Understanding the Norks

The behavior of the North Koreans in the last few weeks may well be explainable if we think about our experience with and knowledge of China.  Reading the news this morning, three closely connected thoughts that have been floating around in my head finally came into focus.

The first thesis is that North Korean institutions are like Chinese institutions we got to know when we first started working with large state-owned enterprises, only a LOT, LOT worse, in terms of a) their lack of knowledge and understanding of the outside world and b) their internal, institutional inability to accommodate realities (especially realities that arise from cultural differences of those outside the DPRK with whom they are dealing) that conflict with policies and edicts promulgated by those in authority.

The second thesis is that “juche” — the bizarre Nork ideology — is an extreme and pathological admixture of traditional “Sinitic” cultural elements (especially Confucianism) and “modern” nationalism.  From the Chinese/Confucian substrate comes reliance on strict hierarchical structures of authority.  From nationalism comes extreme chauvinism ramped up to hyper-paranoid levels.

If you combine these two elements with the fact that the Norks have a new leader that doesn’t have enough internal political capital to do ANYTHING that is inconsistent with these fundamental elements of North Korean society and polity, the result is a kind of rigidity that is basically inconceivable outside of their world.  No one can say ANYTHING that is inconsistent with the established line.  And the established line is a militaristic chauvinism that would make Hitler blush.

The last thing I’ve been thinking about is also based on my knowledge and experience of the Sinitic world: FACE (“mian”).  Think about how Japanese military and political figures before 1945 REGULARLY killed themselves rather than come to terms with failure or embarrassment.  When that was going on, Japan had been “open” to the West for decades.  North Korea has NEVER been open to the outside world.  Korea was a backwater that the Western imperial powers had completely ignored when the Japanese came in and took the peninsula over in the 1920s.  For the northern part of Korea, the ONLY experience they’ve ever had of the outside world was the most rapacious and extreme form of Japanese militarism and imperialism.  They went straight from that to the Kim dynasty.  North Koreans have never been exposed to any form of culture other than the most extreme and brutalized forms of pride/shame-based “face culture.”  To say that for North Koreans, “failure is not an option” is an understatement of gargantuan proportions.  The concept of dying — at one’s own hands, if necessary — rather than come to terms with failure — as failure is defined by the bizarre world in which they live — is FUNDAMENTAL in Nork culture.

… just some cheery thoughts for a Monday morning.

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