Book Review: North Korea: Markets and Military Rule, by Hazel Smith

Hazel Smith, North Korea. Markets and Military Rule (Cambridge University Press, 2014), ISBN 978-0-521-72344-2

Reviewed by Robert Winstanley-Chesters, University of Cambridge (Beyond the Korean War) and University of Leeds (School of Geography)

North Korea is a sovereign space surrounded on all metaphorical, analytical and conceptual sides by common sense. It is common sense that Pyongyang’s government is an autocratic, reactionary outlier, a dinosaur of politics and ideology, long past its expected expiration. It is common sense that its government, bureaucracy, elite and leadership simply abrogate and neglect their commitments under any conception of a social contract between ruler and people, failing to provide sustenance, safety or security in any sense. It is common sense that North Korea is a direct military and diplomatic threat to its immediate neighbours, its nuclear capacity one of the great known unknowns of global security calculation. It is common sense that North Korea uses nefarious and illegal means to fund itself, contravening international and national legislation at all levels. It is common sense that the only future for North Korea is collapse, dissolution and absorption into the body politic of its threatened and more worthy southern neighbour, the Republic of Korea. It is common sense that its leadership and bureaucracy are culpable for crimes against natural law, order and humanity and must be punished according to the frameworks and statutes of international law. These things are all common sense, things we know, the corporeal body of vernacular, academic and governmental consensus on a global level.

Common sense is of course as contested a terminological device as any other in these fractured, difficult times and the statistical grounds for many elements of common sense are widely critiqued and broken down. Indeed, the contestability of the wider body of Liberal common sense is one of the key features of the public, media and popular body politic of reaction post 9-11 and COP 15. What is never contested or contradicted is the terrain and ground of acceptable conversation and consideration that births and maintains such a common sense.

Chomsky in his analysis of what he terms “Cartesian Common Sense” decries the grounding of that common sense in the bed of expertise and apparently accumulated knowledge which sets (apparently coincidentally) its own shallow, meagre limits in order to essentially dictate the space of debate, speech, thought and deed (Chomsky, 1983). While this reviewer cannot imagine Hazel Smith summoning Chomsky urgently to mind in the construction of her book North Korea: Markets and Military Rule, she cogently and coherently describes the space of academic, political and intellectual knowledge surrounding Pyongyang in intriguingly similar terms.

Professor Smith’s now famous maxim that North Korea was presented to history and the public as either ‘mad, bad or sad’ (Smith, 2000), by academic analysis and common sense, serves as the disappointed, frustrated starting point for this book. North Korea: Markets and Military Rule is on the face of it an authoritative and comprehensive refresher course in not only the history of North Korea’s ideology, governmentality, economics and military capacity and the narratives of the wider world’s diplomatic efforts and engagements with it. However Smith equally provides a tart, assertive moment of reckoning for bodies of knowledge surrounding what we know about North Korea.

Extremely well organised and structured, Smith takes the perhaps uninitiated through the full panoply of North Korean historical periodisation – moving from the depths of Japanese colonial occupation and to the imagined high points of triangulative socialism, then finally arriving back at the misery and ‘darkness’ of the famine and what for Pyongyang seems like the death of both optimism and the future. In common with other interesting research from recent years, Smith moves in the final third of the book, to the second half of its title, exploring the extraordinary fact of North Korea’s accommodation with capitalist stores of value and an ad-hoc market system. Unlike other work on the matter, however, North Korea: Markets and Military Rule takes a holistic approach to the study, considering the impact of capitalist modes and practices of being in the round and their impact on the social and familial spaces and politics of North Korea.

In two fascinating sections in its later stages the book encounters empirically similar spaces to those investigated from an anthropological perspective through the interview material in Sandra Fahy’s recent Marching Through Suffering. Fahy’s interviewees experience death and misery on their doorsteps and in front of the local train station, crisis brought about by North Korea’s difficulties in the early 1990s and through the ebbing away of state support from peripheral and non-core populations in favour of marketised self-reliance. In common with the explosion of deprivation seen in post-Soviet Russia and the wider eastern Europe, the much vaunted and celebrated process of marketization is not entirely a good, but means that “In marketised North Korea, the worst off were the elderly, and adults and children who could not call on family support…” (274)

Categorising the impact of both economic marketization and acute social changes brought about by the diminution and diffusion of political control as ‘the end of the monolith,’ Smith explores the ground of the new realities in North Korea through extensive use of UNICEF and North Korean Census Bureau statistics. This analysis reveals some extraordinary, yet virtually overlooked facts of the post-monolithic era, from the collapse in attendance rates at school, to the appearance of teenage pregnancy as a social issue and statistical fact in North Korea (273). Smith, though, is rigorously fair as the cracks in Pyongyangs system are laid bare, so credit and comment is given focused on the utility and functionality of North Korea’s health infrastructure in the post-famine period. Professor Smith recounts progress in reducing infant mortality rates (270) and success in the reducing the prevalence of both tuberculosis and malaria within North Korea’s population (271). While this success perhaps could be credited in part to the interjection of United Nation’s agencies such as the World Health Organisation, Smith notes the WHO’s own assessment that such progress was due to “effective societal organisation” (271).

The notion of crediting North Korean capabilities and abilities where credit is due, may of course be anathema to some, but a hallmark of Smith’s empirical sensibilities have been her considered fairness, and North Korea Markets and Military Rule is no different. Likewise and perhaps returning to this reviews prognostication surrounding the notion of common sense surrounding North Korea, Smith is perfectly comfortable calling out obfuscation and prevarication when it comes to academic reliability. This book in a sense is a master class in the deployment of footnotes to add content to a discussion and weight to an argument or denunciation. Smith’s untangling of webs or circles of ‘common sense’ surrounding in particular evidence for North Korean criminal activity, in footnotes on pages 36 and 37 for example is utterly extraordinary. Likewise Smith’s emplacement of North Korea within a more contextual frame of global deprivation and governmental failure (32-33) is an act of academic rigour seldom seen.

Ultimately North Korea: Markets and Military Rule serves as the most valuable of texts, a benchmark and at times an almost medicinal corrective to which the academic genre of North Korean studies could return to regain its epistemic and empirical bearings after moments of hyperbole and hyperventilation. Smith’s fine work will, this reviewer is sure underpin academic courses and modules the (English-speaking) world over, a work of reference and return.

References (other than Markets and Military Rule)

Chomsky, Noam. The Chomsky Reader. London: Serpents Tail, 1988.

Fahy, Sandra. Marching Through Suffering: Loss and Survival in North Korea. New York City, NY: Columbia University Press, 2014.

Smith, Hazel. “Bad, Mad, Sad or Rational Actor? Why the ‘Securitization’ Paradigm Makes for Poor Policy Analysis of North Korea.” International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1944-). Vol. 76, No. 3, Europe: Where Does It Begin and End? (Jul., 2000), pp. 593-617.