Everything is a sign of instability


It’s a combination of grandmother’s footsteps and Russian roulette

We’ve already touched upon the everything funds terrorism phenomenon, whereunder everything from ivory poaching to the Pirate Bay can be linked by a six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon-esque process to terrorism.

North Korea funds terrorism too, of course (everything funds terrorism), but North Korean politics also demonstrates another related phenomenon: everything is a sign of instability.

Experts have been predicting the collapse of North Korea since before it was founded, of course, but the tendency is not limited to the DPRK (though it is a particular hotspot).

The problem is that if you’re invited to editorialise on CNN or in the Times or something, and you say ‘Well yeah, nothing very interesting is going on’, you probably won’t be invited back. Moreover, pointing to problems -in whatever field – makes you look smarter.

It’s called hypercriticism. When we hear negative statements, we think they’re inherently more intelligent than positive ones. Teresa Amabile, director of research for Harvard Business School, began exploring this back in the 1980s. She took a group of 55 students, roughly half men, half women, and showed them excerpts from two book reviews printed in an issue of The New York Times. The same reviewer wrote both, but Amabile anonymized them and tweaked the language to produce two versions of each—one positive, one negative. Then she asked the students to evaluate the reviewer’s intelligence.

The verdict was clear: The students thought the negative author was smarter than the positive one—“by a lot,” Amabile tells me. Most said the nastier critic was “more competent.” Granted, being negative wasn’t all upside—they also rated the harsh reviewer as “less warm and more cruel, not as nice,” she says. “But definitely smarter.” Like my mordant tweets, presumably.


We saw the ‘everything is a sign of instability’ concept getting an exceptionally good workout following the NIS’s revelations/retractions regarding the purge and/or execution of Hyon Yong Chol.

When the first reports came in, all the old Korea hands rushed to file their copy declaring that Hyon’s execution was a sign of instability.

A few days later, when various doubts had been thrown upon the execution story, the same experts came back with analysis pieces declaring that Hyon’s non-execution was, yep, you’ve guessed it, a sign of instability.

Recent reports that the once-powerful general, Hyon Yong-chol, had been executed by firing squad because he fell asleep in a meeting with the ruler have since been downplayed, with South Korea saying he has been “purged” but “not necessarily killed”. But both occurrences point to vulnerabilities at the very top of the DPRK.

And it’s not just the big stories that are harbingers of North Korea’s collapse. Kim Jong Un visited a terrapin farm this week, and was mildly critical of both the centre’s ideological education apparatus and its failed attempts to breed lobsters.

This is – altogether now – a sign of instability:

“I think the phrase ‘room for the education in revolutionary history’ is critical. It means Kim is trying to conducting an ideological struggle,” Kang Dong-wan, professor of political science at Dong-A University told NK News.

“It is a very exceptional case of guidance, usually they take pictures together and Kim praises the workers. This kind of anger shows his regime is not completely stable.”


Of course, anyone with any experience of human behaviour at all will be able to tell you immediately that Kim criticising DPRK institutions is – far from being a sign of instability – rather an indication of relative security.

When an authoritarian regime feels confident in itself, that’s when it relaxes with regard to internal criticism, since everyday bitching is a handy way for the leadership to monitor public opinion (we’ve seen this lately in China, where various high-level pols were said to be opposed to Xi Jinping’s campaign against online ‘rumours’, instead seeing them as a useful way of finding out who was pissed off and about what).

Coincidentally, NK News published a very good article by Andrei Lankov about North Korea’s 1955 famine that makes precisely this point. Kim Il Sung’s shaky regime went out of its way to crack down on anyone who may have suggested that things in the Hermit Kingdom were not entirely tickety-boo, precisely because it was so fragile. Compare Stalin declaring in the middle of the purges that ‘Life is better now, life is more fun’.

Moreover, the more open attitude to field guidance fits in with other indications that North Korea is going in for a more relaxed style of propaganda. Check out their recent tv shows, ‘popular’ demonstrations, and photo-ops. These are all things that would never have happened under Kim Jong Il (though possibly under Kim Il Sung at certain particular points in history).

The idea that generals always fight the last war is a common one, but it applies equally well to professional analysts. Right now, the majority of foreign affairs specialists are experts on North Korea of the late 1990s, not North Korea in 2015. North Korea now is still shaky and traumatised, but has a far clearer and more confident idea of where it is heading than at any time since the end of the Cold War.


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