Monthly Archives: December 2004

Holiday Hiatus Reruns

For the next few weeks, the Far Outliers will be traveling to the Far East Coast (NYC and DC area) for a refresher course in family reunions and unblogged lives.

I started this blog as an experiment almost exactly a year ago, inspired most of all by Regions of Mind and Rainy Day. I sincerely appreciate those who have stopped for a visit. As a small gesture of appreciation, I offer the following compendia of reruns, most of it my original writing.

Morobe Field Diary

Good Soldier Outlier

Eastern Indonesia

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North Korea’s "Analectical Materialism"

The environment of the Soviet occupation of northern Korea, unlike that in Eastern Europe, was an East Asian agrarian society recently emerged from [Japanese] colonial rule. Certain policies, such as land reform, were immensely popular regardless of whether Russians or Koreans drafted the laws. Moreover, the Korean input into these policies, whether that of the regime in Pyongyang or in the process of ground-level implementation, was greater than a reading of Soviet sources alone would suggest.

In the area of ideology, for example, one of the most distinctively Korean elements of communism in North Korea was its emphasis on ideas over material conditions. Koreans shared this Marxist heresy with their counterparts in China and Vietnam, but this humanistic and voluntaristic emphasis was even more pronounced in Korea than in the other two East Asian communist revolutions, which may reflect the fact that Korea had long been more orthodox in its Confucianism than Vietnam or China. Korean communists tended to turn Marx on his head, as it were, valorizing human will over socioeconomic structures in a manner more reminiscent of traditional Confucianism than classic Marxism-Leninism. In short, the social and cultural context of the communist revolution in North Korea resulted in a society that looked less like Poland, a country occupied by the Red Army, than Vietnam, a country that was not. North Korea simply cannot be seen as a typical post-World War II Soviet satellite along the lines of East Germany or Poland, where leaders with longstanding ties to the USSR and long periods of residence in the Soviet Union were implanted by the Soviet occupation forces, where the Soviet Army remained the authority of last resort for decades afterward, and where the withdrawal of Soviet support quickly led to these regimes’ demise. The North Korean revolution may not have been entirely autonomous, but its indigenous elements allowed it to endure.

Among the most important elements of this indigenization was Korean nationalism, which at the beginning was partially hidden under a veneer of fulsome praise for the USSR and for Stalin. But nationalism and pro-Soviet orientation were not mutually exclusive in East Asia at the time. For Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean radical nationalists, state socialism was a compelling route to national liberation and modernity, especially when the USSR had been the only major country to give material assistance to their struggles against colonialism.

SOURCE: The North Korean Revolution, 1945-1950, by Charles K. Armstrong (Cornell U. Press, 2003), pp. 4-5

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North Korea’s Hard "Soft Landing"

NKZone‘s Andrei Lankov posts a link to an analysis he presented in New Zealand last year raising doubts “about the now so fashionable ideas of North Korea’s ‘soft landing'”–the idea that it can reform its way into less-than-catastrophic unification with South Korea.

Lankov’s talk, entitled Soft Landing: Opportunity or Illusion (viewable in IE, but not Firefox!), emphasizes the uniqueness of the Korean situation relative to that of Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, and China.

Assumptions based on the Chinese, East European or post-Soviet experiences are not applicable to the North. The “market” or capitalist reforms in those countries were indeed beneficial to the former Communist elite or at least for more flexible and better-educated parts. Even a cursory look at the biographies of post-Soviet tycoons and top politicians confirms that the so-called “anti-communist revolutions” of the early 1990s often boosted the standing of those who were prominent apparatchiks in the 1980s. The first two presidents of the supposedly anti-Communist Russia were Yeltsin, the former Politburo member and Putin, the former KGB colonel. The same is true of other post-Soviet states and China.

However, North Korea is dramatically different from other former members of the Communist bloc. Its major problems are created by the existence of a democratic and prosperous “alternate Korea” just across the border, a mere few hundred kilometres away from even the remotest North Korean village.

The economic gap between the two Koreas and the corresponding difference in living standards is huge, far exceeding the difference which once existed between East and West Germany. The per capita GDP of the South is approximately 10,000 USD, while in the North it is estimated to be between 500 and 1,000 USD. Obesity is a serious health problem in the South while in the North the ability to eat rice every day is a sign of unusual affluence. South Korea, the world’s fifth largest automobile manufacturer, has one car for every four persons, while in the North a private car [is] less accessible to the average citizen than a private jet would be to the average American. South Korea is the world’s leader in broadband Internet access while in the North only major cities have automatic telephone exchanges and a private residential phone is still a privilege reserved solely for cadres.

The survival strategy of the North Korean political system has been based on the combination of three important strategies: intense police surveillance, harsh suppression of even the slightest dissent and maintaining a strict information blockade.

The last factor is especially important…. Economic reforms are unthinkable without large-scale foreign investment and other types of exchange with overseas countries (what is known in China as “openness”). However such “openness” would mean a decisive break with this system of self-imposed isolation. Under the present circumstances both investment capital and expertise are likely to come largely from South Korea.

The influx of foreigners, especially South Koreans, will however undermine one of the pillars of the regime’s political stability, namely the system of information isolation. Even if these visitors carefully avoid everything which could upset their minders, the sheer presence of strangers will be disruptive. This was not such an issue in China or Vietnam where the visitors came from alien countries whose prosperity was seen as generally irrelevant to the local situation. It is likely to be a problem in the North, however, where a large proportion of foreign investors and experts will come from another half of the same country and will speak the same language.

Thus, any wide-scale cooperation with the outside world remains a dangerous option. Its obvious economic benefits do not count for much, since the associated political risks are prohibitively huge and the Pyongyang elite will not take chances….

If the populace learned how dreadful their position was compared to that of the South Koreans, and if the still-functioning system of police surveillance and repression ceased to work with its usual efficiency, then the chance of violent revolution or at very least, mass unrest would be highly likely. The proponents of a “soft landing” believe that the collapse of the regime (be it violent or otherwise) would not mean an end to a separate North Korean state. However, it is difficult to see how the North Koreans could possibly be persuaded to remain quiet if they knew the truth and were not afraid of immediate and swift retribution for their dissent…. In other words, the attempts to promote reform and liberalization are likely to lead to the exact opposite–to political instability, regime collapse and a subsequent “hard landing.” …

In Eastern Europe and the former USSR it was the second and third tiers of apparatchiks who reaped the greatest benefits from the dismantling of state socialism. Their skills, training and expertise, as well as their connections allowed them to appropriate sizeable chunks of the former state assets. They then used this property to secure dominant positions in the new system and quickly re-modelled themselves as prominent businessmen or even “democratic politicians.” The North Korean mid-level elite does not have access to such an attractive option. Once again such a scenario is rendered unlikely by the existence of South Korea with its highly developed economy, large pools of capital and managerial skills. If the collapse of Kim’s regime spells an end to the independent North Korean state which is a very likely option, the local elite would stand no chance of competing with the South Korean companies and their representatives. Capitalism in post-Kim North Korea would be constructed not by former apparatchiks who some day declare themselves the born-again enemies of the evil Communism, but by resident managers of Samsung and LG. At best, the current elite might hope to gain some subaltern positions, but even this outcome is far from certain. Something analogous to the “lustration policy,” the formal prohibitions of former Party cadres and security officials from occupying important positions in the bureaucracy of post-Communist regimes, is at least equally likely. Some ex-apparatchiks might even face persecution for their deeds under the Kims’ rule. Facing such dangers, the lower strata of the ruling elite is showing no signs of dissent and prefers to loyally follow Kim Jong Il’s entourage….

This does not mean that the regime will last forever. However, its transformation is unlikely to occur according to the “soft landing” scenario. If the elite resists change for too long an implosion will be unavoidable and if it initiates reform now, the result is likely to be the same or perhaps only marginally less dramatic.

I suspect relations between the two Koreas after unification will soon evolve into a fierce antagonism between a North Korean colony offering little more than unskilled labor and raw materials, and a South Korean colonial occupation force that quickly loses patience with its helplessly dependent cousins. Fierce South Korean classism (and impatience) will soon overwhelm the abstract sympathies so many South Korean citizens now feel for their North Korean compatriots. North Korea will be like Yankee-occupied Mississippi during Reconstruction after the U.S. Civil War. Tough times for all, for at least a generation or two.

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Vanuatu Disambiguates Its China Policy

The Head Heeb has the latest on Vanuatu ex-PM Serge Vohor’s attempt to straddle the China-Taiwan divide. To make a longer story short, Vohor landed on his backside, leaving China standing tall.

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"Democracy has few supporters in Pakistan"

Democracy has few supporters in Pakistan. The army has been in power for nearly half the country’s existence and it is commonplace for senior officers to complain wistfully that the politicians are too incompetent and too corrupt to govern. ‘The Western type of parliamentary democracy’, Ayub Khan once wrote, ‘could not be imposed on the people of Pakistan.’ Many civilians have shared his jaundiced view. The feudal landlords, the bureaucrats, the intelligence agencies and the judiciary have all shown a reluctance to accept, never mind promote, the rule of law. Pakistan’s urbane, sophisticated elite and the country’s Islamic radicals do not agree about much. But on the issue of democracy they can find common ground. ‘It’s a good thing’, said Lashkar-e-Toiba’s spokesman Abdullah Muntazeer speaking of Musharraf’s 1999 coup, ‘the parliament was un-Islamic and he’s got rid of it.’

There have been three periods of civilian rule in Pakistan. The first, between 1947 and 1958, began with independence and ended when the chief of army staff, Lt. General Ayub Khan, mounted the country’s first military coup. The second, between 1971 and 1977, belonged to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The third, dominated by Bhutto’s daughter, Benazir, and her rival, Nawaz Sharif, started after General Zia’s death in a plane crash and came to an end when Musharraf took over. Many Pakistanis explain the failure of democracy to take root by bemoaning the poor quality of their elected leaders. In reality, there are more fundamental reasons for the fact that no civilian leader in the country’s entire history has ever completed his or her term in office.


Mohammed Ali Jinnah wanted Pakistan to be a constitutional, parliamentary democracy informed by Muslim values. Many Pakistanis believe that, had he lived longer, Jinnah would have been able to transform his vision into reality. Yet, for all his ideals, Jinnah never behaved democratically. From the moment of independence he effortlessly assumed control of all the key levers of power in Pakistan. He was not only the governor general but also the president of the Muslim League and the head of the Constituent Assembly. As the founder of the nation, Jinnah had such massive personal authority that few dared to challenge him and, even if they did, a momentary scowl was enough to silence his most determined opponent. Arguably, the new country, lacking any political institutions, needed a strong leader. But even Jinnah’s most ardent supporters concede that the concentration of power in his hands set an unfortunate precedent! When Jinnah died, thirteen months after Pakistan was born, there was no one capable of filling the vacuum he left behind.

Pakistan’s first generation of politicians were inexperienced men faced with truly daunting challenges. As well as being confronted by fundamental national issues such as the demand for provincial rights, the status of the [small minority] Urdu language and the role of Islam in the new state, they had to deal with the millions of Muslim refugees who arrived in Pakistan at a time when an economy barely existed. It was perhaps inevitable that power inexorably slipped into the hands of the only people capable of delivering any semblance of governance: Pakistan’s small cadre of highly educated civil servants. As Jinnah’s aide-de-camp, Ata Rabbani wrote:

… our senior politicians had little experience of the running of a government for they had spent most of their lives criticising governments in power. Now saddled with the responsibility they took the easy way out. Instead of applying themselves to the task and working hard to learn the ropes they relied on the advice of senior bureaucrats.

SOURCE: Pakistan: Eye of the Storm, 2nd ed., by Owen Bennett Jones (Yale Nota Bene, 2002), pp. 223-225

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Heirs of the Moravian Brethren

Jednota bratrska [Union of Brethren] was persecuted with varying degrees of vigor from the time of Jiri z Podebrad–who wanted a unified Utraquist hegemony–onward, and Vladislav II’s Saint James’s Mandate of 1502, which closed the Brethren’s churches and banned their writings, was several times renewed through the sixteenth century. They thrived nonetheless. From an originally plebeian, otherworldly sect rooted among peasants and craftsmen, the Brethren broadened their appeal both to burghers and to nobles, who since they controlled benefices could often provide support and protection. This expansion was helped by the Brethren’s abandonment at the end of the fifteenth century of prohibitions, deriving from Chelcicky’s teaching, on members holding worldly office, serving in the military, and engaging in business. Certain employments, like juggling or painting, remained forbidden, while office-holding and trade were deemed dangerous to salvation and thus deserving of particular moral scrutiny. The hardest times for the Brethren came, under Ferdinand I after 1547, when many of them were driven into exile in Poland, Prussia, and Moravia, which subsequently became a Jednota stronghold.

SOURCE: The Coasts of Bohemia: A Czech History, by Derek Sayer (Princeton U. Press, 1998), p. 44

As an atheist quasiacademic of Quaker heritage, it strikes me how robustly these otherworldly medieval prejudices–against holding worldly office, against serving in the military, and against engaging in business–survive among today’s thoroughly thisworldly progressives in academia and the media. At least juggling, painting, acting, and other money-grubbing artistic pursuits are no longer forbidden. And the benefice-dispensing heirs of once crass burghers and nobles are valued every bit as much as they were 500 years ago. But what salvation awaits today’s secular saints? Tenure? Emeritus status? A Pulitzer?

A quote from Robert D. Kaplan’s recent essay in Policy Review entitled The Media and Medievalism provides a caustic gloss on the passage above.

As with medieval churchmen, the media class of the well-worried has a tendency to confuse morality with sanctimony: Those with the loudest megaphones and no bureaucratic accountability have a tendency to embrace moral absolutes. After all, transcending politics is easier done than engaging in them, with the unsatisfactory moral compromises that are entailed.

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Romanian Election Analysis

From Doug Muir Halfway down the Danube:

Traian Basescu has won, and will be Romania’s next President.

Final result: 51.2% for Basescu, 48.8% for Nastase.

This was very unexpected, and may lead to a period of political turbulence.

One early development: the Humanist Party (Partidul Umanist Romania, or PUR) has announced that “for the best interest of the country”, it is willing to enter into negotiations with any other party. Since PUR ran on a joint ticket with PSD [the currently governing Social Democratic Party], this is a major slap to PSD, PM Nastase and (about to be former) President Iliescu [the immediate successor to Ceausescu who has remained in charge most years since then]….

Ugly possibility: PSD joins with PRM [the ultranationalist Greater Romania Party]. This would give solid majorities in both chambers. However, it would mean letting PRM into government.

More here

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