What can we plausibly hope for with North Korea?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

First: The North Korean regime has never been bureaucratized in the modern sense of that term. While we don’t have comprehensive information, it seems that until recently Kim as leader had not been going abroad, nor had he been receiving many visits from other heads of state. His position and perhaps his mood has been one of extreme isolation, and he is not surrounded by anything resembling the U.S. State Department or even the old-style Soviet bureaucracies that managed foreign policy for the USSR. The rest of his regime is probably poorly informed about the extent of American military superiority, should a conflict come to pass.

By meeting with other foreign leaders, the North Korean regime would be forced to build up its basic processes for dealing with the rest of the world. That in turn creates interest groups and flows of information (some of which invariably leak out). The North Korean populace responds by thinking more about the outside world, making it harder to control by propaganda. In turn the North Korean leadership may decide to continue economic liberalization.

One need not count on an “End of History” story culminating in liberalism and democratization. The more modest hope would be for the North Korean leadership to become more decentralized, more bureaucratic, better informed and harder to marshal behind crazy military measures.

The unspoken goal of engagement would be to encourage North Korea to evolve into a more banal and more predictable form. That is the natural flow of most bureaucratic organizations, so in this regard American negotiators actually have time on their side. The North Koreans are going to change a lot more than the U.S. is likely to.

And the concluding sentence:

Think of any diplomatic talks with North Korea as a big act of theater — designed not to fool him, but to teach him that theater itself can be fun.

Do read the whole thing.


"One need not count on an “End of History” story culminating in liberalism and democratization"

Does Mr Cowen truly wish greater democratization and liberalism should constitute an "end of history" if he were to have his say on history?

I am not convinced that democracy is the best form of government there is. Let's take the example of United Kingdom.

Britain between 1558 and 1867 was without doubt the world's greatest success story with unprecedented economic growth, hitherto not witnessed by any other country in human history. Now why do I pick those dates. 1558 marks the ascent of Elizabeth I. 1867 marks the passage of the Reform Bill which made Britain something close to a democracy by extending the franchise to working class males for the first time.

So for the whole of this period of three centuries, what was the nature of British Government?

1558 to 1688 : A good old fashioned divine right monarchy with strong Tudor and Stuart rulers (excepting a brief interlude of Puritan madness)

1688 to 1867 : A constitutional monarchy which nevertheless was undemocratic. With power resting with a Parliament that was for the most part comprising of hereditary peers.

1867 to 1918 : A quasi democracy where the franchise was limited to <30% of population.

1918 to 1928 : A democracy where all men could vote, but most women couldn't.

1928 : 100% franchise extended to all adults.

Now can anyone here claim honestly that British governments post 1928 have been "better" in all respects than all those undemocratic British governments from 1558 to 1867 that oversaw the Golden Age of Britain?

If anything the onset of Democracy starting from 1867 and definitely since 1928 marked the beginning of British decline. Britain was less of a power in 1928 relative to 1867. And definitely a much lesser power today than it was in 1928.

Based on the British experience, should we seek democracy as the "end of history" so to speak?

Correlation does not prove causation. Many other European countries that prospered until 1867 have undergone the same path, as colonialism ended. And yes, many of those countries also became democracies in the same time frame, but that still isn't proof. Even if Britain hadn't become a democracy, it almost certainly would still have had to give up its colonies, producing the same result.

To be fair the arguments on the other side are also based on inferring causation from correlation.

BTW he has at least correlation to show. What do you?

Also, you may be making the fallacy of assuming that he is implying causation from correlation; it is usually correlation that motivates a research idea; establishing causation comes later. So perhaps his point is just that this is a good question to ask, not that it is a settled matter, and you are trying to shut him up by forcing a twisted interpretation of his view?

There is a very strong correlation between freedom/democracy and prosperity among modern nations. A much more robust data set than several historical periods of Britain.

Also, "golden age" aside, life in modern Britain is far better than life in 1588-1867 Britain by nearly any reasonable measure. Also I think any reasonable measure of governance quality would also find modern Britain to be better governed. Of course there are problems of historical comparability, but those plague shrikanthk's analysis as well. In particular, it's much easier to grow rapidly from a much lower baseline.

Ofcourse modern democracies are more prosperous. But then we all stand on the shoulders of giants. It is disingenuous to compare any metric of lifestyle today with that of 1700.

I'd argue its a lot easier to grow when you have figured out the engine of growth and need to scale things up, as opposed to inventing the wheel - which is what happened during the 17th-18th-19th centuries.

+1. Also, dan1111, one should also consider that a lot of the causality may actually in the reverse direction. I would like to know if this is the case with south Korea and Taiwan developing rapidly under dictatorship and then becoming more democratic, Singapore and China allowing more and more freedom to their people, even if at a glacial pace. And do we know well enough how far labor rights movements are made feasible by rising wages/prosperity?

In other words, perhaps we don't create more money using democracy, but we buy more democracy when we have more money: enough prosperity makes it feasible for the society to pursue "spiritual" ends.

If I may be allowed some more wild speculation, are there aspects to the world economy 2000+ years ago that allowed for several people from Athens to the Licchavis in India bring in relative democracy? And were there structural changes that killed democracy in a few centuries hence?

Really good comment, +1.

hoplite warfar-> relative democracy

armed cavalry ->relative aristocracy/oligarchy


The rise of Britain had little to do with colonialism. In fact Great Britain had a larger empire at the time of Victoria's death (circa 1905) as compared to 1867. Yet in terms of economic might, Great Britain was a lesser power in 1905 relative to 1867 - in the intervening years, Germany and US had caught up significantly.

Weren't they expanding from a lower base?

Sure. My point is - greater democracy saw Britain lose its relative lead.

I am not batting for a return to Tudor monarchy here. I am merely expressing scepticism at the "end of history" thesis.

I am not batting for a return to Tudor monarchy here. I am merely

I know :)

But during the period of Britiain's greatest power, the United States as steadily growing, to the point where it eventually supplanted Britain as the world's hegemon. And the United States was at all times much more democratic than Britain. So maybe that proves that the more democratic polity is always the polity of the future. (In which case, not just North Korea, but China, have no future.)

Sure. But even the United States had its Constitution and form of government designed by a bunch of squires (excepting Hamilton) from Virginia, Massachussets and New York. Nothing too democratic about it.

And even the US had a much stronger 19th century than 20th century relatively speaking. And I guess everyone would agree that US was less democratic (far less democratic) in the 19th century as compared to the 20th century.

Those numbers make little sense in isolation.

Growth rates in 20th century have obviously been much higher because a lot of the growth has been about plucking the low hanging fruit. Growth realized by sending people to college, improving labor force participation of women, new manufacturing jobs among other things.

Growth in 19th century was obviously a LOT harder as there was no model to copy. No low hanging fruit to pluck. Innovations had to happen from the scratch. The "catch up" growth model didn't work back then.

If you're the world leader on the cutting edge of technology, does it makes sense to refer to "catch up" growth? Wasn't the earlier fruit even lower-hanging?

No. It wasn't.

It's a lot harder to invent the wheel, than reinvent it.

Just to nitpick - the franchise got extended to cover all women only as late as 1928. Not 1918

England and later the United Kingdom had almost no GDP per capita growth from 1558 to 1758. From 1758 to around 1800, an average GDP growth was verry small, around 0.3% in 1750 to 0.5% in the late 1700s.

Not true.

In 1600, UK per-capita income in 2011 Intl Dollars was $1691. It grew to $2365 by 1700, $2822 by 1766, $4,248 by 1850, $5716 by 1870 and $8052 by 1913

Can you provide a link?

The 1600s in Western Europe including have been estimated at an average per capita growth of only 0.1% a year. 0.4% a year seems far to high.

The 1700 to 1776 period shows a slowdown to 0.1% growth per capita per year. Why would growth be 4 times slower than growth in the 1600s as inventions were rapidly increasing after 1700?

You use 1766 to 1850 for the next period but that 0.5% average per capita growth includes 50 years of the early Industrial Revolution.

I have the 385 page PDF, but can you give the page number?

Here is what I found on p. 264 of Maddison's Millenial Project for England/UK. GDP per capita in 1990 international dollars:

1500 $714;
1600 $974 (.04% per capita growth rate in 1500s)
1700 $1250; (.03% per capita growth rate in 1600s)
1820 $1707; (.02% per capita growth rate in 1700s)
1870 $3191; (1.2% growth in first 50 years of the IR)

Then again Gregory Clarke has written that Maddison's numbers prior to 1800 are a fiction. Makes sense.

This should be:
1500 $714
1600 $974 (0.4% per capita growth rate in 1500s)
1700 $1250; (0.3% per capita growth rate in 1600s)
1820 $1707; (0.2% per capita growth rate in 1700s)
1870 $3191; (1.2% growth in first 50 years of the IR)

I must qualify my remark by saying the Constitution was ratified by a popular vote. But the fact it was conceived by individuals who were not chosen through a popular process.

Moreover 18th century US was a remarkably well educated society for its time, relative to most old world countries (even in Europe). So while democratic government worked out in the new world, I don't see why it would work just as well in the old world where you had a far less well educated populace (at the dawn of the 19th century).

@shrikanthk - "I am not convinced that democracy is the best form of government there is. Let's take the example of United Kingdom." - thread hijack noted. Where does TC say anything about "best form" and economic growth? And why do you assume that democracy equals the highest form of economic growth? Capitalism is not democracy (look at Singapore) and besides wartime communism beats democracy (which assumes communism's Command And Control form during wartime). Democracy is the best government for peace, not for economic growth (see for example India). And as that Hawaiian professor and others have noted, no two democracies in the modern era have ever gone to war.

I realize I am digressing from the main point of the post, but you may possibly like this link if you can access an ungated copy: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-dark-side-of-the-enlightenment-1523050206

But UK, since 1867, has won two world wars out of two. Not bad.

By the way, Blah, this is one of the correlations you were asking for (taken from a vague memory of The End of History, that I read too fast a long time ago) : Democracies tend to win wars, in particular world wars (and also not to wage wars between themselves). The democracies UK, US, Canada have won 2 world war, France (and Belgium, Holland), let's say, one and three quarters. The non-democratic Autrich-Hungary and Ottoman empire have lost (and lost big) WW1, as did Germany, which was at best at this time half a democracy (the Bundestag was freely elected by all males over 23, but it could be dismissed at any time by the Kaiser, and could not initiate laws, just vote them when proposed by the government chosen by the Kaiser). Russia, certainly not a democracy, managed to lost World War I even though it was in the winning side at the beginning. Italy before WWI had a constitution similar to that of Germany but was more democratic in practice, in that no government could survive without the approval of the freely elected house. Italy won WW1.

For World War II, it is even clearer: the democracies (plus USSR) won, and the non-democracies (minus USSR) lost.

May be a third world war and a fourth would be useful to get more data points, but we already have a strong correlation. Causality, of course, is another matter.

Sorry I wrote unclearly. I wasn't claiming that the "other side" didn't have a correlation to show, but merely upset that the specific commenter over there was feeling entitled to ask for more rigorous argument while himself not giving any to justify that Britain would have still had to give up colonies etc. I tend to take it personally (and sometimes lose it, as you can see above) when those with "establishment" positions expect "underdog positions" to standards that they themselves don't follow.

For the record, I personally subscribe to endorsing a universal "democracy vs non-democracy" prescription. Most likely there are countries that are better off being democracies and countries that aren't (e.g., China or Korea/Taiwan a few decades ago, some stable dictatorships like Saddam's Iraq), and this distribution too changes with respect to time. I am tempted to cite as a conjectural example that there were suddenly so many (relative) democracies in the first few centuries BC, which all vanished in a few centuries; there might have been some reason, possibly a "global one" that made democracies unstable then.

*I don't personally subscribe...

@Joel - re wartime, as I posted above, 'command-and-control' aka 'requisitioning factories for the war effort, ala Ford's plants in WWII', works, aka "wartime communism". Democracy has nothing to do with winning wars. And WWII was largely won (with the help of allies) by the Soviet Union, with its wartime communism.

For World War II, it is even clearer: the democracies (plus USSR) won, and the non-democracies (minus USSR) lost.

That's a hell of a parenthetical there. It's perhaps easiest to get to this conclusion if one defines "the democracies" as "those countries that won WW2 (minus USSR)."

I am not convinced that democracy is the best form of government there is.

What is meant, exactly, by the casually used "democracy"? Giving each man, woman and canine a meaningless vote on total strangers to make life altering decisions certainly wouldn't be described as democracy to a classical Athenian. Democracy, like freedom, is an abstraction so nebulous as to be worthless in terms of political analysis.

By the way, Britons under the Stuarts felt themselves to be the freest men on earth.

Amen. Perhaps with respect to North Korea the powers that be should try something radical: recognize its leadership and convince members of that leadership that they have nothing to fear from constructive relationships with the rest of the world. Said leadership would be justifiably leery, but with enough time and effort... nah, never happen. Better nuke 'em just to on the safe side of making the world safe for democracy .

The problem is that the West made precisely that deal with Qaddafi, and then it helped to depose him and kill him. It will be a long time before any dictator trusts promises of engagement again.

Makes sense -- now that Trump has made more diplomatic progress with DPRK than any President before him, folks like Tyler must dismiss it as "theater."

But don't worry: should everything go to hell, folks like Tyler will be first in line to tell us how This Is All Very Real.

You have a knee-jerk reaction if you call the current utterances anything more than that. There has been no real progress here. It would be better to say more of the same so far.

Wait until we see what falls out of any conference. Then wait another few years to see what Kim and the DPRK leadership actually do. At that point one can start talking about any actual progress.

"The more modest hope would be for the" ...."leadership to become more decentralized, more bureaucratic, better informed and harder to marshal behind crazy military measures."

This could apply to America. Our zeal to defeat communism/fascism/socialism/terrorism has made us equally crazy.

@Evans_KY - of course you're right, that's why the USA became more 'bureaucratic' after WWI-- bureaucratic states can marshal resources to win world wars, aka "wartime communism" see above. This is well known. In fact, nearly every anti-free trade argument often revolves around "this US industry has strategic war value and must be preserved". War and the threat of war is the opium of the masses, and one reason they love Big Government ('war on drugs', 'war on terrorism').

ISIS destroyed. North Korea cowed. Saudis reforming. Sunni states warming to Israel.

Who knew a bombastic NY billionaire would understand how to leverage US power more effectively than a milquetoast academic and his global apology tour.

Former KGB agent extending his reach in the Middle East, directing extensive cyber campaigns against a number of NATO members, and cementing his power after seizing territory from an independent nation - who knew that a former Soviet intelligence agent would be able to leverage Russian power more effectively than milquetoast Communist bosses.

And let us not forget China and it's behavior over the past few years. That's not toning down at all.

Sure it is. Look how the trade war failed to materialize.

Russia, China, ect.... so that's a vote for re-election? He can fix the last decade's ills in only 1 year.

Dim Kim already killed off a third of the family. He really cannot trust the ones who survived. Absent family, no finance industry. You see, no magic banking industry springs up, like the liberal democracy.

Instead, they have to oligarch it, except residual family needed for oligarch duty. See the contradiction?


So basically, NK is f*cked...

Exactly, NK is one fcked country. One reason John R. Bolton is the right man for the UN job. I can see Trump turning to Bolton, John Wayne style, and saying "Duke, nuke'em!". But sadly that won't happen and I bet NK drops the first atomic weapon. Then the real Orwellian fun will begin.

There's no chance any "rogue state" will ever surrender its WMD program after what NATO did to Qadhafi in 2011. The only way to deter such attacks is to have the ability to massively retaliate against the West, and the only way to plausibly massively retaliate, given the technology gradient, is if you have WMDs.

@The Lunatic - exactly. So are you for first strike or not? Don't wimp out and say no. You have to be consistent.

Bonus trivia: the Bikini islands h-bomb tests of the 1950s resulted in more worldwide radioactive fallout than any tactical or otherwise nuclear war in North Korea would result in, for any reasonable scenario. Especially if the US acts now, before NK has a couple of hundred nuclear missiles.

Yes, there have been, IIRC, over 500 above ground nuclear tests.

Hmm? First strikes are only viable if you actually have the ability to eliminate a threat. In, say, 1983, the correct response to the Soviet nuclear arsenal wasn't a first strike, it was avoiding war, because the Soviets could massively retaliate against a US strike.

So, a first strike is the correct policy for dealing with Iran; we should convert every one of its nuclear facilities into a crater, and simultaneously kill as much of its leadership as possible.

But North Korea has Seoul under its guns, missiles able to hit other parts of South Korea and Japan, and operational nukes. It would be a massive betrayal of our alliance commitments to certainly sacrifice tens of thousands (or more) South Koreans and potentially sacrifice many Japanese to eliminate the mere potential that NK will not be deterred from striking us by our ability to massively retaliate.

he is not surrounded by anything resembling the U.S. State Department

Lucky for him.

We have a history of both isolating and demonizing enemies, both of which contribute to an increase risk of military conflict. And we have a history of portraying the leadership of our enemies as crazy, which further increases the risk of military conflict because crazy people are by definition unreasonable and unpredictable. As if to confirm they are crazy, the leadership of our enemies act crazy, from banging a shoe on a lectern to haircuts that only a crazy person would believe attractive. If Girard knew what he was talking about, then the leadership of our enemies has been copying their image of our leadership. Indeed, Kim's haircut doesn't look all that different from the haircut worn by the leadership of the alt-right. Need I mention Trump's twitter habits. No doubt Cowen noticed that Trump sent a career military officer and soon to be head of the CIA to meet with Kim and plan the meeting between Kim and Trump rather than seasoned diplomats. Diplomacy? Either Kim accepts our demands or risks a hail of atomic bombs raining down on him. When will Trump have his military parade in D.C.? Who's crazy?

" ... risks a hail of atomic bombs raining down on him"

Nuclear weapon first use by the US is very unlikely. There would be little military advantage, and a lot of political downside.

If Kim were to manage a nuclear strike against Tokyo, Pearl Harbor, or Los Angels, then all bets are off, and I would expect multiple nuclear counter-strikes against Kim, pour encourager les autres.

Should the US decide to end the current armistice, I would expect extensive precision weapon strikes, including use of deep penetrator weapons to attack buried targets. There are targets that are probably beyond the reach of conventional weapons, but it may not do Kim much good to be permanently buried under 1000 feet of granite.

Clinton, Bush, and Obama all failed - using bribery, diplomacy, negotiation, and sweet reason - to deter or even materially delay Kim's nuclear weapons development, despite repeated statements that North Korea with nuclear arms was unacceptable.

Thus far, Trump has made more progress than any of his predecessors.

Way too early to say Trump has 'made more progress'. Kim has done plenty of testing and development while Trump has been in office. Today we do hear some promising talk, but if NK just does what they did to the others (Clinton, Bush, Obama) and talk nice while continuing to develop, Trump will turn out to be as (in)effective as the others.

If the current path leads to a true end to the weapons program, with inspections and so on, Trump will deserve a ton of credit. Don't hold your breath.

That's a fair comment.

I'd say Trump appears to have thus far put more weight on the the stick in the (carrot,stick) tuple than previous administrations. He has also perhaps managed to convince China that a nuclear armed North Korea is not in their interest, as it increases the likelihood that South Korea, Japan, and Australia may decide to go nuclear.

Aside from nuclear weapons, no one cares about North Korea, certainly not enough to start a war to enforce regime change. However, after Hillary Clinton's "We came, we saw, he died" summary of the Obama/Clinton strategy in Libya, one might not be surprised for Kim to be reluctant to believe that.

I'd say the odds favor kicking the can down the road again, after some face saving cosmetic agreements, and in 10 years North Korea has a few dozen ICBMs with nuclear warheads, i.e. a smaller, poorer Pakistan.

But I'd give Trump some chance (5%? 35%?) of actually solving the problem, short of war.

Maybe he can offer Kim a billion dollars and Swiss residence, dump the nukes, and have South Korea take over running North Korea. Everybody wins.

Agreed, Trump certainly has a non-zero chance to make a real breakthrough here, and I will give him full credit if he does. But as you said most likely a can-kicking like the last 3 presidents did.

Cowen's article is interesting, it's plausible to think maybe Kim can be seduced into playing nice if he gets to be a 'normal' leader and gets to play with the big kids.

What is the modern sense of "bureaucratized" when evaluating a government/regime?

I will attempt to add a little gloss to Cowen's use of the term "bureaucratized". Two points. First, I took a course in international relations (diplomacy) in college and was surprised to learn that diplomacy is very structured (or bureaucratized), the structure intended ot both avoid misunderstandings and to pave a course for making incremental progress. Before taking the course, I had thought diplomacy ad hoc. It's not. My second point relates to dog trainers. Anyone with a dog knows that dog trainers don't actually train the dog, they train the dog owner. And so it is with diplomacy.

Thought provoking column. Thank you.

I think NK has two options: denuclearize, or face an imminent attack from the United States.

Those are the only two viable options. Consider what happens if NK acquires a deliverable nuke. Then Japan and SK will immediately nuke up. Followed by Iran and Saudi Arabia. Don't forget Turkey...and, eventually, Eritrea and Ethiopia.

If there is one overriding US global interest, it is to prevent the further proliferation of nuclear weapons. That's more important than anything else we do.

What's special about Summits---meeting directly with the country's leader--- is that the US can bypass the agents and go direct to the principal. That means being able to tell the principal things the agents don't want him to hear and have been hiding from him. I can't think of any other purpose, actually.
So the US should not tell Kim the things that are most important about our relationship, or fine points, because he can get the conventional stuff from his agents. Rather, we need to think about what his agents don't want him to know (and hope they haven't subverted his translator).
There are two things I can think of that his agents wouldn't want Kim to know.
1. His military weakness. Your generals don't want you to know that, unless they want to argue for a big budget increase. N. Korea is already spending all it can.
2. How much fun it is to be an ex-dictator. Your agents don't want to be left behind to face the wrath of the mob when you go live in the Riviera. Therefore, a big part of a Summit should be taking Kim to fancy restaurants, teaching him how to play golf, taking him to night clubs and live drama. That is why the Summit should take place on Cheju Island, with plenty of Korean-language entertainment, or Taipei or Bangkok or Manila, if they have better entertainment (but not in Korean). Japan is out for historical reasons, I expect.

Comments for this post are closed