I’m going to present an over-simplified case related to issues many of us face in much smaller contexts. The goal is to learn from simple hypothetical cases to build experience for more complex, real-life cases. Normally I separate my North Korea posts from leadership ones, but they overlap here, along with my being in China now.
One of the greater challenges the world faces is how to bring some kind of justice, or at least rule of law, to the North Korean regime. I think any community in the world not directly benefiting from the North Korean government’s behavior would condemn it and consider punishment appropriate.
This raises a challenge: because the regime holds all the power locally, nobody can bring them to justice. Because they know anyone else would punish them, no one in the regime will accept change that might result in their punishment, including, possibly, their deaths.
So how do you bring justice and a rule of law to people who hold all the cards and don’t want justice inflicted on them?
I haven’t studied such situations, but the only thing I can think of is amnesty — that is, to give on justice in order to get a rule of law. If you can change the game, you can try to change things so they don’t hold all the cards. In North Korea that hasn’t happened for decades.
I’m writing this because I saw a quote in the New York Times about a similar situation in China, where the families of the rich and powerful use their intertwined connections to maintain power and force others to funnel deals and profits through them. It must suck to be an able citizen with an entrepreneurial opportunity and ability discouraged from pursuing it by the need to pay off others who contribute nothing except to open doors they closed in the first place. What a cost to society!
This quote from that article reinforces my view in more ways than one. While it doesn’t prove alternatives don’t exists, it suggests no solutions besides amnesty for criminals to achieve enduring change. It also points out that the system evolved to make the issues extreme — life and death.
Some scholars argue that the party is now hostage to its own unholy alliances. Cheng Li, an expert on Chinese politics with the Brookings Institution in Washington, said it would be difficult for the Chinese government to push through major political reforms aimed at extricating powerful political families from business without giving immunity to those now in power.
And with no independent judiciary in China, he said, party leaders would essentially be charged with investigating themselves. “The party has said anticorruption efforts are a life-and-death issue,” Mr. Li said. “But if they want to clean house, it may be fatal.”
North Korea’s situation is unique, but similar situations play out elsewhere. Common solutions exist, though not all will find them palatable.
Judgment, blame, and getting things done
It looks to me like the world’s interest in judgment — that is, blaming and judging others — gets in the way of improving things.
I started to write this post about a small quote that reinforced a perspective on North Korea I struggled with in my book and the world continues to struggle with. It ended up touching on one of the core principles of leadership and influence. If you want to influence someone, no matter how right you think you are, if they disagree, they will resist.
Of course, I’m looking at one issue out of context. For example, I’m putting aside for the moment that justice also deters others and affects how victims and survivors recover. I’m sure you can think of many related issues. Still, most of us face similar challenges where someone’s desire for retribution interferes with getting the job done or influencing someone. The clarity of the North Korean situation makes it easier to understand (if not easier to resolve) than most of our situations, so we can learn from it.
In the case of North Korea, to the extent we can look at just this one aspect, to what extent does the desire for punishment interfere with changing the power system? If this were the only issue (obviously it’s not, but we can learn from hypothetical cases anyway) — that is, if granting amnesty to people in charge of prison camps and everything else people say the North Korean regime is guilty of — would you insist on meting out justice on a few hundred people at the expense of improving the lives of millions of others?
How often does feeling you are right (and they are wrong) get in the way of getting things done or improving relationships?