Bryan Caplan  

Letters to Kim Jong-Un

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A thought-provoking request from the noble Vipul Naik, reprinted with his permission:

If you were to write a letter to Kim Jong-Un with suggestions on how to improve living conditions in North Korea, what would you write in the letter? Assume that you believe that Kim is genuinely interested in the welfare of Koreans, but is constrained by realpolitik, and also cares quite a bit for saving his own skin (so he wouldn't want to initiate any reform that makes him likely to get killed in a coup).

Would you recommend a Mikhail Gorbachev-style glasnost/perestroika approach? If so, why? If not, why not?

PS: I got the idea from Milton Friedman, who used to write letters to autocratic leaders the world over with advice on how to reform.

Your answers?

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COMMENTS (32 to date)
Himanshu Sanguri writes:

Fixing the North Korea ramshackle would be nearly impossible without reforming the political and social structure of the Communist nation. A redistribution of the nation's resources in a democratic and liberal manner is the need of hour. I strongly advocate the Mikhail Gorbachev style of reforming a crippling nation. Mr. Kim has the comfort of absolute power, which he should take advantage of to slowly transform the communist regime into a popular governance model. He should focus on the development and policy framing to uplift the living standards of the North Korean people. At present, North Korea is in seclusion with rest of the world, a hermitage in today's globalization era is of no advantage. He needs to practice inclusiveness instead of enforcement in North Korean development model. To conclude, I would like to sincerely advise him for a peaceful negotiation to transform the state of North Korea without using much force and violence.

Andras Toth writes:

The worst advice would be Gorbachov style reform as Gorbachov lost his position and the state he ruled had disappeared. Certainly, he would not follow that path. Probably the chinese way, the example of Teng Hsziao Ping would offer him a surer path of personal survival.

david writes:

Teng Hsziao Ping's state would prefer you call him Deng Xiao Ping...

James A. Donald writes:

Dear Kim

Obviously reforming Michael Gorbachev style will get you killed, and probably plunge your country into even greater ruin, at least for a time.

This would suggest Chinese style reforms, special economic zones, but your father tried this, and found subversive influences spread out from the special economic zones. The Chinese government is riding the tiger, and you may not have as much success in tiger riding as they did.

Have you considered simply selling some part of North Korea to the highest bidder? High bidder gets to be King, competes with Dubai.

The high bidder would be someone who believes he can get a lot more productivity that you have been getting, and believes he can do so while remaining in power. If he succeeds, you imitate him, he fails, you reconquer the area.

Brad D writes:

You ask the impossible, Prof Caplan. If Kim were genuinely concerned about his fellow N. Korean's, he'd abandon nuclear arms, fire the generals, and disabuse everyone that despite years of mind-numbing brainwashing and sate-sponsored propaganda, that the Kim family isn't a clan of demigods. He would then seek reunification with South Korea.

This scenario is, of course, pure fantasy. Kim would most certainly be disposed of quite quickly.

Brad, in Seoul, South Korea

ajb writes:

By all accounts, Kim is already trying a great deal of real and symbolic liberalization (by NK standards), including allowing more middle class comforts to a larger number of insiders in the capital (coffee shops, limited internet, having more Koreans working on animation for foreign companies, etc.). He's showing off his wife in ways that may or may not have upset various factions. Indeed, who's to say that his belligerence in foreign policy isn't partially to cover for struggles over domestic policy?

This is all another way of saying that what we're seeing MAY already constitute the limits of what reforms can accomplish while preserving his power and life.

Caleb Boone writes:

[Comment removed for policy violations. --Econlib Ed.]

Warren writes:

Eliminate all slave camps.

Create a bunch of charter cities and allow free internal migration.

Scott P writes:
  • Introduce property rights
  • The freedom to exchange goods and services
  • Freedom of movement (travel) within the country at a minimum.
  • Open up international trade
Watch emergent order take hold and the economy begin to prosper.
Handle writes:

Think of the question altered slightly - say, to Erich Honecker in 1987. Had it been within his power, the best thing he could have done for the people of the GDR would have been what actually happened - complete capitulation and incorporation into the FRG.

What worked (phenomenally) for formerly poor and autocratic South Korea? A similar reunification and absorption would likely replicate many of those important, beneficial details. What didn't work for Vietnam was this same process happening in the wrong direction.

Obviously, he doesn't get to "stay in charge" in such a scenario, but some combination of immunity plus bribe to all reluctant leaders would smooth the transition. Rubs people's moral principles the wrong way, but certainly more humane and cheaper than what's currently going on.

stubydoo writes:

He should just try to sneak himself into Hong Kong (or another cosmopolitan place) without telling anybody, and then hide out there indefinitely while the chips fall where they may back home.

Jeff writes:

This is difficult because I'm guessing no one really knows enough about the internal politics of North Korea to have any idea what kinds of reforms would or would not be likely to prompt a coup. Maybe the CIA does, but I doubt many people here do, including myself. Maybe some sort of purge to replace his father's 'yes' men with his own 'yes' men would minimize the threat of a coup or assassination, and then he'd have more freedom to institute meaningful reform.

I'm sure Kim has every bit as much concern for his people as Stalin and Mao had for theirs. But, if I'm wrong, he should take the example of China after Mao died. Do what Deng Xiao Ping did; create a few small areas where the people are left alone to fend for themselves.

Jim Glass writes:


Why would anyone think that Kim Jong-Un cares at all about improving living conditions in North Korea? (Apart from for the 600 families that provide his power base.) Here are a couple more equally thought-provoking exercises. If you could have written letters...

* To Hitler, offering ideas on how to improve race relations and further the advancement of minorities, what would you have suggested?

* To Stalin, offering ideas on how to promote the development of democracy, civil rights and political freedom, what would you have suggested?

Assume that you believe that he is genuinely interested in the welfare of his people, but is constrained by realpolitik...

That is, assume away the real problem actually keeping the people of NK subjugated under the heel of the world's most brutally repressive regime, so we can all have self-indulgent fun playing with our favorite 'what ifs'.

The **real** problem that matters being: How do you get Kim and the 600 families to care about improving living conditions for the population of North Korea? Get them interested in the welfare of the people??

Do that and the rest is trivially easy. Scores of nations from next-door neighbor China on have shown how to do it. One could spend an afternoon filling up a blog comment section with a list of useful things they've done.

For a credible take on the real problem, I suggest Nobelist Douglas North & Co. (Though Acemogly and Robinson have decent take too.)

This is the real challenge to make the populations' lot better: Making the power-holders care about it.

That is: Making the self-interest of the power-holders align with the interests of the population instead of against them, as they currently do.

Write a letter suggesting ways to do that! Then you'll have some ideas worth discussing.

P G writes:
Obviously, he doesn't get to "stay in charge" in such a scenario, but some combination of immunity plus bribe to all reluctant leaders would smooth the transition. Rubs people's moral principles the wrong way, but certainly more humane and cheaper than what's currently going on.

This is probably the best idea in the thread. How many people would need to be bought off to accomplish this? Presumably the "winning coalition" in Bruce Bueno de Mesquita's terms is < 1000 people. $100 B divided according to their importance in getting reunification underway is probably a small enough amount that South Korea + UN countries wouldn't have a problem paying it if it could be arranged. Even being in the inner circle of the Kims' is probably much worse than having $10 M to spend in international markets, so it's likely a pretty cheap way to get the Koreas reunified. Maybe a letter to Kim Jong-Un should try and persuade him to indicate that he is receptive to a buyout.

[Less-than sign re-coded so that the remainder of the comment is visible.--Econlib Ed.]

Ken B writes:

[Comment removed for policy violation.--Econlib Ed.]

jc writes:

People might prefer: (a) allowing the status quo to remain, or; (b) conducting a military invasion, even if; (c) the Handle & Glass plan (which is generally consistent w/ much of literature I've read on the subject) resulted in far less death, suffering, and monetary expenditures.

Feeling good (in this case by not granting bribes and immunity) may be more important to most than relieving human suffering at minimal cost.

So how do we overcome this sentiment among likely monetary backers and simultaneously convince NK elites they'd be better off allowing an open order society (on its own or via merger w/ SK)?

Start a private charity that accepts donations from folks who care more about relieving human suffering than they do about not granting immunity or bribes? If that charity could figure out a way to at least somewhat credibly ensure that: (1) donations would be used for what they are intended, and (2) enough NK elites are on board to make it work, I'd donate.

Easier said than done, of course.

I wonder how many NK elites are "true believers" at this point, versus: (1) those who reflexively say and act (and perhaps even think) what they need to in order to save their own positions, (2) those who act instrumentally, knowing that what's bad for everyone else is good for them.

A first step might be to encourage (w/ appropriate cover stories/justifications) foreign travel by elite families. It might weaken the resolve of true believers just a bit, and whet the appetites of the rest, as they see what they can buy w/ the bribes we provide.

jc writes:

Free North Korea Kickstarter? Biggest success so far is $10 million. Only ninety nine billion, nine hundred ninety million short of our $100 billion goal. :)

(What was the total donated amount for Haiti earthquake or Thailand tsunami relief? About $30 billion or so combined?)

Mark V Anderson writes:

One issue that hasn't been discussed above is the desires of the elephant next door, China. Although the posting above that posits that the best results for the North Korean people would be to simply surrender to South Korea is probably correct, it doesn't take China into account.

China originally got involved militarily in Korea because they didn't want a Western ally on its doorstep. Tensions are certainly lower than they were 60 years ago, but I think China would still be strongly opposed to having the current South Korean government on its border. So Kim would not only have to deal with internal politics to achieve this surrender, but also he would be defying China.

john hare writes:

Invade South Korea as brutally as possible while thumbing nose at Chinese mentor. Resultant defeat would allow "honorable" surrender in the face of overwhelming odds by the whole world. See Japan 10 August 1945.

Actually, Hitler did receive such letters. One, from 1940, ends;

You know that not long ago I made an appeal to every Briton to accept my method of non-violent resistance. I did it because the British know me as a friend though a rebel. I am a stranger to you and your people. I have not the courage to make you the appeal I made to every Briton. Not that it would not apply to you with the same force as to the British. But my present proposal is much simple because much more practical and familiar.
During this season when the hearts of the peoples of Europe yearn for peace, we have suspended even our own peaceful struggle. Is it too much to ask you to make an effort for peace during a time which may mean nothing to you personally but which must mean much to the millions of Europeans whose dumb cry for peace I hear, for my ears are attended to hearing the dumb millions? I had intended to address a joint appeal to you and Signor Mussolini, whom I had the privilege of meeting when I was in Rome during my visit to England as a delegate to the Round Table Conference. I hope that he will take this as addressed to him also with the necessary changes.
I am,
Your sincere friend,

Konkvistador writes:

Advice to young Kim: Retcon Communism out of Junche, open up internal markets but be careful about foreign influence. This will not give you Asian Tiger growth but will buy you enough economic growth to avoid grinding poverty, without risking destabilization from NGOs and the like.

Use some Orwellian slide of hand, change the language so the NK word for President is used for old Korean Emperors. Invent a new word for foreign "presidents", emphasise Korean way and nationalism note Early Korean emperors as good. Denigrate late ones as decadent... fortunately a new royal family arose in 20th century to carry the destiny of Korea forward.

Transition "military first" aspect of Junche towards updated localized Prussian militarism. Wait for decadent enough US, then annex South Korea mid century.

liberty writes:

It is surprising on an economics blog to hear the suggestion of buying out Kim Jong-Un and his cronies with no mention of how this might encourage people to become tyrants, knowing they can avoid repercussions and make a bundle, retire safely--the worse they exploit and oppress the bigger the buyout...

Mike Linksvayer writes:

Convert to Christianity, invite all Christians, especially South Korean, to send lots of food, money, donate vehicles, visit as missionaries and tourists, invest.

Crazy? Crazy avoids all kinds of questions from inside and out.

Mike Linksvayer writes:

Another idea: arms reduction gambit.

End nuclear program, cut army size by half in exchange for US withdrawal from South Korea and $10000 payment to North Korean government per North Korean soldier for retraining.

Doug writes:

Modern Westerners generally vastly overestimate the degree of control held by the executive in 20th century dictatorships, like North Korea, Stalin's USSR or Hitler's Germany.

We tend to think of these states as not being conceptually that different than classical European absolute monarchies, except that their behavior is worse. In reality there is a fundamental structural difference.

In a stable absolute monarchy if a minor faction assassinates the monarch that doesn't mean they get to be king. Rather its recognized that rightful heir is the new king, and the only thing the assassin gains the title of is high criminal who is hunted down.

Occasionally this mechanism breaks down in the case of ambiguity of secession, minor or mentally incompetent heirs, highly unstable rulers, etc. But generally if the Bourbons have been the rulers for 15 generations the populace expects the Bourbons to be the rulers for the 16th. And in politics expectations creates reality.

Modern dictatorships operate on very different principles. If Hitler was killed there was no easily recognizable Hitler II. And even if there was Hitler rose to power through non-hereditary means so the populace expects the next ruler to do the same. The expected returns to assassination and intrigue are far higher than in classical absolute monarchies.

Louis XIV could be reasonably assured of his continued personal and political security. The degree of paranoia and iron-fisted control that he had to exercise was considerably less than Stalin. The Bourbons were a family business, the USSR was a mafia.

The problem is that even if Milton Friedman himself was named head of the DPRK in its current governmental form there's little he could do. Either he could try actual reform and loosening and very likely end up dead before accomplishing anything. Or he could play the game of intrigue and security paranoia, highly constraining his policy options.

The Kims are now on their third generation of leader in the DPRK, so one wonders why they don't formally convert to a hereditary monarchy. Instead they've maintained the formal systems the formal systems of a Communist people's republic. From the Kims' perspective it can improve and stabilize their position.

They have the power to rule as heads of the Communist party, but not enough power to dissolve the party and reign as direct personal sovereigns. North Korea's government, like all Communist states, is always dependent on factional alliances of power brokers and party officials. And in North Korea's particular case heavy foreign meddling and control by China.

The paradox is that concentrating more power in Kim Jong Un leads to a higher expected prosperity and freedom for the North Korean people. Not necessarily guaranteed. Kim Jong Un may truly be a nutcase, completely disinterested in running anything but a prison state.

But the point is, as of present, we have no way to tell what he'd do if completely unconstrained. He could indeed be a quite sensible leader, or at least less nutty than current North Korean policy.

ajb writes:

Doug speaks truth. And the Gandhi letter is just priceless. Absent good knowledge about internal workings, well meaning blather is as likely to be harmful as helpful. Mostly it's just Robin Hanson style signaling to make oneself feel good. And of course, anyone who practiced non-violence against Hitler or Stalin's oppression became permanently non-violent, thus promoting more oppression elsewhere.

ConnGator writes:

Hitler's first choice for dealing with minorities he considered undesirable was deportation. Sadly for those he eventually killed, other countries would not accept them.

Imagine if the US (FDR) had said: "We will take in all Jews that you want to send us." That would have been amazing.

To be clear, I am not defending Hitler, one of the worst killers of the 20th century.

Floccina writes:

Privatize agriculture then charter cities then slowly privatize more and more

Floccina writes:

Allow the poorest citizens to go to S Korea. Sell it to the rest as getting rid of problems.

John Fast writes:

Dear Supreme Leader:

Enclosed please find a copy of Time Will Run Back by Henry Hazlitt.

Also enclosed is a copy of Millennium Wars: Korea by Joe Miranda.

sean roberts writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address and for irrelevance. Email the to request restoring your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

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