Strong opinions, weakly held

The anachronism that is North Korea

Am I wrong in thinking that the most interesting thing about North Korea is that it is a living anachronism that illustrates how most countries around the world were governed in the pre-enlightenment world? Ostensibly North Korea is a Communist country ruled by a dictator, but now leadership has passed to third generation, I think it’s pretty clear that North Korea is for all intents and purposes a monarchy. As economic systems go, North Korea is home to an expansive state that keeps most of its people in a equivalent to serfdom. Any wealth generated by the country is used to maintain an army, build monuments to the ruling class, or fund the lifestyle of the “royal” family. Prior to the enlightenment, that’s how pretty much every country operated. As frustrated as I am with our government, even our somewhat shabby democracy is better in just about every way to what preceded it, monuments like Versailles, the Taj Mahal, and the Egyptian pyramids notwithstanding.

Update: Brad Plumer looks at the results of decades of misrule. Per capita income in North Korea is 5% that of South Korea, meaning that even if the two countries wanted to reunite, they probably couldn’t afford it.


  1. “Prior to the enlightenment, that’s how pretty much every country operated.”

    That’s a little oversimplified, don’t you think? Elizabethan England spent its surplus wealth on lots of things other than its military, its nobility, and its crown. Seventeenth-century Poland was governed by a broad-based aristocracy encompassing nearly ten percent of its population, with guarantees of religious freedom so strong that it attracted constant immigration from the countries to its west, east, and south. The oldest continually-functioning democratic institutions in Europe are the local Dutch water boards, some of which date back to the 1200s. 12th-century Venice, the Iroquois Confederacy, the Caliphate of Cordoba, and the Mediterranean world under the Pax Romana are all times and places that markedly differ from the model described in your claim about how “pretty much every country operated” before the Enlightenment. And those are just a few examples.

    I’d be the last to claim that any of these countries and periods were “free” by modern standards. Our understanding of Elizabethan England, for instance, is actually helped when we recall that in many ways it was an intrigue-ridden totalitarian state, complete with secret police and constant Orwellian shifts in the daily truth. Poland’s three-hundred-year elective monarchy was often described as a paradise for nobles and a hell for serfs. (Although serfs from elsewhere seemed to frequently leap at the chance to emigrate to Poland.) The Roman Empire certainly wrote the book when it comes to glorifying rulers and aristocrats. But all of these places differ from modern North Korea more than they resemble it.

    What I particularly deplore is this whiggish valorization of the Enlightenment as a singular transformation in human history. In fact, prior to the Enlightenment, people in many places and times managed to find ways to treat one another with greater justice, and things to spend surplus wealth on other than the glorification and comfort of their rulers. And the world subsequent to the Enlightenment has seen tyranny and mass immiseration on scales far beyond the dreams of the Kim Jong Ils of the human past. The problem with the Whiggish view of history is that in imputing a direction to “progress” it denies us the agency we actually need in order to progress. And when we ignore the achievements of our ancestors, generalizing their lives and cultures into a single totalitarian model, we blind ourselves to the ways in which we could lose everything we ourselves have.

  2. Your comment is a lot more thoughtful than my post, and correct of course. I over-generalized in a pretty lazy way. My main point was the anachronism that is North Korea. I picked the Enlightenment as a cutoff out of convenience rather than deep consideration, I have to admit.

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