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North Korea, and the autonomy of violence

jang-song-thaekI am extremely concerned by the events in North Korea, and the recent execution of Jang Song-thaek. I have written before about the brutally appalling and yet comic opera absurdity of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), here, here, here,and here.

It is worth reflecting upon how, once unleashed in any given society, the entry threshold for political violence becomes lower and lower.

2014 will see the anniversary of two major catastrophes, the centenary of the great slaughter of the First World War, and the twentieth anniversary of the genocide against Tutsis in Rwanda. I am at the moment reading the anthology Remaking Rwanda, edited by Scott Straus and Lars Waldorf, which I think takes an unhelpfully unsympathetic view of the current RPF government of Paul Kagame. I am of course no expert on Rwanda, and most of my knowledge comes from Mahmood Mamdani’s fascinating book, When Victims Became Killers, but I do think it is problematic to project a discourse about democratic norms onto a traumatized post-genocide society as if these are just abstract ideals, an approach which does not acknowledge the enormous political, institutional and practical problems of reestablishing government authority, especially where the majority of the population may have supported or been ambivalent about the genocide.

What the Rwandan slaughter reveals is that violence takes its own autonomous life, particularly when combined with ideology that seeks to dehumanize others into symbolic categories. Mamdani documents how Belgian colonial policy had divided Rwanda’s population into racialized categories, and that the 1959 revolution had not challenged that racialization, but reversed it. As such, the military advances of the Anglophone exile Tutsi army in 1994, invading from Uganda, became perceived by many across the Hutu majority as an existential threat, and an increasingly fevered moral panic took hold, leading to a terrifying descent into barbarism. Jean Hatzfeld’s book, the Machette killers, which allows the genocidaires to explain their own actions, is almost unbearable to read, as the murderers recount how they overcame their first reluctance, and became adept at hacking to death children, women and men, who were often neighbours and colleagues.

The military tension on the Korean peninsula is no laughing matter, and the failure of the DPRK  to provide a sustainable economy that can support the basic needs of food security, dignity and comfort for the population is a matter of grave concern.

John Everard, former UK ambassador to the DPRK makes a gloomy prediction:

As ordinary North Koreans try to make sense of tumultuous events. Jang Song-thaek’s sudden fall will worry them. If even he, one of the most powerful people in the country, can be executed, so can anyone. Kim Jong-un has made it clear that utter loyalty to him is now a prerequisite for survival – both political and physical – in North Korea.

Even small, perhaps innocent, acts of deviation will be brutally punished – one of Jang’s crimes was not to stand up fast enough, or to clap with sufficient enthusiasm, when Mr Kim was anointed leader. What other misdemeanours are now punishable by death? Many of my North Korean friends used to cope with the tedium of their regular political lessons by going off into a dream world and not listening to what was being said. But I suspect that, from now on, everyone will be paying close attention in political classes, to learn what is required of them.

The unpleasant consequences of stepping out of line will have been particularly clear to those who will have pored over the newspaper photograph of Jang at his tribunal. They may have noticed, as have photographic analysts outside the country, that Jang’s cheek appears to be bruised and that there is discolouration around his wrists.

They will also have been startled by the revelations in the official reports both of Jang’s eviction from the party and of his tribunal. Usually the regime claims that the party is united around the views of Kim Jong-un, but these reports make clear that Jang and others disagreed with Mr Kim and allegedly even plotted against him.

This will be the first time that many North Koreans have learnt officially of heresy at the top of their regime. Moreover, they are brought up to believe that Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il were infallible geniuses. But these reports show that both men gave their trust to a man who was “no better than a dog”. So even the demigods who have ruled North Korea can commit errors of judgement?

Few will have seen a report of a show trial before. The last one was in 1958, when Kim Il-sung dealt with an attempt to unseat him from the leadership of the party. Although both he and Kim Jong-il dealt ruthlessly with those who opposed them, neither bothered with show trials – victims were simply executed with no pretence of legal process. The wonder and bewilderment on the faces of North Koreans photographed looking at the newspaper reports speaks volumes.

North Koreans in the military will be particularly nervous. One of Jang’s alleged crimes was to plot a coup against Kim Jong-un, involving the military old guard – those senior officers appointed not by Mr Kim, but by his father and grandfather. I suspect that the complicity of such officers in the “plot” will now be investigated, and that some at least will be dismissed (usefully allowing Mr Kim to replace earlier appointees with his own men) or worse. I doubt that Jang will be the last person to die in this purge.

As North Korea’s economy continues to stagnate, and its political system is locked into a sclerotic paralysis, its government plays a dangerous game of nuclear brinkmanship, seeking to extort foreign aid for concessions. To understand is not to condone, and it implies no support for the Workers Party of Korea to note that within the historical context that their regime has arisen, and the desperate dysfunctionality of their economy and their society, there are few easy answers, and the path taken by Kim Jong-Un has an appalling and dangerous rationality. The very severe danger is that the Kim’s government, which has maintained a siege mentality and commitment to widespread political violence decades after the Korean civil war ended, has sent a clear signal that in their view, Jang’s crimes pose an existential threat to the continued survival of the state, which they identify as having identical interests to Korean society. It is highly likely that Jang will be an exemplar of countless other “traitors”, and that this will be the start of a wide reaching and terrible blood-letting. Jang could easily become a template for the dehumanised and symbolic category of enemies of the state, who must therefore – in Kim’s eyes – be disposed of. I hope I am wrong.

Both political and economic reform and liberalization are vitally needed, but the patient in its present state may not be strong enough to survive the cure. If North Korea does collapse with a hard landing, this could destabilize, not only South Korea, but also China and Japan. Despite its deeply unsavory nature, political and economic engagement with the DPRK is the only way to nudge it towards reform, and away from repression. The DPRK’s government needs to be offered some vision of how to escape from their current deadlock without war.


  1. Dave Roberts says:

    You supported it all Andy because they were anti imperialist and now your chickens are really coming home to roost, for Milliband that is now that you are in Labour.

  2. Andy Newman says:

    You supported it all Andy because they were anti imperialist

    A very absurd comment given that I have never at any time in my life expressed anything remotely approaching support for the North Korean government, its actions or ideology.

    I would however point out that over the issue of nuclear weapons in particular, Britain has no moral authority to lecture North Korea, as Britain also spends an enormous amount of money on what are effectively weapons of potential genocide.

  3. John reid says:

    Too right Dave, anyone who also shed tears on a blog recently for the Death of Stalin and said Mao did more good than harm on another blog,has no place in a Democratic socialist party, like labour,

  4. Rod says:

    @ John Reid

    But those who betrayed UK armed forces by committing our country to unnecessary and disastrous military intervention are accommodated and feted, eh John?

  5. Andy Newman says:


    anyone who also shed tears on a blog recently for the Death of Stalin

    This is what I actually wrote:

    The harshest judgement of Stalin was from his closest lieutenants in the days and hours of his death.

    Stalin’s last years saw him increasingly in the grip of paranoia, he suspected his lieutenants Molotov, Mikoian and Voroshilov of being agents of Western governments, he dismissed his loyal private secretary of many years, Poskrebyshev in December 1952; and in this fevered atmosphere the party and the institutions of the state were gripped by a power struggle between Beria and Khruschev.

    Stalin was also becoming virulently anti-Semitic. A campaign against an alleged conspiracy of Jews, including the purged Czech party boss Slansky, was started in the influential journal, Kommunist , and in January 1953, Khrushchev’s ally Ignat’ev announced the Doctors’ Plot, claiming that Jewish doctors were murdering senior party figures. An hysterical atmosphere of anti-Semitism was being incubated in the party reminiscent of the fever before the Great Terror of 1937 and 1938.

    The details of Stalin’s death on 5th March 1953 remain unclear, with eye witness accounts differing in important regards; Stalin had collapsed after a night’s drinking at his Kuntsevo dacha on the night of 1st March, but instead of calling for medical help, the guards had instead called his Kremlin political subordinates while Stalin lay untended on the floor for 12 to 14 hours. The four most important leaders, Bulganin, Malenkov, Beria and Khruschev all visited in the middle of the night and stood over their dying boss, but doctors were not called to the dacha until mid morning on 2nd March. In the context of a witch hunt in the outside world which threatened to consume even Stalin’s closest collaborators, the facts strongly suggest an improvised and ad hoc conspiracy to allow him to die; even Stalin’s protégés, Khruschev and Malenkov did not act to save him.

    There can be no clearer condemnation of Stalin that his friends and closest comrades saw him as a monster who they would allow to die like a dog. And it is easy to find examples of Stalin the monster, the man who signed 3167 death warrants on 12th December 1938 alone, and who personally initiated the persecution of innocent family members of his opponents.

    You say:

    Mao did more good than harm

    Presumably you think this is wrong?

    China had collapsed under the yoke of Japanese invasion, was consumed by civil war, and many areas had fractured into warlord entities; life was brutish, short and impoverished.

    Mao reunited the country, contributed to throwing out the Japanese, and there was a sustained increase in life expectancy, health, literacy and prosperity.

    Now of course the contrast of GMD governed Republic of China in Taiwan can be invoked, but the Goumindang government there exhibited many of the same qualities as CPC ruled PRC.

    Recovering from almost total social collapse, war, invasion, warlordism, and the incompatibility of the former system of Confusian bureaucracy with the modern world, then China needed to be rebuilt in the absence of any tradition of the rule of law, or social stablility.

    Modern liberal democracy simply was not an available option; in that context while it is of course easy to find examples where Mao’s government failed, it is very hard to sustain the conclusion that China was worse off rather than improved by reunifification, stable government and economic growth.

  6. John reid says:

    Mao threw out the Japanese, er, WW2 was over by 1945′ he came to power in 48. And did nothing despite What Livingstone said about fight the Japanese ,excluding WW2 all the things in life improvement happened in the 30’s such as stopping girls wearing shoes to stop their feet growing, and the increase in wealth was nothing to do with Mao, that would have happened anyway, and if it didn’t would killing 40 million people be worth it,

  7. John reid says:

    Rod good bit of whataboutery

    How about Hitler got the trains on time, was a vegetarian, liked kids and Dogs and was a vegetarian.

    As for Blair ,the point is there arê those who ignore Mao and Stalins genecide when criticising everyone from historical sceptics who say it was impossible that 6 million Jews died in the holocaust,when considering how many trade unionist, Gypsies and gays were gassed, to the NF saying the holocaust never happened to some extremist Muslims saying the holocaust never happened,

  8. Andy Newman says:

    John Reid

    I suggest you read some proper history books, then you could participate in the conversation in an informed way.

  9. Rod says:

    John: “Rod good bit of whataboutery”

    Not at all old chum. If you’re suggesting some opinions/behaviours are unacceptable within the Labour Party you have to apply the standard of judgement evenly.

    Otherwise your position amounts to nothing more than ‘Tony Blair is great because I say so’ childishness. And, like the leaders of Trot parties, you’ll end up wanting to expel everyone who is not prepared to succumb to your delusions.

    But back to my earlier point – I’m certainly not aware of Andy Newman directly contributing to the unnecessary deaths of 100,000s of people.

  10. John reid says:

    Rod,Judgement evenly, over throwing a dictator who gassed the Kurds, killing 40 million people more than hitler

    Well they’re even things aren’t they

    Andy, how aBout I read Tony Benns autobiography, Stalin didn’t kill millions of people cHairman Mao did more good than harm, he was the greatest bloke of the 20th century

    It’s like me suggesting to you that you read a book that says the holocaust never happened .

  11. Rod says:

    @John Reid

    Not sure who you’re referring to but I hope the person responsible for “killing 40 million people more than hitler” isn’t applying to to join the Labour Party.

    It won’t look good.

  12. John reid says:

    Saying Stalin did more harm than good and Mao was the greatest bloke of the 20th century, wasn’t exactly ,great PR for Tony Benn when he was dictating labour policies in the early 80’s was it,

  13. Dave Roberts says:

    What you are doing Andy is desperately rewriting your history now that you are a PPC albeit in an un-winnable seat. Your problem is that while your heroes in the former Soviet block could do a re-write and get away with it the same doesn’t work in the West.

    I have done the reading especially ” Mao:The Unknown Story” by Jung Chang and John Halliday an absolutely horrendous catalogue of the crimes of the monster.

    I also seem to remember you praising the “positive” side of the DDR such as health care. Pity about the Stasi and the thousands of lives they destroyed.

    It’s a bit late for all this when you were, I think, in the SWP for twenty or so years and on the national committee or whatever it was called of Respect.

    How you ever got into the Labour Party never mind selected beggars belief.

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