Understanding Kim Jong Il from a systems perspective, and what to do now

December 20, 2011 by Joshua
in Education, Entrepreneurship, Freedom, Leadership, NorthKorea

Reading the spate of articles on Kim Jong Il and North Korea, I’ve seen what look from my perspective misinterpretations.

Reporters repeatedly succumb to ascribing to the leader what I consider properties of the system. I think they adopt a great-man model that says if something is working, someone must be making it happen. With only Kim Jong Il or Kim Il Sung around, it must be them.

Misallocating causes to events leads to ineffective or counterproductive strategies to act on them.

I’ll illustrate with two New Yorker articles, not because they misallocate most, but because they do least. In an otherwise excellent article, Evan Osnos wrote, commenting on Vaclav Havel’s observation that totalitarian lies must be universal,

Nobody has engineered the apparatus of universal fiction more effectively, and catastrophically, than the Kim dynasty, which maintained control of a nation that still manufactures transistor radios built to receive only a single station. Where Mao and Stalin succumbed to the sheer scale of their undertakings, Kim Jong-il, and his father, Kim Il-sung, before him, addressed a more manageable canvas and “created one giant Potemkin village,”

He credits mostly the Kims for what I believe the “more manageable canvas” deserves. I believe the Kims, Mao, and Stalin all used the same techniques. Only the Kims’ isolated canvas allowed them to make their story universal in their domain. Russia and China border too many countries to seal off, as North Korea can.

He continues, that Kim Jong Il, during the collapse of the Soviet Union and periods of flooding and economic collapse,

was thrust through a series of military and Party promotions at the very moment that the system, by all rights, should have been collapsing. … Kim and his father maintained power, in part, by the force of their own mythology, and by keeping their people on a war footing for more than half a century.

I wrote before how factors unrelated to stability and loyalty won’t change the North Korean system of power. The Soviet Union collapse, flooding, and economic collapse didn’t affect stability and loyalty so, despite their size, those factors didn’t change the system.

In other words, the Kims didn’t maintain the system. It maintained them. Once the Soviets created the North Korea system in 1945, it had the durability to maintain itself under a wide set of circumstances.

Like many reporters, he characterizes Kim Jong Il as defiant as a person. Since his role required it, I don’t attribute him as much.

Kim was, by turns, a practitioner of terrorism and canny diplomacy. … In his final year, he showed little sign of retreat, as his forces sank a South Korean vessel, revealed a new uranium-enrichment program, and shelled the island of Yeonpyeong.

By my read he wasn’t canny. His system required shows of force like that to make the missile threat on Seoul credible. I expect all the decision-makers felt not attacking South Korea periodically risked their own lives, which I’m sure they values more than those of a few sailors.

All of the above interpretation would just amount to different opinions if it didn’t diverge in what to do next. He closes with a call to action, however modest.

America has a different kind of power at its disposal than China does: “The United States has the option to reach out early to the new leadership group. Where is the harm in that—versus keeping them isolated, at arm’s length, and allowing China to remain their only portal to the world? This is a moment for President Obama to reach out a hand.”

I agree the President of the United States reaching out a hand won’t hurt and I could imagine it helping, despite no President having changed anything systemic before.

But the more effective source of change, in my opinion, requires systemic change, which diplomacy hasn’t created. I believe a more effective call to action would be to motivate creating ties across the border to increase information flow — for example through tourism, sport, education, arts, culture, and even bootleg dvds.

I’d like to repeat I consider the New Yorker’s coverage excellent. I’m focusing on one point.

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