Friday, February 24, 2012

The dependency illusion

Through trial and extreme error, communism has been thoroughly discredited in the last century; however, the theory of dialectical materialism survives into the new millennium. Marx suggested that the construction of new means of production inevitably leads to internal contradictions and new epochs are created through the process of synthesizing all the existing material realities. Today, we simply replaced the idea of an inevitable communist takeover with the presumption that every country will one day adopt the liberal democratic system.

This was Francis Fukuyama's famous thesis in "The End of History?" However, the revolt against this new world order began soon after the end of the Second World War, right alongside the Cold War. This was the struggle fought via economic nationalism and competing theories of modernization, taking shape in various ideologies and political systems. Latin American economists first led the charge in the 1940s and 50s with their "Dependency Theory." The core idea forwarded the view that poor and less powerful states will be subject to the political, economic, social and cultural domination of wealthier states. Adherents of this theory chose to disengage from the dominant economic systems of their world in favor of sovereignty.

There were varying degrees (everything from import substitution to self-sufficiency), but the most radical and extensive pursuit of this stance can be seen in North Korea. North Korea rejected the idea of being subject to either American or Soviet political and economic influences. Manifestations of this appeared in Pyongyang's refusal to join COMECON and its constant pursuit of heavy industry.

However, many analysts have pushed aside indigenous North Korean desire to be independent and instead analyzed Pyongyang's policies as an attempt to maximize political capital by playing the Soviet Union against the PRC during the Sino-Soviet Split. Naturally, in the post-Soviet era, the US foreign policy makers look to China as North Korea's patron and sole hegemon. As negotiations in Beijing carry on to denuclearize North Korea, this mistaken perception of Sino-DPRK relations will prove most ineffective for the US side.

North Korea appears to be increasingly dependent on Chinese economic aid and slowly making reforms to harbor cross-border trade. Some have argued that such reforms indicate North Korea's irreversible ties to China and a physical representation of Beijing's influence over Pyongyang, almost like the economic and political relationship that the US had with Latin America. However, to characterize the Sino-DPRK relationship as a traditional core-periphery model is short sighted.

The basic assumption that North Korea's economic dependence translates to political subjugation lacks substantial warrants. Yafeng Xia, a historian specializing in the history Sino-DPRK relations, portrayed China as less of a lever and more of a hammer, meaning that Beijing can strangle/starve Pyongyang to death but lacks the tools to apply less extreme changes or bring it to submission.

On top of not wishing to upset the balance of powers,North Korea serves as an important source of raw materials for development in China's northeastern provinces.

Furthermore, with everyone expecting millions of refugees to flood across the Yalu when the state collapses, it is hard to distinguish who has leverage over whom in the current state of affairs.

There is a predominant mood of inevitability when people discuss issues related to North Korea - that it will one day collapse or that it will inevitable bow to the economic realities and give themselves to the Chinese model. However, such thoughts are presumptuous and oversimplifies how different people view themselves and the world.

Imposition of dogmatism and a self-assuredness in one's own vision of history are not new things, but we ought to have learned our lesson and become more flexible.

Read my article in the context of the US-DPRK negotiations on Asia Times

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