then throws away (!), and reads a Bible (!) and Playboy magazine (!!). Many a Communist will immediately begin dreaming of capitalism....

If only President Clinton had instituted the 1994 agreement with gusto, flooding North Korea with diplomats, investors, traders and pot-bellied bankers who ostentatiously overeat — without exploding — then monuments to the Great Leader might already have been replaced by American-run Internet cafes. So let's agree to be blackmailed, so that North Korea gives up its nukes in exchange for Western trade and investment.

Now, Kristof would get points from David Adesnik for joining the Kevin Drum Club of Bush critics who acknowledge that this option amounts to backing down. I also strongly support the boosting of Playboy's export revenues. And certainly, the notion that unbridled capitalism will destroy dictatoriships has a long and distinguished history. It's also the rationale for our openness to the People's Republic of China.

I would love it if Kristof was right -- but a sober appraisal of the situation would conclude that's he's completely wrong. This gets to the distinction between a totalitarian and an authoritarian state. China or Singapore fall into the latter camp -- political dissent is stifled, but in other spheres of life there is sufficient breathing froom from state intervention to permit the flowering of pro-market, pro-democratic civil society. North Korea is totalitarian, in the sense that the state control every dimension of social life possible.

In authoritarian societies, the introduction of market forces and international news media can has the potential to transform society in ways that central governments will not be able to anticipate. In totalitarian societies, reform can only take place when the central government favors it. These societies have to take the first steps towards greater openness before any outside force can accelerate the process. Usually, such societies turn brittle and collapse under their own weight.

There is no more totalitarian state on earth than North Korea. To paraphrase P.J. O'Rourke, unapproved interactions unhappen in Pyongyang. As I've argued previously (click here , here and here), every North Korean feint towards openness has turned out to be an attempt at misdirection.

For the past decade, the DPRK leadership has been completely consistent about one thing -- it prefers mass famine and total isolation over any threat to the survival of its leadership. Uncontrolled exchange with the West will threaten that leadership. I have no doubt that Pyongyang is enthusiastic about the creation of segmented economic zones where foreign capital would be permitted -- so long as the rest of North Korean society remained under effective quarrantine.

I wish it were otherwise -- but I know it isn't.

posted by Dan on 01.14.03 at 01:52 PM