Originally published in gair rhydd, issue 912, December 2009
Twenty years ago was a bad month for dictators. Egon Krenz resigned in East Germany as December 1989 began; Ceausescu died in Romania as it ended.
The democratic left feels ambivalent about the former Soviet empire, akin to Christians’ feelings about the Renaissance. We believe in equality, democracy and the advancement of humanity; as such we are ashamed to be associated with the criminal, tyrannical regimes of Stalin and his followers. Nonetheless we view the facts objectively: a backward Russia became one which landed spacecraft on other worlds. What other country came so far in fifty years?
In 1936 Trotsky predicted how the USSR would fall and what would happen afterward, and he was right. Russian life expectancy and GDP plummetted after 1989. Inequality attained unprecedented heights. Full employment in Eastern Europe became mass unemployment, fuelling the growth of neo-fascism. “Democracies” in Russia and elsewhere are merely new oligarchies based in organised crime and state terror.
These negative consequences of the end of Stalinism took place in countries that had enough resources for their people to have food and jobs. What happens when Stalinism falls in a country not satisfying those basic needs? What happens in North Korea?
North Korea’s own government estimates that three million people, ten per cent of the population, died of famine in the 1990s. No night time lights shine into space from North Korea: there’s not enough electricity. Militarisation is a huge dead weight on the economy, but the influence of that military blocks any attempt at reform that might arise. No real attempts are expected: Kim Jong Il and the rest of the North Korean leadership live notoriously lavish lifestyles and are unlikely to do anything that would put themselves at risk.
It is easy to be an armchair leftist and say what “should” happen: North Korea should get what Eastern Europe’s revolutionaries of 1989 wanted, a peaceful transition to democratic socialism. A democratic federation of all Korea would have plenty of resources for both countries. Indeed, North Korea has proposed a federation in the past – strictly on terms that would preserve its dictatorship. South Korea has no incentive to accept, as long as capitalism, which views North Korea’s plight as a bad investment to be avoided rather than as a humanitarian crisis to be solved, persists.
Instead we must look to what likely “will” happen: North Korea’s dictatorship will fall, violently. American intervention will be clumsy and bungled. Whatever government follows will somehow manage to make things even worse. Millions will starve, more will become refugees. As a new class of mega-billionaires grow fat off their personal economic empires, most North Koreans will be reduced for generations to dirt-cheap, dangerous, disposable labour for industrialists across Asia and the world.
The worldwide press will gloss over this tragedy, casting it as a necessary evil, birthing pangs of the One True Way of neo-liberal capitalism. The disaster in North Korea will be used to discredit every socially progressive movement, from environmentalists to trade union organisers to peace campaigners. Just as in 1989, we on the left will be blamed for the Kims’ perverted “socialism”.
But, just as in 1989, I have no doubt that we on the left will lead from the front, working for humanitarian causes and fighting for the rights, freedoms and dignities of the North Korean people. When the Berlin Wall fell we were unpopular; but we were right, and we will be just as right when the last wall falls on the Korean peninsula.