Archive for December 2011
In his life as much as after his death, the only thing certain about Kim Jong-il and his legacy is uncertainty.
According to state media, the North Korean leader died on a train on December 17th “from a great mental and physical strain” (later clarified as a heart attack). With his oversized sunglasses, wacky hairdo, and love for cognac and NBA cheerleaders, Mr. Kim always looked the part of the stereotypically eccentric dictator. And yet the son of the nation’s founder Kim Il-sung presided over one of the world’s most closed societies for almost two decades, craftily arming it with nuclear weapons even as millions of people starved to death in his hermit kingdom.
Mr. Kim’s death means he will miss the grand celebrations in 2012 that will follow the 100th year anniversary of the birth of his father. But what now for North Korea? If a planned transition goes smoothly, power will be handed over to the House of Kim in the form of Mr. Kim’s 27 year old third son Kim Jong-un, who state media has generously described as “a great person born of heaven” and the holy Mount Paektu, where his father was also reportedly birthed (accompanied, of course, by a bright star in the sky and a double rainbow that touched the earth).
There are enough reasons to question this flowery scenario. Whereas Kim Jong-Il had two decades to consolidate his power before taking the reins, his son has only had two years. Despite being named to various posts over the last few years by his father, the Swiss-educated Kim Jong-Un has an almost complete lack of military service in a near-totalitarian police state with the world’s fifth largest military. It may be true that the House of Kim will be managed as more of a triumvirate, with Kim’s son receiving significant assistance from Kim Jong Il’s cunning sister and her husband Chang Sung-taek, a powerful general within top military circles. Nevertheless, with North Korea’s fragmented structure of power and atrophying institutions (but for its military), a system designed to allow only the ‘Dear Leader’ to exercise control could quickly fracture after this new vacuum due to bureaucratic infighting.
The response from North Korean society will also be interesting to watch. It is certainly true that the country maintains a tight system of surveillance control backed by brutality, which has thus far prevented any real discontent from cohering into organized opposition. But, as others have argued before, things are slowly changing in North Korea. Newly established private markets have opened up the world of commerce to hundreds of thousands of North Koreans, with many visiting China as the trade between the two countries blossoms. These markets were at the center of riots which broke out in December 2009 over a hasty currency reform plan by the government. More than 800,000 North Koreans now also have cell phones, an astronomical growth from just tens of thousands just a few years ago which makes state control more difficult. Whether and when currency and technology loosen the shackles of ideology are at least questions worth pondering.
Even the hermit kingdom cannot completely isolate itself from external forces, and how the world reacts to the ongoing transition will be important. China, as Pyongyang’s main backer, has been quick to offer its condolences and will nervously hope for continued stability. Sorry is a harder word for South Korea given North Korea’s recent transgressions, but not saying it could dampen inter-Korean relations, much like Kim Young-sam’s refusal to offer condolences in 1994 did after Kim Il-sung’s death. For now, Seoul has its military on alert. For the United States, the timing of Mr. Kim’s death may delay the Obama administration’s decision whether to re-engage North Korea and provide it with food aid, and disrupt positive momentum that seemed to be building.
The longer term is fuzzier still, and one can only hope for the best and plan for the worst. The doomsday scenario of regime collapse, with massive refugee outflows across the border, loose nuclear warheads in the hands of terrorists, and military confrontations between North Korea, South Korea and other countries, is always on the back of the minds of Korea watchers. Even if the new Kim does ultimately take the helm, he may either be overly cautious, focusing on domestic affairs and hugging China ever closer while putting off tough decisions like transforming relations with the United States, or be too reckless in order to prove his heretofore untested mettle.
But there is also the possibility that Kim Jong-un, detecting rising discontent at home and recognizing the need for links abroad, may partner with more reform-minded and well-traveled members in various ministries and the military, and institute incremental changes that will gradually open up North Korea to the world. As someone who was schooled overseas, is said to have studied computer science, and advocated the introduction of cell phones into North Korea, he surely understands the importance of openness and technology. If he brings that to bear in his country, he will be a truly ‘Great Leader’ not just on the lips of the state media, but in the hearts and minds of the North Korean people.
Last Tuesday, I squeezed into an overflowing Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Auditorium to hear a lecture by the famous linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky entitled “Democracy in America and Abroad.”
Whether you agree with him or not, Chomsky is undoubtedly one of the leading public intellectuals of the 20th century. Much of that popularity stems not from his profound, abstruse contributions to linguistics, but his polemical and overly simplistic invectives against the United States.
Chomsky did not disappoint. As he often does in his books, including one of the latest, “Failed States” (2006), he painted a grim picture of America’s terminal crisis at home and moral crisis abroad, triggered by sinister forces that vie for money and power and manufacture threats while marginalizing the real concerns of the American people. In its supposed aim of preventing “viruses from spreading into contagions” abroad since World War II, Chomsky thinks the United States has not only infected the rest of the world with dictatorship, war and genocide, but ignored its own ailments at home.
Though history offers no shortage of American missteps, Mr. Chomsky’s ability to marshal mountains of evidence from around the world to back his claims was nonetheless impressive. To the untrained eye or the unassuming mind, his vivid accounts of how the United States thwarted democracy in Iran, Chile and Guatemala and built in a support system for risky companies at home may suggest that the hand of America’s corporate elite is obstructing the will of the people and advancing its narrow imperial interests.
Only an American apologist would deny that America is far from perfect in terms of both its domestic system and foreign policy. Yet Chomsky’s thesis about how and why policy failures occur is far too neat. Where he sees “rational consistency” — a calculated, staged effort by a few puppeteers advancing a set agenda — historians see a far messier world where U.S. policymakers try to balance ideals and interests, reconcile their fears and dreams and act on threats and opportunities by making difficult choices in a complex world with limited capabilities. In this world, there is far less design and much more debate than Chomsky suggests.
From this perspective, America supported these dictators rather than democrats abroad because policymakers, overwhelmed by fear or motivated by opportunity, sometimes viewed the world from the singular lens of communism, which tended to distort their vision. Similarly, the sub−prime mortgage crisis can be traced at least partly to earlier government efforts to increase home ownership among lower income people, which led to riskier loans, rather than just a corporate conspiracy to pocket profits. Interests mattered, but they were only part of a more complex and contested story.
On some counts, Chomsky’s virally popular and over−simplistic designs border on lunacy. He said the United States dreamed up NATO to control Europe, when it is now clear that the initiative first came largely from the European side amidst initial American ambivalence. Most shockingly, he questioned the assumption that the Cold War was a competition between the American and Soviet systems, which is the one thing on which most historians of the period agree.
Such a world offers little in the way of prescription. If policy is being run by the powers that be, there is precious little one can do beyond reading Chomsky’s book on anarchism, propagating cynical views and organizing radical protests. There is always room for radical thought. But one would hope the countless Tufts freshmen who attended the lecture do not catch the Chomsky virus, and channel their energies toward constructing designs and dreaming up worlds that do not exist at a time when they could be reforming part of a complex and imperfect American system that is a reality.
This article was originally published in the Tufts Daily here.
With early results from Egypt’s first round of elections showing a majority vote in favor of Islamists, many are wondering what the future holds for the rest of the Arab World after the wave of popular uprisings that shook the region.
Sami Moubayed, editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria, has an excellent piece out over at Asia Times Online that looks at this question from a long-term perspective. He argues that Islamism, just like Arab nationalism before it, needs to and will go through a decades-long evolution where Islamists take power, become corrupted by it, battle to hold on to it, and then get overthrown – perhaps by another Arab Spring in 2061. It is worth reading the whole thing, but two paragraphs stand out in particular:
The future of the Arab World, whether seculars like it or not, is going to be in the hands of Islamic parties – at least – for the foreseeable future. This trend, just like Arab nationalism before it, will not last forever. It has reached its zenith today, but pretty soon, the Islamists will get corrupted by power, just like seculars were corrupted before them.
We cannot predict that for sure, but this has been the cycle of history to date. Look at the Baathists before coming to power in Syria and look at them today, 48-years later. Look at the leaders of Fateh before 1993 and judge them today, almost 20-years later. Look at Iraqi Baathists before 1968 and look at them in the 1980s, during the heyday of Saddam Hussein’s era. But that is not going to happen anytime soon. The Islamists need to reach power, taste it, love it, get attached to it, become corrupted by it, fight to hold on to it, and eventually, get overthrown because of it – perhaps when another Arab Spring breaks out, 50-years from now. That Arab Spring, no doubt, would be through the ballots unlike this one which came through the street. Future goverments that lose a popular mandate will not be allowed to stay in power after their political legitimacy expires.
Of course, this evolution will be contested , not just by other domestic and foreign actors with their own interests and ambitions but factions within Islamist parties themselves. But Mr. Moubayed’s piece nonetheless reminds us that the surge of political Islam that we may witness over the next few years is but one chapter in the rise and fall of movements in the Arab world, and that we ought to see these short-term developments that inundate us daily in relation to the long view.