‘North Korea: State of Paranoia’, by Paul French

North Korea: State of Paranoia, by Paul French, Zed Books, RRP£12.99/$19.95)

North Korea has always puzzled, partly because its extreme isolation means we know so little about it. Former US vice-president Walter Mondale once said that anyone claiming to be an expert on the country was either a liar or a fool. Many times, Pyongyang appears to have craved dialogue with the west, particularly Washington. Yet at the same time it has pursued policies of extreme rhetorical and even physical antagonism, such as when it tried to blow up the South Korean cabinet in Rangoon in 1983 as it was seeking talks. Its twin desires to be isolated and to be engaged has left the west baffled about how to deal with it.

Paul French’s useful, if overlong, book portrays North Korea as a nation born through guerrilla activity and still psychologically in a state of war. Its paranoia has given birth to what he calls a “warrior communism”. That partially explains the seeming passivity of a people who have suffered humiliation, deprivation and, at times, starvation without any visible attempt to overthrow the regime. If much reporting on North Korea is hysterical, even at times grotesquely comical, French has gone the other way. His book is dry, serious and filled with acronyms, though it is written with a brisk confidence. He also manages to have the occasional bit of fun as with his description of the three-generation Kim dynasty throughout as Kim1, Kim2 and Kim3.

The US has stumbled badly in its dealings with North Korea, oscillating between engagement and sanctions, often with perverse results. President Bill Clinton’s 1994 Agreed Framework – in which Pyongyang promised to suspend its nuclear weapons programme in return for proliferation-resistant civil nuclear technology – was cynically exploited. Kim Jong Il milked the US of cash and expertise while continuing to enrich uranium. President George W Bush’s hardline approach, epitomised by his “axis of evil” speech, fared no better. Predicated on the mistaken belief that North Korea faced imminent collapse, talk of regime change merely pushed Pyongyang to accelerate its plans for a nuclear bomb. Even Mr Bush did not squeeze North Korea to the extent that the US has consistently blockaded Cuba. Throughout, the regime in Pyongyang has been kept alive by a drip-feed of humanitarian aid.

French calls North Korea the only unreformed Stalinist command economy standing. His thesis is that only by grasping the predicaments of an economy trapped in a no-win situation can one understand Pyongyang’s apparently extreme and contradictory positions. Through tracing halfhearted attempts to open the economy to market forces, he concludes the system is virtually immune to reform. The goal of improving economic conditions while preserving the regime has ultimately proved impossible.

In the early years, the economy appeared to be more successful than its South Korean counterpart. From the 1970s onwards, however, increasingly abandoned by the Soviet Union, it buckled under its central-planning contradictions. So short of power is North Korea today that traffic lights have been replaced by women. Air force pilots are starved of flying time. Malnutrition, which turned into famine in the 1990s, is so devastating that the army’s minimum height requirement is 4ft 11in, the shortest in the world. Unlike China, Vietnam and even Cuba, the country has failed to create a middle way between a command and a market economy.

Remaining independent – expressed through the juche policy of self-reliance – has meant a military-first line. That in turn has led to a downward spiral in which the meagre fruits of a failing economy have been ploughed into a bloated military. Seoul once estimated that Pyongyang could solve its perennial hunger problems by slicing 5 per cent off the military budget. The country, says French, has been called “autarkic, sclerotic, schizophrenic, Orwellian, anachronistic, a pariah or suicide state”. Ultimately, French says, it operates according to a certain internal logic.

Although essentially a failed Stalinist state, North Korea has managed to survive. It has done so once again through the recent succession in which Kim Jong Un (Kim3) has replaced his father as leader. French concludes that seeking to squeeze to death such an inherently unstable yet diehard regime is to invite disaster. That leaves the unpalatable, but probably necessary, course of constructive engagement, using the “poisoned carrot” of humanitarian aid in an effort to entice the country down the path of economic reform, as far as that is possible.

If French is right, North Korea is as it is not because it is run by madmen. Rather it has adopted a mad economic system from which it cannot safely ex­tract itself. Only by prodding it down the path of reform is there any prospect of change without catastrophe.

The reviewer is the FT’s Asia editor

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