ne of the more improbable geostrategic surprises of recent years has been the revival of the North Korean economy under the direction of Kim Jong Un. Just to be clear, that economy remains pitiably decrepit, horribly distorted, and desperately dependent on outside support. Recent estimates suggest that its annual merchandise exports do not reach even 1 percent of the level generated by its nemesis, South Korea. Even so, the economic comeback on Kim Jong Un’s watch has been sufficiently strong to permit a dramatic ramp-up in the tempo of his nation’s race to amass a credible nuclear arsenal and develop functional intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of striking the U.S. mainland. That is, of course, the express and stated objective of the program. Pyongyang today appears to be perilously close to achieving its aim—much closer now, indeed, than complacent Western intelligence assessments had presumed would be possible by this juncture. But then, North Korea is full of surprises for foreign observers.
The difficulty with analyzing the country’s weaknesses and strengths comes from the fact that the North Korean system—which is made up of the Kim dynasty, the North Korean state, and the economy constructed to maintain them both—is unlike any other on earth. By now, its brand of totalitarianism (“our own style of Socialism,” as Pyongyang calls it) is sufficiently distinctive that children of the Soviet or Maoist tradition also commonly find themselves at a loss to apprehend its logic and rhythms.
North Korea is no longer even a Communist state, if that term is to have any meaning. The once-prominent statues of Marx and Lenin in Kim Il Sung Square were removed some years ago. Mention of Marxism-Leninism has reportedly been excised from the updated but still currently unpublished Charter of the Korean Workers’ Party. The 2016 version of its constitution excises all references to Communism, extolling instead only the goal of “socialism”—and its two “geniuses of ideology and theory,” Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il (the grandfather and father of the current dictator). Small wonder that the world routinely misjudges—and very often, underestimates—the North Korean state and its capabilities.1
Despite its suffocating ideology, for example, North Korea is capable of highly pragmatic adaptation and economic innovation. Notwithstanding its proclaimed “self-reliance” and its seeming isolation, it is constantly finding new sources of foreign cash through ingenious and often remarkably entrepreneurial schemes overseas. And despite all the international sanctions, Kim Jong Un really has overseen a North Korean economic upswing of sorts since assuming power in 2011, the signal fact that best helps explain the acceleration in Pyongyang’s push for a credible nuclear and ballistic arsenal. Thanks to these and other apparent paradoxes, an economy seemingly always on the knife edge of disaster somehow manages to stay on course, methodically amassing the military might for what it promises will be an eventual nuclear face-off with the world’s sole superpower.
Though the hour is late, given all the progress that North Korea has been permitted over the past generation, it nevertheless looks as if there may still be time left to prevent Pyongyang from completing and perfecting its nuke and missile projects through “non-kinetic means”—that is to say, through international economic pressure as opposed to military action. For such an approach to work, however, we will need an informed and robust strategy—not the feckless, episodic, and intellectually shoddy interventions we have mainly witnessed up to now.
Indispensable to such a strategy must be an understanding of the North Korean economy—the instrument that makes the North Korean threat possible. In particular, we need to understand 1) how that economy functions, and to what ends; 2) how the “Dear Respected Comrade” Kim Jong Un brought to it a limited but critical measure of economic revival; and 3) how America and others might use the considerable financial and commercial options at their disposal to impair the North Korean regime’s designs, before Pyongyang wins what is now a race against time.
Despite the information blackout that North Korean leadership has striven to enforce for generations, we already know much more about all these things today than the Kim family regime could possibly want—more than enough to begin purposely defanging the North Korean menace.
One: The Economy of Command
Given its longstanding reputation as a basket case, it may startle readers to learn that there was actually a time when North Korea was regarded as a dynamic and rapidly advancing economy. Back in 1965, the eminent British economist Joan Robinson wrote that North Korea’s achievements put “all the economic miracles of postwar development…in the shade.”2
In those days, if Western intellectuals happened to talk about the “Korean miracle,” they weren’t discussing anything going on in the South. And it wasn’t just dreamy academics and well-hosted foreign visitors who seemed to hold North Korea’s economic prospects in high esteem. Between the late 1950s and the early 1960s, Japan witnessed an exodus of ethnic Korean residents—in all, roughly 80,000 people—who packed up and steamed off under their own free will to the North, voting with their feet to join the Korean state they deemed to offer the greater promise.
Despite the devastation North Korea suffered during the war it launched against the South in 1950, and despite the blazing economic takeoff in South Korea that commenced in the early 1960s under the Park Chung-Hee junta, North Korea may have been ahead of South Korea in per capita output for two full decades after the 1953 armistice. A CIA study in the late 1970s, for example, concluded that South Korea did not catch up with North Korea until 1975.3 Contemporaries at South Korea’s Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) concurred that the North was well ahead of the South on a per capita basis throughout the 1950s and 1960s, though they argued that the South caught up with the North a few years earlier than the CIA believed.
In retrospect, the wonder is that North Korea’s economy worked as well as it did for as long as it did. For from its 1948 founding onward, North Korea was not just another Cold War Soviet-type economy: It was a Stalin-style war economy on steroids.
As fate had it, the Japanese colonial overlords who controlled Korea from 1910 until 1945 constructed a heavy industrial base in its northern half—a forward supply zone to support their own greater Asian war efforts. Unlike the South, the North had major deposits of coal, iron, and other minerals, along with plenty of natural hydropower. “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung—the onetime guerrilla fighter and later Red Army officer who started North Korea’s Kim family dynasty—inherited this infrastructure when he took over the northern part of the divided peninsula in 1945 and used it as a base camp from which he directed an upward climb toward the summit to which he aspired: an economy set on permanent total-war footing.
Kim Il Sung came perilously close to consummating his vision. By the mid-1970s, the Great Leader would observe that “of all the Socialist countries, ours bears the heaviest military burden.”4 Even by comparison with places like the Soviet Union and East Germany, his North Korea was a garrison state. By the late 1980s, this country of barely 20 million was fielding an army of more than 1.2 million—a ratio comparable to America’s in the middle of World War II. Those military-manpower estimates, by the way, are derived not from U.S. or South Korean intelligence, but rather from unpublished population figures Pyongyang transmitted to the UN in 1989 (data that inadvertently revealed the size of the country’s non-civilian male population).5
Today, two Kims later, the International Institute for Strategic Studies reports that North Korea currently maintains the world’s fourth-largest standing army in terms of sheer manpower—ahead of Russia and behind only the globe’s demographic giants (China, India, the United States). For more than half a century—since 1962, the year Kim Il Sung decreed the “all-fortress-ization” of the nation—North Korea has been the most exceptionally and unwaveringly militarized country on the face of the planet.
But why? What possessed North Korean leadership to commit their country, decade after decade, to such an extraordinarily expensive and irrational economic posture? There was a method to this seeming madness. Kim Il Sung’s grand design for unending super-mobilization served many logical purposes, given the first premises of his North Korean state.
Enforcing permanent war-economy discipline comported nicely with perfecting the domestic totalitarian order the Great Leader desired. Further, given the unhappy realities of geography and 20th-century Korean history, having the might to stand up to any and all foreign powers—including his nominal Communist allies in Moscow and Beijing—may also have seemed an imperative. But above all else, North Korea’s immense military economy reflected Kim’s overarching obsession with unifying the divided Korea, and doing so unconditionally—that is to say, to finishing up that Korean War he had started in 1950, and finishing it up on his own terms this time.
In the eyes of North Korea’s rulers, the South Korean state was (and still is) a corrupt, illegitimate, and inherently unstable monstrosity, surviving only because of the American bayonets propping it up. The Great Leader wanted to be able (when the right opening presented itself) to strike a knockout punch against the regime in Seoul and wipe it off the face of the earth—“independent reunification,” in North Korean code language. This he could not do without overwhelming military force—and without an economic system straining constantly to provide that muscle.
As early as 1970, the Great Leader was warning that “the increase in our national defense capability has been obtained at a very great price.”6 And by the late 1980s, Kim Il Sung’s “economic miracle” was all but dead in the water. Decades of crushing military burden and systemic suppression of consumer demand had taken their predictable toll. And North Korean planners had compounded these difficulties with additional unforced errors of their own.
Their idiosyncratic application of the Great Leader’s Juche (“self-reliance”) ideology, for example, included a general injunction against importing new foreign machinery and equipment. This ensured that the country would have to maintain a high-cost, low-productivity industrial infrastructure. Juche also apparently meant never having to pay your foreign debts, whether to fraternal socialist states or to “imperialist” creditors in Western countries foolish enough to lend money to Pyongyang. By the 1980s, global financial markets had caught on to the game, and North Korea found itself almost completely cut off from international capital. And the longstanding “statistical blackout” North Korean leadership enforced to facilitate international strategic deception also inadvertently impaired economic performance by blinding domestic decisionmakers and requiring them to “plan without facts.”
But it was the ending of the Cold War that pushed the North Korean economy out of stagnation, and into disaster. Juche ideology notwithstanding, North Korea had never been self-reliant; sustaining its severely deformed economy required constant inflows of concessionary resources from abroad. Pyongyang was (and remains) consummately imaginative in devising schemes for extracting aid and tribute from overseas. In the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, Kim Il Sung procured the equivalent of tens of billions of dollars in support from Beijing, Moscow, and the Kremlin’s Warsaw Pact satellites, expertly playing the Kremlin off against China, gaming aid out of each while aligning with neither.
In 1984, Kim Il Sung made a fateful error: He leaned decisively toward Moscow, a tilt signaled by his unprecedented six-week state visit to the USSR and Eastern Europe that same year. The gamble paid off initially: Between 1985 and 1989, the Kremlin transferred around $7 billion to Pyongyang, twice as much as the amount transferred over the entire previous 25 years, much of it in military matériel. In 1988, North Korea relied on the Soviet bloc not only for almost all its net concessionary foreign-resources transfers, but also for roughly two-thirds of its international trade, most of it arranged on political, highly subsidized, terms.
Then the came the Soviet bloc’s collapse. By 1992—the year after the collapse of the USSR—both trade and aid from the erstwhile Soviet bloc had plummeted by nearly 90 percent. North Korea’s worldwide overall supplies of merchandise from all foreign sources consequently plunged by more than half over those same years.
These sudden devastating shocks sent North Korea’s economy into a catastrophic free fall from which it would not manage to recover for decades. The socialist planning system essentially collapsed. Famine was just around the corner.
Two: A Man-Made Horror and Its Surprising Aftermath
The North Korean famine of the 1990s was a catastrophe of historic proportions. No one outside North Korea’s leadership knows just how many people died in that completely avoidable man-made tragedy, but the toll was certainly in the hundreds of thousands and could possibly have exceeded a million.7 It arguably qualifies as the single worst economic failure of the 20th century. It was the only time in history that people have starved en masse in an urbanized, literate society during peacetime.
It is noteworthy that the famine—usually dated from 1995 to 1998—did not commence until after the death of the Great Leader and the ascension of his son and heir, “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il. This was no coincidence. Economic failure was the Dear Leader’s stock-in-trade. His political rise almost perfectly corresponds to the decline and fall of the North Korean economy. It happens that the Dear Leader did succeed in what was arguably his primary political objective: to die of natural causes, still safely and securely in power. But economic progress worthy of the name would not be possible in North Korea so long as he was its supreme ruler.
Though both father and son were totalitarian tyrants enthused with their hereditary total-war machine, the differences in their economic inclinations and impulses were nonetheless striking. Dogmatic as he was, the Great Leader still possessed a peasant’s sense of practicality. Proof of his pragmatism is the singular fact that North Korea, alone among all Asian Communist states (and including Russia in this roster), avoided famine during its 1955–57 collectivization of agriculture.
On the other hand, the Dear Leader, from his sheltered Red Palace upbringing onward, was every bit the paranoid, secluded ideologue. He not only disapproved of any concessions to economic pragmatism but feared these as positively counterrevolutionary and potentially lethal to his rule. He likewise regarded ordinary commercial interactions with the world economy as “honey-coated poison” for the North Korean system. At home, he wanted total mobilization but without any material incentives; from abroad, he sought a steady inflow of funds unconstrained by any reciprocal obligations. Kim Jong Il’s preferred economic model, in short, was to enforce Stakhanovite fervor at home through propaganda and terror while financing his war-economy state through military extortion abroad. He called this approach “military-first politics.”
Unwilling as he was to address the country’s newly dire economic circumstances with reforms—in his view, there was nothing to reform—Kim Jong Il’s North Korea was trapped in deepening depression for most of the 1990s. We will know how close the place came to total economic collapse—to the sort of breakdown of the national division of labor that Germany and Japan suffered at the very end of World War II—only when the archives in Pyongyang are finally opened. Throughout the 1990s, in any case, heavy industry was largely shut down, with inescapable consequences for conventional military forces. The death spiral for the war-making sector redoubled the importance to the regime of the nuke and missile programs, both as an insurance policy for regime survival and as the last viable military instruments for forcing the South into capitulation in some future unconditional unification.
In retrospect, it is clear that Pyongyang had no intention of desisting from its quest for nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, even as it played Washington and her allies for aid for years by pretending its nuclear program might be negotiable. Yet also in retrospect, the slow tempo of nuke and missile development under Kim Jong Il’s rule has to be considered a surprise. Any serious weapons program requires testing to advance—yet Pyongyang managed just one long-range missile launch in the 1990s and only three during his 17-year reign. The Dear Leader also oversaw two nuclear tests before his death in 2011—but only toward the end of his tenure, in the years 2006 and 2009.
Why this hesitant tempo if nukes and missiles were a central priority for the North Korean war economy? Although other possible explanations come to mind, the obvious one has to do with financial and economic constraints. Ironically, despite his vaunted “military-first politics,” North Korea’s nuke and missile programs may also have been inadvertent casualties of Kim Jong Il’s gift for stupendous economic mismanagement. (True, North Korea could undertake expensive nuclear projects internationally, such as the undeclared plutonium reactor in Syria that was nearing completion when the Israelis leveled it in 2007—but that was apparently a cash-and-carry operation, bankrolled by the Dear Leader’s friendly customers in Iran.)
There is considerable evidence that the North Korean economy hit bottom around 1997 or 1998. That bottom was very low indeed: Rough estimates suggest that, by 1998, North Korea’s real per capita commercial merchandise exports were barely a third their level of just a decade earlier, while real per capita imports, including supplies indispensable to the performance of key sectors of the domestic economy, were down by about 75 percent.
North Korea appears to have turned the economic corner not on the strength of new or better domestic economic policies, but rather on breakthroughs in international aid procurement. Pyongyang figured out how to work the West’s international food-aid system: Between 1997 and 2005, the year before its first nuclear test, it was bringing in an average of over a million tons of free foreign cereal each year, ending the food crisis. It is tempting to regard this as “military-first politics” in action, for military menace played an important role in the international community’s solicitude. It is impossible to imagine a helpless and stricken sub-Saharan population obtaining “temporary emergency humanitarian aid” on such a scale, for such an extended duration and with so very few conditions attached.
Central to this upswing in food aid and other freebies from abroad was the fact that North Korea got lucky with the alignment of governments in Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo. For a while, the leaders of this consortium of states were commonly willing to underwrite an exploratory policy of “sunshine” or “engagement” with the Dear Leader by offering him subventions and financial transfers. To secure his June 2000 Pyongyang Summit with the Dear Leader, for example, South Korea’s then-president had hundreds of millions of dollars secretly wired to special North Korean accounts—thereby committing crimes under South Korean law (for which he later issued pardons).
In the event, the “sunshine”-aid influx that may have rescued North Korea at its darkest moment would wane after its clandestine uranium-processing project surfaced in 2002—but the nuclear crisis that revelation triggered also made possible the next big round of North Korean international aid-harvesting.
After the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Beijing—alarmed by the possibility that the U.S. might also engage in a similar military confrontation with neighboring North Korea—organized and convened a “six-party talks” diplomatic process, ostensibly for deliberations over North Korean denuclearization, to cool things down. While the subsequent years of talking quite predictably led nowhere, North Korea’s price of attendance was apparently a steep increase in economic support from China. Between 2002 and 2008, China’s annual net balance of shipments of goods to North Korea—its exports to Pyongyang minus corresponding imports—more than quintupled, rocketing upward from less than $300 million to more than $1.5 billion. By then, North Korea had become just as economically dependent on Chinese largesse as Pyongyang had been on Soviet-bloc blandishments two decades earlier—but these inflows, and the politically subsidized trade they came with, were evidently sufficient to help at least partially revive the Dear Leader’s broken economy. From Chinese trade statistics, for example, we can infer that Chinese investments were instrumental in a resuscitation of North Korea’s mining and metallurgy sectors in the last years of Kim Jong Il’s life. (We must rely on inference here since Beijing to this day remains almost totally opaque about its economic relation with Pyongyang.)
All in all, Kim Jong Il’s North Korea took in more than $1 billion from its enemies in Washington, and nearly $4 billion from the “puppet regime” in Seoul (not including the South’s additional expenditures on “off-the-books” transfers and special economic or tourist zones in the North). And from China, North Korea scored more than $12 billion of net merchandise inflows under the Dear Leader—a sum that would look even greater if valued in today’s dollars. All the while, North Korea was also earning invisible revenues from a whole network of highly enterprising if generally illicit overseas endeavors: its “nuke-and-missile homework club” with Iran; à la carte weapons sales and military services provided to a host of dictatorships and terror groups; counterfeiting of U.S. currency; drug racketeering; insurance frauds perpetrated against firms in London’s City; and more. The Dear Leader was extensively involved in the world economy, after all—just in a Bizarro World, Legion of Super-Villains sort of way.
Thanks to highly skilled aid-wheedling, international shakedowns, and financial gangsterism, Kim Jong Il’s North Korea clawed its way back from famine to a low but acceptable new economic normal—all the while forswearing domestic economic reforms or genuinely commercial contacts with the outside world. North Korea did not completely avoid potentially fraught economic changes under Kim Jong Il, of course—that was beyond the powers even of the Dear Leader. Domestic cellphone use began during the Dear Leader’s reign, for example, as did a tentative marketization of private consumption (about which more in a moment). But these and other analogous economic changes during the Kim Jong Il era are best understood as “transition without reform,” to borrow an apt term from North Korea watcher Justin Hastings.8
The economy’s “new normal” in the Dear Leader’s final days was still at a miserable level. Although North Korean scientists could launch long-range missiles and test atomic weapons, and although North Korea’s population had reportedly achieved a fairly high level of educational attainment (higher than China’s, if North Korean figures are believed), the country’s international economic profile was Fourth World. According to the World Trade Organization, North Korea’s per capita merchandise trade levels in 2010 approximated Mali’s. Its share of world merchandise trade that same year was roughly the same as that of Zimbabwe, a country with half of North Korea’s population—and despite its measure of recovery after 1998, North Korea’s global trade share fell by more than two-thirds between 1990 and 2010, even more than Zimbabwe’s under Mugabe’s misrule in that same period.
The world is a moving target and, generally, an improving one—so national stagnation also means continuing relative decline. Although the Dear Leader bequeathed his son Kim Jong Un a system that had avoided total collapse, there was little else that could be said to commend his economic legacy.
Three: The Economic Upturn
Dear Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un faced formidable odds when he took over in late 2011. The twentysomething was a novice manager at the time of his father’s demise. Unlike the Great Leader, who had groomed his son to rule from an early age, Kim Jong Il himself put off the whole business of naming a successor for as long as he possibly could, designating the child of one of his mistresses as the next Supreme Leader only after an incapacitating stroke made the naming of an heir an unavoidable matter of state.
As Kim Jong Un took office, the planned economy was no longer functioning, and to make matters worse, North Korea’s limited market sector was beset by galloping and seemingly unstoppable inflation. His father had experimented with a limited monetization of North Korea’s tiny consumer sector in 2002 but botched it—and only made matters worse with a surprise 2009 “currency reform” that effectively confiscated private holdings above $100, drastically degrading the already low credibility of the won.
From this unpromising beginning, Kim Jong Un has proved a relative success in delivering economic results in North Korea. There is evidence that the North Korean economy has enjoyed some measure of growth, macroeconomic stabilization, and even development under his aegis.
Pyongyang, “the shrine of Juche,” may be a Potemkin showpiece—but is showpiece-ier today than in the past. Construction cranes are whirring, and whole new sections of the city have risen up. Traffic jams now sometimes clog “Pyonghattan’s” vast, previously empty boulevards. Expensive restaurants and shops purveying luxury goods increasingly dot the capital, and their customers are mainly locals, not foreigners. The upsurge in prosperity and living standards evident in Pyongyang is reportedly reflected, albeit to a more modest degree, in other urban centers as well.
Furthermore, in sharp contrast to previous North Korean trends, or other earlier Soviet-type economies, the country today not only displays considerable marketization but also market stability. This much is demonstrated by cereal prices and foreign-exchange rates in informal markets across North Korea. Over the decade between mid-2002 and mid-2012, North Korea’s won depreciated against the U.S. dollar in such markets by a factor of more than 5,000 (no, that is not a typo). But that depreciation abruptly stopped a little over five years ago, and since then the won has traded around 8,000 to the dollar (fluctuating within a band around that average). In other words, North Korea now has a stable currency that is convertible into hard currencies. Likewise, the domestic price of rice in North Korean markets suddenly stopped soaring five years ago and has been in the vicinity of 5,000 won per kilogram ever since. Whatever else one may say of these new domestic price signals from Kim Jong Un’s North Korea, they are not what one would expect to see from an economy in mounting crisis and disarray.
Finally and by no means least important: In the military realm, nuke and missile testing has accelerated. In the 13 years between Kim Jong Il’s first Taepo Dong test and his death, North Korea launched three long-range rockets and detonated two atomic devices. Kim Jong Un has been in power just over six years; his regime has already set off four nuclear tests and shot off more than a dozen long-range missiles. Some of the speed-up could reflect long-term strategic choices and might in part be affected by improvements in efficiency (cost reduction) within the WMD industrial sector. All other things being equal, though, this sharp acceleration would seem to betoken a major new infusion of resources into programs already long accorded a top priority by the North Korean state. Without a bigger economic pie and substantially greater funding sources, it is hard to see how Pyongyang could have pulled this off.
All this said, North Korea is still shockingly unproductive, still punching far below its weight, still nowhere near self-sustaining growth. Kim Jong Un’s boundless self-indulgence is manifest in costly vanity projects like a spanking-new “ski lift to nowhere” resort, Masikryong, a venture otherwise inexplicable save perhaps for the memories of childhood days in Switzerland that it might elicit.
But by distancing himself from his father’s most economically destructive policies and practices, and navigating into previously uncharted waters of economic pragmatism, Kim Jong Un has opened up heretofore ungraspable opportunities for raising living standards and building military power at one and the same time. Thus the name of his signature policy: byungjin, or “simultaneous pursuit.”
In short order after his ascension, Kim Jong Un demoted—or killed—most of the Dear Leader’s closest cadres and confidants. And less than five months after assuming power—at a ceremony commemorating his grandfather’s 100th birthday in April 2012—he made an astounding declaration, coming as it did from North Korea’s supreme ruler: “It is our party’s resolute determination to let our people…not tighten their belts again.” Translation: This is no longer your father’s dictatorship; aspiration for personal betterment is no longer a counterrevolutionary act of treason.
Dear Respected has deliberately and steadily reshaped the economy under his command. The fundamental strategic difference between Kim 2 and Kim 3 was this: Whereas the Dear Leader saw “reform” and “opening” as deadly “ideological and cultural poison” pure and simple, Dear Respected believes that North Korea could withstand a bit of that poison—actually, quite a bit—and even end up stronger for taking it.
Pyongyang’s new policy directives have been informed by this insight. In agriculture, Kim Jong Un promulgated the “June 28 Instructions” (2012), which permitted family-level work units and allowed farmers to keep 30 percent of their surplus—a bonanza compared with all previous official rules. For enterprises and industry, there were the “May 30 Measures” (2014), which allowed managers to hire and fire workers, pay them according to their productivity, and keep a portion of any profits they earned. People were, increasingly, paid with money for their work—and it was real money, as in, money that could buy things people wanted. The gradual marketization and monetization of North Korea’s civilian economy over the past two decades is a major transformation, and one critical to understanding the country today.9
By the late 1980s, North Korean leadership had fashioned a consumer sector that would have turned Stalin green with envy. No country on the planet had so tiny a share of total national output flowing to personal consumption as late Cold War North Korea—and no country had so low a fraction of its personal consumption accruing to citizens on the basis of their own market choices. By the late 1980s, North Korean planners had come closer to completely demonetizing their economy than any modern polity this side of the Khmer Rouge. Most goods, services, and supplies that North Korean families consumed were provisioned to them directly by the state, with no “interference” by actual consumer preferences. North Korean planners wished to cede as little control over their command economy as humanly possible.
Pyongyang’s near-total control of the consumption basket, however, presupposed that the state would be supplying its subjects with their daily necessities in the first place. That collapsed in the mid-1990s when the Public Distribution System simply stopped providing the full promised daily food rations to most of the population—and stopped supplying any food at all to some of the population. A terrible number of those who trusted the government to take care of them ended up perishing. To survive the famine, North Koreans had to learn to buy and sell in informal markets that began to spring up—even though such activity was against the law, and some “economic crimes” were punishable by death. The Kim Jong Il government loathed these new private markets, but it needed them to forestall wholesale calamity. Thus commenced the two-steps-forward-one-step-back dialectic of marketization that lasted the rest of the Dear Leader’s life—and after his death, marketization and monetization of the civilian economy gained further steam.
Today it is all but impossible to get by in North Korea on state-supplied provisions alone—and a wide array of goods and services, both foreign and domestic, are available for money in North Korean markets. Although formally prohibited, even real estate is for sale throughout the country, with a vibrant market for private flats in Pyongyang. And a wealthy marketeering caste has arisen: donju, or “money masters,” stereotypically a well-connected official and his enterprising wife, who use political influence as well as entrepreneurial savvy to enter this nouveau riche North Korean elite.
In case you were wondering: Yes, corruption is rife in North Korean markets. It is the necessary lubricant for all North Korean private commerce. In addition, the government expects a big cut, and such funds have been integral to the recovery of the North Korean state.
The marketization and monetization of its consumer economy, in conjunction with new agricultural and commercial incentives and a more tolerant official attitude toward informal activity, laid the groundwork for a domestic-production upswing in North Korea (and a veritable boom in private consumption, although from a very low starting point).
Unlike Asia’s “reform socialism” states, China and Vietnam, North Korea has never made a serious effort to attract private investment from abroad from real live capitalists. Pyongyang prefers large-scale foreign projects that are political in nature. Such projects are bankrolled by governments indifferent to profit, which is to say by the foreign taxpayers who can ultimately be left holding the bag. Examples include the ill-fated Kaesong Industrial Complex paid for by South Korea, as well as its doomed Kumgang Tourist Resort. For international trade and finance, the overwhelming bulk of North Korean activity still falls into two categories: 1) politically predetermined, highly subsidized economic relationships, or 2) what we might call “guerilla warfare” or “outlaw” finance.
Four: North Korea’s Friends
Preferential trade ties with China are pretty much the only game in town for Pyongyang these days. With the virtual shutdown of South Korea’s politically subsidized inter-Korean trade in 2016 following accusations that money from the Kaesong project was being used to fund the North’s missile program, China may now account for close to 90 percent of North Korea’s international commercial-merchandise trade turnover. And North Korea always receives much more than it gives in its arrangement with China, year after year.
There is, to be sure, an element of harsh capitalist bargaining within this overall relationship—but most of that is in the “people to people” bartering and petty trading at the border, largely for consumer goods. At the national level, judging by Chinese customs statistics, North Korea raked in well over a billion dollars a year in net merchandise shipments from China from 2008 through 2014—with no transparency on Beijing’s part about the mechanisms by which this ongoing transfer is financed, much less about the Chinese government’s objectives and intentions in extending this lavish lifeline.
Since 2015, official Chinese numbers suggest that Beijing’s de facto aid is down—but these look like figures deliberately fudged in the face of mounting international demands for sanctions against North Korea. It is at the very least possible that important aspects of Chinese support for the North Korean economy or its defense industries have not yet come to light. Given what is already known, though, it is indisputable that deals with China under the two latest Kims have been key to reviving North Korea’s heavy industrial sector. (For the year 2016, China reported shipping over three-quarters of a billion dollars of machinery and transport equipment to North Korea, 10 times the volume in 2003, when the six-party talks commenced.)
Vital as Chinese support may be to North Korea’s survival and economic revival, North Korea evidences no gratitude for Beijing’s largesse. Pyongyang does not “do” gratitude. Moreover, leadership in Pyongyang knows very well a bitter truth about Chinese aid that they can never utter: namely, that capricious cutbacks in free food from China in the year 1994 were the trigger for the Great North Korean Famine, which became impossible to conceal by 1995.
Apart from its Chinese lifeline, North Korea’s other main sources of international support come from “outlaw” forays into the world economy—including activities tantamount to state-sponsored organized-crime operations. These shady dealings typically attempt to generate revenues for the state that avoid international detection, often relying on the special protections and prerogatives of a sovereign state for cover.
One cannot help but be struck by the industry, ingenuity, and sophistication that have generally kept such schemes one step ahead of international authorities. Koreans in the North can be world-class innovators, too—it’s just that their chosen fields of excellence happen to be in smuggling, drug-running, money-laundering, and the like.
Some of these inventive schemes have been in the news. In recent years, for example, Pyongyang has made unknown millions abroad from what we might call its own style of human trafficking: profiting off the tens of thousands of workers in labor gangs it has sent to China, Russia, the Middle East, and even parts of Europe. No less inventive has been Pyongyang’s apparent monetization of its growing capacity for cyberwarfare through international bank robbery. In 2016, “unknown” hackers relieved the Central Bank of Bangladesh of $81 million in a spectacular heist; in late 2017, similar cyber-fingerprints were detected in a theft of $60 million from a bank in Taiwan. These are just two of many “hit and runs” orchestrated under the Kim Jong Un crime family. And as the WannaCry ransomware attack last year demonstrated by infecting hundreds of thousands of computers the world over, vastly greater dividends from cybercrime may lie just over the horizon.
Then there is North Korea’s signature global service industry: WMD proliferation. For obvious reasons, most of this work never makes the news. No one outside Kim Jong Un’s court probably knows just how much this nefarious business is bringing in these days. These unobservable flows, however, may be consequential. Consider this: Barely weeks after Tehran inked its September 2012 Scientific Cooperation Agreement with Pyongyang, the won suddenly ended its decade-long freefall and finally achieved exchange-rate stability. North Korea may have had additional, still concealed, operations that were also paying off at the same time as that Iranian deal, of course. But either way, the deal clearly marked a turning point in North Korea’s macroeconomic fortunes, and the stabilization of exchange rates and domestic cereal prices probably could not have occurred without an open spigot of foreign cash.
In sum, the hallmarks of Jong-Un-omics economics would appear to be new revenues from foreign sources, along with the new flows of funds derived from privatization and growth at home. These monies have apparently sufficed not only to stabilize North Korea’s previously toxic currency, and to bring an end to runaway inflation in North Korean key private markets, but also to abet Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic ambitions. This, at least, would seem to be the most plausible reconstruction of the limited but meaningful evidence from the jigsaw puzzle that is the North Korean economy today.
To repeat: While we should recognize the existence of this economic upswing we should also keep its scale in perspective. All one need do is consider the sad, stunning space photos of North Korea at night—the satellite shots revealing a territory almost pitch-black, while the rest of Northeast Asia is glowing with light. They attest better than any available statistics to the limits of economic recovery under Kim Jong Un.
Among the other implications of that space imagery, the North simply does not have the pocketbook for a wholesale modernization of its conventional army and a nuke-missile program. For now at least, most of the military’s equipment, apart from critical nuclear-related pockets like submarine production, remains outdated and ill-suited for the tasks originally assigned. Today, Kim Jong Un cannot credibly threaten to roll in and occupy South Korea. But Kim Jong Un is on track to manufacture enough nuclear matches to burn the place down, with Tokyo and Washington thrown in for good measure, in the foreseeable future.
Five: How to Put Pressure on Pyongyang
Given what we know about the North Korean economy, can America and the world community keep Pyongyang from reaching its ultimate nuclear objectives through a real economic-pressure campaign?
We do not know just how close North Korea is to perfecting its weaponization of ballistic missiles, or how many nuclear weapons the North currently possesses. We also do not know as much as we need to about North Korea’s strategic inventories and reserves. If Pyongyang were stopped in its tracks today, its nuclear and missile work would require unwavering vigilance and far-reaching containment for the remaining life of the regime. That said, a serious international campaign of trade and financial sanctions—led by America, ruthlessly executed, and starting immediately—could very significantly slow the pace of Pyongyang’s ongoing nuclear-ballistic march. And if we are in it for the long haul, a serious sanctions campaign could eventually promise the effective suffocation of the entire North Korean military economy.
An international economic campaign of this sort won’t be easy (though America has many more cards in her hand than many now appreciate). It probably won’t be pretty, either. But in any case, it is the world’s last chance to thwart North Korea’s nuclear ambitions by nonmilitary means.
Let’s start with the unpleasant truths. We must recognize that economic pressure will not alter the intentions of the Kim family regime—ever. We must dispense with the fantasy, still inexplicably maintained in various esteemed diplomatic circles and Western universities, that Pyongyang can somehow be pressured—or bribed—at this late stage into changing its mind about its multi-decade march to a credible nuke and missile arsenal. There is no “bringing North Korea back to the table” that ends with CVID—comprehensive, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization. Period.
So much for the bad news. The rest of the news about the outlook for sanctions against North Korea, fortunately, is better than we usually hear.
Many authoritative voices seem to think sanctions have little chance of influencing North Korea’s nuclear trajectory. Economic historians note that the record for coercive economic diplomacy is poor and has been for centuries. Policy wonks and foreign-affairs experts add that successive rounds of UN and international economic sanctions seem to have had no real bite so far against North Korea. These pessimistic assessments, however, misread the prospects for international economic pressure against North Korea on two important counts.
As poor as the general record of coercive economic diplomacy may be, North Korea is not exactly a typical economy. It is an outlier—it’s world-class dysfunctional, recent changes under Dear Respected notwithstanding. The economy is incapable of growth (or for that matter, even stagnation) without steady inflows of financial support from abroad to keep it on its feet. Remember: When net aid from abroad sharply dropped (but did not end) in the 1990s, that was enough to send North Korea spiraling downward into paralysis and mass famine. The North Korean regime in short, is a poster child for a successful international campaign of economic strangulation. Despite Pyongyang’s nonsense about “self-reliance,” it is uniquely vulnerable to the cutoff of foreign money and subvention.
Kim Jong Un has not yet faced anything even remotely resembling an international campaign of “maximum economic pressure.” The continuing stability of North Korea’s foreign exchange rate and domestic food prices pointedly suggest international sanctions have not yet greatly impacted North Korea. But few foreign-policy experts, and even fewer general readers, seem aware of how flimsy were the array of sanctions imposed on North Korea by the UN and U.S. during the George W. Bush and Obama years.
Consider first the successive rounds of UN Security Council sanctions lodged against the regime since its first atomic test in 2006. China and Russia flagrantly and routinely violate the very sanctions their own Security Council representatives voted to impose. Most countries around the world still ignore them, too. In early 2017, the UN’s Panel of Experts on the sanctions reported that 116 of the UN’s 193 members had not yet bothered even to file implementation reports on the then-latest round (UNSC 2270, levied in response to Pyongyang’s fifth nuclear blast). The previous year, the Panel noted that 90 countries had never reported on any of the sanction resolutions against North Korea (eight at that time, the first of them ratified a decade before that report). And filing a report on these sanctions resolutions is not the same thing as enforcing them. Several countries with whom Washington enjoys ostensibly friendly relations have turned a blind eye to illicit North Korean activities on their soil for many years (Malaysia, Singapore, and some of the Gulf States being among the more egregious examples).
When it comes to Washington’s own economic measures, furthermore, North Korea is still far from being “sanctioned out,” no matter the received wisdom. In the final year of the Obama administration, according to Anthony Ruggiero of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, fewer entities and individuals from North Korea were under U.S. Treasury Department sanction than those from seven other countries, including Zimbabwe and Sudan. While the Trump administration has been much more serious about sanctioning North Korea, Ruggiero testified that as of late summer 2017, North Korea nonetheless remained less sanctioned than either Syria or Iran. For some mystifying reason, moreover, North Korea was not put back on the State Department’s list of strictured “state sponsors of terrorism” until the end of 2017, after enjoying a nearly decade-long holiday off that roster.
As 2018 commences, three big changes augur well for the prospect of devastating “shock and awe” sanctions against the North Korean system. First: At the end of 2017, the Security Council endorsed a broad new writ and scope for sanctions against North Korea, dispensing with the earlier “marksman” approach of picking off particular military-related firms or individuals and embracing instead the “blockbuster” approach of crippling North Korea’s entire military-industrial complex. The new sanctions, among other things, ban all industrial imports by North Korea, severely cut permitted energy imports, and require UN member governments to “seize, inspect, and freeze” vessels violating some of the new restrictions.
Second: In late 2017, the U.S. Treasury announced new and much more sweeping authority for North Korea sanctions, granting U.S. officials wide discretion to impose what are known as “secondary sanctions.” Henceforth any business or person engaging in any kind of commercial or financial transactions with North Korea could be severely penalized, with punishments including fines, seizure or forfeiture of assets, prohibition against any commerce in or with the U.S., and being cut off from the worldwide clearing system for dollar-based financial settlements.
Finally, and by no means unrelated to these other changes, is the third change: the advent of the Trump administration. Under President Trump and his team, there appears to be a qualitative change in America’s North Korea policy—one that accords the North Korean threat a higher priority, and more unblinking attention, than it has been granted by any of Trump’s predecessors. The White House calls this new approach to North Korea a policy of “maximum pressure.”
Six: The American Role
Trump’s address before South Korea’s National Assembly last November on the North Korea problem was the most incisive, and moving, statement on the topic ever delivered by an American president. Whatever else may be said of him, Trump is keenly aware that the North Korean threat he inherited was allowed to fester and worsen under each of the four men in the Oval Office immediately before him. He appears to have no intention of continuing that tradition.
The Achilles’ heel of the North Korean economy—and thus, of Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs—is its existential dependence on foreign aid and outside money. The fortress-prison country is an operation that cannot be sustained on its own. To date, North Korea has skillfully extracted wherewithal and extorted financial concessions out of a largely unfriendly world. To jam the gears of the North Korean war machine, the international community must recognize, and finally begin systematically exploiting, Pyongyang’s unique economic weakness. This will require a campaign of economic pressure worthy of the name—and the pieces for such a campaign are already falling into place.
In broad strokes, what would this “maximum economic pressure” campaign look like? It must be Washington-led, since it will not coalesce spontaneously. To carry it out most effectively, diplomacy will be crucial: Alliance coordination and the building and maintenance of motivated coalitions are obvious force multipliers for this exercise. But the U.S. has unique international strengths that allow us to act unilaterally and with great consequence when necessary.
For starters, now that we ourselves have relisted North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, we have a stronger case for pressing governments around the world to shut down the regime’s embassies, trade missions, and other facilities located on their soil. Not necessarily to sever diplomatic ties, much less end all communication, with Pyongyang: just to deprive North Korea of safe havens for their illegal rackets on foreign shores. Given North Korea’s standard operating procedure overseas, affording Pyongyang an embassy in one’s country is like offering diplomatic immunity to the Mafia. The Trump administration has begun some of this advocacy already and has some initial results to show for its troubles. In conjunction with a consortium of like-minded states (including Japan), a full-court press could gain true international momentum. At the very least, this would disrupt some of North Korea’s illegal rackets and reduce the take from them.
Washington can also take the lead in lobbying governments to shut down the North Korean work crews operating within their own countries—these are too close to slave labor for comfort. This need not be quiet diplomacy. The complicit governments in question, including Beijing and Putin’s Kremlin, deserve to be called out publicly if they are intransigent. (The wording of the latest round of Security Council sanctions calls for shutting down such arrangements within 24 months, an amendment Moscow negotiated for—but there is no reason that the U.S. or independent human-rights groups should not try to speed up that timetable.) The U.S. also has options for penalizing trading partners who violate internationally recognized labor standards, which is to say we can affect the cost-benefit calculus for governments that tolerate North Korea’s odious practices in their own backyards.
This brings us to a rather larger diplomatic task: confronting China and Russia about their continuing financial malfeasance on North Korea. The scope and scale of China’s furtive support for North Korea dwarfs Russia’s, of course—but that is no reason to give the Kremlin a pass. These two states have long been playing a double game—one that must come to an end starting now.
Seven: The Russians and the Chinese
Contrary to some hand-wringing in Washington and elsewhere, the U.S. is by no means devoid of options in facing down China and Russia for their economic enablement of the Kim family regime. As already noted, Washington possesses an extraordinarily powerful tool for inducing their compliance: the U.S. dollar—the most important reserve currency in the world economic order. America gets to decide who can, and who cannot, engage in the dollar-denominated financial transactions with the myriad of correspondent banks serving the globe, for which the Federal Reserve Bank is the clearing house. Existing legislation and executive orders already provide the U.S. government with a panoply of instruments for inflicting nuanced and escalating economic penalties and losses on financial institutions, corporations, and private individuals who rely upon U.S. correspondent banks but engage in illegal or forbidden commerce with North Korea.
So far, the United States government has used only minor pinpoint-pinprick secondary sanctions against Chinese and Russian parties that violate restrictions on dealings with North Korea. Both nations face potentially major economic costs if they do not address and control such violations, should we choose to impose them.
It is no secret, for example, that the Chinese banking system is highly leveraged and that some of China’s largest banks are in what we might call a financially delicate situation. Does Beijing really want to find out whether one of these major concerns can survive a Treasury Department-Justice Department inquiry for North Korea infringements, much less the weight of actual secondary sanctions—or to find out what happens at home and in international financial markets if it looks as if a major Chinese bank might fail on that account?
If the Kremlin and Beijing believe we mean business, they will have reason to suppress illicit deals with North Korea—but convincing them we mean business is our responsibility. Washington has been curiously hesitant here, possibly for fear that Beijing or the Kremlin, or both, would respond by sabotaging any further UN sanctions. But we now have pretty much what we need from UN resolutions for a campaign of “maximum economic pressure” on North Korea—so the time for horse-trading and slow-walking is over. And while we are at it, these governments’ official economic support for North Korea shouldn’t be off the table. Isn’t it time to spotlight and track those flows, too?
As we work to rein in China and Russia, we should not lose sight of the money that North Korea receives through arrangements with other governments—including states in Africa and the Middle East that receive U.S. foreign aid. Yet much of what Washington needs to do in this economic campaign, alas, is currently unknown. This is a failure of our intelligence community that must be immediately addressed if “maximum economic pressure” is to stand a chance of ending up as more than just a slogan.
By the very nature of intelligence activity, spy agencies cannot take credit for many of their successes. But the U.S. intelligence community doesn’t deserve a slap on the back for its performance in this particular area. It should be something of an embarrassment, for example, that some of the best work mapping out the connections between Chinese front companies and the North Korean military these days should apparently come from a small think tank, C4ADS, that relies entirely on open sources. And that is just one small example of intelligence insufficiency. Our government also appears to know much less than it should about the financial relations between Pyongyang and its backers in Tehran, North Korea’s money ties with terrorist groups, and its adventures in crypto-currencies and other harder-to-trace instruments of finance.
Much of what is currently unknown—by our government—about North Korea’s covert international financial networks and overseas holdings is in fact knowable, given better legwork and intelligence. The story of the U.S. government’s interagency Illicit Activities Initiative (2001–6), which methodically mapped out North Korea’s money trails before being derailed by bureaucratic infighting under the George W. Bush administration, provides an “existence proof” that such research can be done. North Korea’s overseas financial networks have had more than a decade since the demise of IAI to evolve and hide their tracks—so a new IAI-style effort would have to play catch-up.
With the information we could gather from a well-funded and coordinated intelligence initiative, we can help shut down North Korea’s worldwide criminal enterprises, arrest their international accomplices, freeze and seize violators’ overseas assets (not just Kim Jong Un’s assets: think Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and the rest), and levy potentially devastating fines against commercial and financial concerns that willfully aid North Korea in violating the law. We can also improve the efficacy of existing proliferation-security efforts.
With better intelligence, better international coordination, and the will to get the job done, an enhanced “maximum economic pressure” policy could swiftly and severely cut both North Korea’s international revenues and the vital flows of foreign supplies that sustain the economy. An enhanced Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), indeed, could use interdiction not only to monitor the goods entering North Korea but also to regulate and, as necessary, suppress that level. (UN sanctions, by the way, make provisions for humanitarian imports into North Korea a matter the U.S. and others must attend to faithfully.) Yes, this is economic warfare, and it can be conducted with much more sophisticated tools than were available in the 1940s. In fact, it should be possible through such a campaign to send the North Korean economy—and the North Korean military economy—into shock, possibly even in fairly short order.
Eight: Success and Its Failures
If comprehensive sanctions and counter-proliferation against North Korea fail, we enter into a new world with darker and much less pleasant options. But what if, by some measure of success, they turn out to succeed? What then?
In addition to their intended consequences, successful policies always have unintended ones. Three potential consequences of an effective economic-pressure campaign against the North Korean regime deserve special consideration in advance.
The first concerns the role of North Korea’s donju elite in a future where North Korea is increasingly squeezed economically. These “money masters,” who until now have enjoyed waxing wealth and have lived with rising expectations under Kim Jong Un, would stand to suffer very sharp financial loss. What would a serious reversal in the fortunes of this privileged element in North Korean society mean for elite cohesion and for regime dynamics? Even North Korea has domestic politics. Poorly as we may be able to apprise North Korean politics, it would behoove us to try to understand in advance how such a change would alter the realm of the possible within the country—and what new opportunities such internal developments might present.
Second is the all-too-likely possibility that North Korea would careen back into famine under an effective sanctions campaign—and not because Pyongyang would be incapable of purchasing or procuring sufficient food to feed its populace. The reason North Koreans starved last time was the government’s dreadful songbun system, still very much in force today. Songbun is a unique North Korean instrument of social control that carefully subdivides the North Korean populace into “core,” “wavering,” and “hostile” classes, lavishing benefits and meting out penalties according to one’s station. Life chances in North Korea—and no less important, death chances—turn on one’s assigned class. Just as it is a safe bet that virtually no one outside the “core classes” has amassed great donju riches, so too death from starvation is almost entirely consigned to the state’s designated enemies from the “hostile classes.” Only “intrusive aid” (provided on site by impartial outsiders) and public diplomacy, including calling out Dear Respected on this vile practice, stand to mitigate the toll of the impending humanitarian-cum-hostage crisis should “maximum economic pressure” work.
Finally, there are the countermeasures Pyongyang will surely adopt if the economic-pressure campaign is attaining a measure of success. These will be intended to terrify and to break the will of the sanctioners. North Korean leaders are practiced masters of white-knuckle, bared-fang diplomacy—and they would naturally regard the stakes in this contest as particularly high. No national directorate is so expert in brinkmanship or so consummate at carefully gaming through seeming “outbursts” well in advance.
North Korea will test the stomach and the will of the pressure alliance, threatening what sees as the campaign’s weakest and the most exposed elements and ranks. These probes and tests may be military in nature, with a range of options that could well include threats of nuclear war. Pyongyang will try to make Washington and the international community fear that they are facing a “Japan 1941 moment,” with a cornered Kim family regime: a déjà vu of the drumroll that led to World War II in the Pacific, only this time against a nuclear-armed adversary.
This would be a point of incalculable danger. There are good reasons to think North Korea would not resort to first use of nuclear weapons, most compelling among them, its own state-enshrined doctrine known as “Ten Principles for the Establishment of a Monolithic Ideology.” (The essence of this doctrine: The Hive must keep the Queen safe, and at all cost.) But there is no sugarcoating the terrible risks, including risks of miscalculation, inherent in North Korea’s most likely countertactics.
Any way you look at it, North Korea’s adversaries are in for a long and bumpy ride. The alternative to thwarting North Korea’s war drive now is permitting Pyongyang to prepare to fight and win a limited nuclear war in the future, at a time and place of its own choosing, when the situation for America and her allies may be even more perilous.
Like it or not, Pyongyang plays for keeps, and we are in this with them for the long game. The next move is ours.
1 Full disclosure: I am one of those who seriously underestimated North Korea’s resilience in the 1990s. Twenty years ago, I would have thought it almost unimaginable for the North Korean state to survive to this day. Needless to say, subsequent events have proved otherwise, and studying my own mistakes has led to the analysis under way here.
2 Joan Robinson, “Korean Miracle” Monthly Review, January 1965, Vol. 16, No. 8, pp. 541–549.
3 Korea, the economic race between the north and the south: a research paper, ER 78-10008, January 1978, CIA.
4 Kim Il Sung, Works, Vol. 31 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1987), p.76.
5 Nicholas Eberstadt and Judith Banister, The Population of North Korea. (Berkeley, CA: University of California, 1992).
6 Kim Il Sung, Selected Works, Vol. 5 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1972), p. 431.
7 On this man-made, and completely unnecessary, tragedy, see Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland, Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid and Reform, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).
8 Justin V. Hastings, A Most Enterprising Country: North Korea in the Global Economy. (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 2016).
9Perhaps the best analysis of this transformation is Kim Byung-Yeon, The North Korean Economy: Collapse and Transition. (New York: Cambridge Univer sity Press, 2017)
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.
The Method in North Korea’s Madness
Must-Reads from Magazine
Progressives can’t remodel the country through politics—and it’s making them miserable.
The liberal malaise that has followed Trump’s shocking victory is a by-product of the left’s unreasonable expectations. Many liberals and progressives were encouraged to see Barack Obama as messianic and to understand his politics as emancipatory, and they fell for it. But political shifts in America just aren’t that radical, and never have been—even though that’s what the flimflam men who run American politics always promise.
Delusions about what big election victories can achieve are nurtured by the politicians who stand to benefit from the passion of those who are swayed by their portentous prognostications. (“This is the most important election of our lifetime,” says the party that needs to win to come back from defeat.) And they are husbanded by the commercial enterprises—paid consultants, super PACs, single-issue peddlers, cable networks—that profit from them. But the vows they make—primary among them the vanquishing for eternity of the bad guys on the other side—cannot be fulfilled, or cannot be fulfilled enough to satisfy the voters who are seduced by them. This is a problem for both sides of the ideological divide.
At the moment, what we’re living through is disillusion on the part of progressives, and on a grand scale. A consensus has begun to form on the politically engaged left that the day-to-day work of American politics—meaning what happens in government and in public service—is simply unequal to the challenges that plague our country. This follows, in turn, the same sort of consensus that rose among conservative voters in 2015 and 2016 that led to the rise of the insurgent Trump candidacy.
Fewer and fewer Americans see the grinding work of passing legislation and formulating policy as anything other than a sham, an act, a Washington con. This view encourages frustration and, eventually, fatalism. The conviction that the political process cannot address the most relevant issues of the day is paralyzing and radicalizing both parties. It is also wrong.
THE LIBERAL SOUNDTRACK OF DAILY LIFE
People on the american left have reason to be happy these days. Boilerplate liberalism has become the soundtrack to daily American life. But they’re not happy; far from it.
Superstar athletes don’t stand for the National Anthem. Awards shows have become primetime pep rallies where progressive celebrities address the nation on matters of social justice, diversity, and the plague of inequality. This year’s Academy Awards even featured the actress Ashley Judd’s endorsement of “intersectionality,” a once-abstruse pseudo-academic term meant to convey that every kind of prejudice against every victimized minority is connected to every other kind of prejudice against every other victimized minority. These are the outwardly observable signs of a crisis facing the liberal mission. The realization that the promise of the Obama era had failed predated Donald Trump’s election, but it has only recently become a source of palpable trauma across the liberal spectrum.
These high-profile examples are just the most visible signs of a broader trend. At the noncelebrity level, polls confirm a turning away from conservative social mores altogether. In 2017, Gallup’s annual values-and-beliefs survey found a record number of Americans approving of doctor-assisted suicide, same-sex relations, pornography, both sex and childbirth out of wedlock, polygamy, and divorce.
Then there’s the ascension of supposedly advanced attitudes about religion, or rather, the lack of religion. In 2017, Gallup pollsters asked Americans: “How important would you say religion is in your own life?” A record low of 51 percent answered “very important,” while a record high of 25 percent said “not very important.” San Diego State University researcher Jean M. Twenge found that twice as many Americans said they did not believe in God in 2014 than was the case in the early 1980s. And a 2015 Pew poll revealed that “younger Millennials” (those born between 1990 and 1996) were less likely to claim religious affiliation than any previous generation.
Finally, a 2016 Harvard University survey found that, among adults between ages 18 and 29, 51 percent did not support capitalism. Positive views of socialism have been rising almost inexorably, even as a 2016 CBS/New York Times survey found that only 16 percent of Millennials could accurately define socialism.
But today’s progressive activist isn’t content with cultural domination; he’s after something grander. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in a memorandum dated March 2003:
“The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change the culture and save it from itself.”
The election of Obama seemed the moment at which the central liberal truth could finally be given shape and form and body. It didn’t quite work out as progressives hoped.
The first bill President Obama signed into law in 2009, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, was sold to progressives as a visionary effort to root out workplace discrimination. In fact, all it did was relax the statute of limitation on holding firms liable for discriminating on the basis of sex and race—a fine-tuning of one part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Yet the “pay gap” persisted, and Obama and his administration spent the next seven years hectoring the private sector over it. They claimed that the figures showing that women in aggregate earned less than men in aggregate demonstrated that the entire society was somehow in violation of the spirit of the law. But the real source of this gap—as Obama’s own Bureau of Labor Statistics confessed—was individual behavior patterns that led women, on average, to work fewer hours than men over the course of their lives. “Among women and men with similar ‘human capital’ characteristics,” BLS economist Lawrence H. Leith wrote in 2012, “the earnings gap narrows substantially and in some cases nearly disappears.”
Similarly, in 2013, Obama credited his Violence Against Women Act with steep declines in rates of reported sexual assault. “It changed our culture,” he said. “It empowered people to start speaking out.” But this legislation did not change the culture. Many women continued to endure abuse at their places of work, with that abuse treated as just a consequence of doing business. The behaviors revealed by the #MeToo movement in the national outing of abusive men in positions of power had been addressed in law long ago, and long before Obama signed the Violence Against Women Act. The stroke of his pen did nothing to change the culture.
ObamaCare is another example of an exercise in cultural engineering that has failed to take. The Affordable Care Act wasn’t only a health-care law; it was an effort to transform society. The law’s true goal was a “culture of coverage” that would foster a new “norm” in which health coverage was an “expected” part of the social contract, according to California Health Benefit Exchange board member Kim Belshe. But once again, the political process failed to match the transformative ambitions of the progressive activist class. A late 2016 survey conducted by the American College of Emergency Physicians found that tighter doctor networks as well as higher deductibles and co-payments meant people were cutting back on doctor visits—the precise opposite of the law’s philosophical objectives.
Donald Trump and his GOP majorities in Congress could not overturn the ACA (though they did manage to get rid of its mandatory aspect). But ObamaCare’s preservation has not prevented the health-care left from sinking into gloom. This is because the politicians who pursued these reforms set unrealistic expectations for what they could achieve. These are not blinkered ideologues, but they are in thrall to a grandiose idea of what politics should be and out of touch with what politics actually is: a messy, narrow, often unsatisfying project of compromise and incrementalism.
Some left-of-center thinkers have addressed this penchant for overreach and its consequences. “Our belief in ‘progress’ has increased our expectations,” lamented the clinical psychologist Bruce Levine in 2013. “The result is mass disappointment.” He reasoned that social isolation was a product of American institutions because, when those institutions resist reform, “we rebel.” That rebellion, he claimed, manifests itself in depression, aggression, self-medication, suicide, or even homelessness and psychosis. What can you expect when the problem is the system itself?
Progressives have come to believe that America is beset with difficulties that must be addressed if the country is to survive—but they recognize that the difficulties they diagnose are extraordinarily hard to deal with in conventional political terms. Income disparities. Sexual and racial inequities. The privileges and disadvantages associated with accidents of birth. Such matters increasingly dominate the agenda of leftist politicians because they preoccupy the minds of their voters and donors. But what can be done about them? Great Society legislation in the 1960s—the farthest-reaching effort to reorder and reframe our country along social-justice principles—was designed to extirpate these evils. It is clear that today’s progressives are convinced we have not progressed very far from those days, if at all. This can lead to only one devastating conclusion, which is that the United States is a structurally oppressive nation. The system is the problem.
For the left, no problem is more hopelessly systemic than racism. It is powerfully attractive to believe that because some American institutions were forged in racial bias, the country is forever soiled by discrimination and white supremacy. Economics, politics, education, criminal justice—all are soiled by what Harvard professor Derrick Bell has said was an indelible stain on American life. Bell’s theories have been amplified by celebrated literary figures such as Ta-Nehisi Coates. “White supremacy is neither a trick, nor a device, but one of the most powerful shared interests in American history,” he recently wrote. You can understand why exasperated activists might conclude that devoting themselves to a Sisyphean torment is not the best use of their time. “I cannot continue to emotionally exhaust myself,” wrote the British journalist and feminist speaker Reni Eddo-Lodge in 2014. In a 2016 Washington Post op-ed, Zack Linly concurred. “I’ve grown too disillusioned to be relieved and too numb to be frustrated. I’m just tired.”
Violence, too, is seen as systemic. Acts of small-scale and mass violence are the result of many factors in American life. The individual who commits those heinous acts is often a secondary concern to activists on the left. For them, the problem rests in our militaristic national character, which is foremost exemplified by a pathological devotion to guns. As a recent headline at the New Republic put it: “America’s Gun Sickness Goes Way Beyond Guns.”
What about substance abuse? “It became clear to us that there is something systemic going on,” said Steven Woolf, director of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center on Society and Health, on the issue of substance-abuse-related deaths in America. And poverty? “Poverty is systemic, rooted in economics, politics and discrimination,” reads the Southern Poverty Law Center’s guideline for elementary-school teachers. Its lesson plan is explicitly designed to convey to students that “poverty is caused by systemic factors, not individual shortcomings.” Corruption? According to Fordham University Law School professor Zephyr Teachout, when the courts find that corporate entities have much the same free-speech rights as individuals, “corruption becomes democratic responsiveness.” Obesity and diabetes are systemic too, according to TakePart magazine’s Sophia Lepore, because they stem from the industrial world’s “increasingly commercialized food supply.”
When faced with this constellation of systemic challenges, progressives are left with a grim conclusion: We are impotent; change on the scale that is necessary is out of reach. Instead of practicing “the art of the possible,” they have made a totem of the impossible. The activists who are consumed by these phenomena have come (or are coming) to the conclusion that the political process cannot resolve them precisely because the oppression is a feature, not a bug, of the system. It is logical, therefore, for them to determine that engagement in traditional forms of politics is an exercise in naiveté.
Indeed, under this set of beliefs, legislative incrementalism and compromise seem like detestable half measures. Mistaking deep-rooted and immensely complex social and cultural circumstances for problems government can solve blinds participants in the political process to the unambiguous victories they’ve actually secured through compromise. This is a recipe for despair—a despair to which certain segments of the right are not immune.
LIBERAL DESPAIR TRUMPS CONSERVATIVE DESPAIR
By the time donald trump’s presidential candidacy sprang to life, dejected voices on the right had concluded that the country’s leftward drift constituted an existential emergency.
In late 2015, the author and radio host Dennis Prager devoted most of his time to mourning the “decay” of absolute moral categories, the blurring of gender distinctions, the corruption of education, and the dissolution of the family, all while blaming these conditions on a wrecker’s program. In the fall of 2016, the Claremont Institute published a piece by Republican speechwriter Michael Anton (under a pseudonym) in which he postulated that the United States was all but doomed. He compared the republic to United Airlines Flight 93, the plane that went down in a Pennsylvania field on 9/11, and its political and bureaucratic leadership to the suicidal Islamist hijackers who killed everyone on board. Four days before the 2016 election, the Heritage Foundation’s Chuck Donovan declared America in decline in almost every way and blamed a “dominant elite who thrive on the dissolution of civil society.” These catastrophists agreed on one thing: The time for modesty and gradualism was over.
The issues that most animate these conservatives are significant, but they are only indirectly related to conventional political matters. Disrespect for authority figures in law enforcement, the accessibility of pornography, assimilation rates among immigrant groups, the bewildering exploits on college campuses, and the ill-defined plague of “cultural Marxism”—these are widespread social trends that resist remedy from the inherently circumspect political process.
Also like those on the left, some conservatives have come to embrace their own forms of fatalism about the American system. “We need a king,” wrote the Hoover Institution’s Michael Auslin in 2014, “or something like one.” Auslin theorized that such a figure would liberate the presidency from weighing in on polarizing social issues, thereby lubricating the gears of government. Reflecting on the disillusionment and pessimism of his big-thinking peers in the middle of the Great Recession, the libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel declared, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” Patrick J. Buchanan devotes at least one column a month to the virtues of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism. Why? Because, as he wrote in January 2018, “Nationalism trumps democratism.”
Intellectuals like Buchanan and Anton have a profound weakness for extremism; it is one of the grave dangers posed by the life of the mind. William Butler Yeats and Ezra Pound found much to admire in how nationalists detested moderation. For Yeats, the “love of force” was a visionary trait. Pound, of course, literally became a fascist and rooted for America’s destruction. These perverse judgments on the right were nothing next to the seductive power of leftist totalitarianism. George Bernard Shaw was a Stalinist convinced of the virtue of eugenics and murderous purges. Theodore Dreiser became infatuated with the Soviets’ brutal adaptation of social Darwinism. Stuart Chase’s 1932 book A New Deal, predating FDR’s governing program of the same name, heaped praise on the nascent Soviet state. The book famously concluded, “Why should the Soviets have all the fun remaking the world?” Chase later became a member of Roosevelt’s inner circle of advisers.
When the political process fails to perform as they would like, activists and ideologues become disillusioned and embittered. They also become convinced not of the unreasonableness of their position but of the incompetence of their representatives. Thus conservative activists hate the Senate majority leader and the speaker of the House, even though both Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan work tirelessly to advance conservative ideas through the bodies they help manage. Leftists have turned on House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who is among the most effective legislative players in recent American history and easily the most progressive Democratic leadership figure of our time. McConnell and Ryan and Pelosi know from bitter experience that the Constitution places obstacles in the path of anyone who wants to use America’s political institutions to remake the culture wholesale. These marvelous obstacles are designed to thwart the human impulse for radical change.
The tragedy here is how this dynamic has convinced tens of millions of Americans that the political system is broken. Pull back from the granular view of events and try to examine America over the past decade and you see something else. You see American voters responding in complex ways to complex events. Obama overreaches and the voters elect a Republican House. Mitt Romney says 47 percent of Americans are losers, and he loses an election. Hillary Clinton says people who don’t care for her are “deplorables,” and she loses an election, too. The GOP appears to be on a path to electoral disaster in November 2018 because Trump may be bringing about a counterattack against the way he does business. Democratic overreach inspires conservative backlash. Republican overreach inspires liberal backlash. The electoral system is responsive to the views of the people. The system works. It works by restraining excessive ambition.
Those restraints annoy people who think change should just happen because they will it. In 2009, for example, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman was so annoyed by Congress’s failure to devise a bipartisan environmental bill that he lamented the fact that America did not have China’s political system. The People’s Republic, he wrote, was demonstrating the great “advantages” of a “one-party autocracy” led by “reasonably enlightened people.” Amazing how Chinese Communism had the ability to circumvent public opinion—the same ability also leads to the construction of well-populated labor camps.
You don’t need a one-party autocracy to effect change. Sometimes, when change is needed and needed urgently, government can rally to address the change—when voters make it clear that it must happen and when the change is preceded by rich experimentation and vital spadework. For example, New York City is no longer the crime-ridden, pornography-addled, graffiti-marred archipelago of needle parks that it once was. There has been a generation now of civil peace in the city, notwithstanding the act of war against it on 9/11.
But the change wasn’t the culmination of a grand governmental scheme. It was in part the product of work done by the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation in the early 1980s, which developed a model followed by the Rockefeller Center Complex, the Grand Central Partnership, and more than 30 other business-improvement districts. These parties engaged in a block-by-block effort to restore streets and relocate the homeless. The NYPD and the transit police could not focus on “quality of life” policing without hyper-local input that shaped what that campaign should entail and without an intellectual framework provided by the “broken windows” theory promulgated by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. The zoning reforms that cleaned up Times Square began as an initiative submitted by the City Council member representing the porn-plagued blocks under the Queensboro Bridge, with input from the Manhattan Institute. By the time Rudolph Giuliani was elected mayor in 1993, a quiet consensus had been building for years about the nature of the problems afflicting New York City and how to solve them.
BETTER THAN WE WERE
Moynihan’s famous quote is usually cut off before the end. After identifying the divergent liberal and conservative truths about the junction of politics and culture, he observed: “Thanks to this interaction, we’re a better society in nearly all respects than we were.”
His insight into the American political equilibrium was not a lamentation or a diagnosis. It was a reflection on why America is forever reinventing and refining itself. But as partisan actors and media outlets confuse the practice of politics with exhilarating bouts of cultural warfare, this equilibrium begins to come apart.
The quotidian, custodial duties that typify public service are neither dramatic nor entertaining. Zoning laws are boring. Police reforms are boring. Business-improvement districts are boring. Functional governance in the United States is unexciting governance.
Unexciting governance is limited governance. And the fatalists are driven mad by the limits our system imposes on them because they don’t want governance to be limited. That is exactly why those limits are so necessary and why, rather than getting dirty fighting inch by inch for the things they believe in, fatalists write themselves out of our political life. The danger the fatalists pose is that they are convincing tens of millions more that our system doesn’t work when it most certainly does, just in a fashion they wish it wouldn’t. In doing so, they are encouraging mass despair—and that is an entirely self-imposed affliction.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.
Seventy years after Israel’s founding, we need it more than ever.
Hertzberg understood how helping the Jews over there in the Middle East had helped Jews over here in North America. After decades of American Jewish ambivalence about Jewish nationalism, the Holocaust had created an instant consensus for a Jewish state. The fight to create that state galvanized the community, rousing it from depression—and shielding it from guilt. By doing the right thing in the late 1940s, American Jews atoned for their failure to save more of their doomed brothers and sisters.
Hertzberg’s fear that Zionism was “a movement in search of a program” in 1949 proved wildly premature, because Israel would continue to call on and depend on the support of American Jews for its survival. The nation’s creation was followed by a host of new problems and opportunities that kept the global Jewish community engaged with Israel and kept alive the American Jewish connection to “peoplehood”—even as many American Jews abandoned religious practice entirely.
In 1959, Hertzberg published a seminal anthology, The Zionist Idea, for the purpose of establishing the movement’s intellectual and ideological roots. At the time, Israel was fragile and the Zionist conversation was robust. Today, Israel is robust and the Zionist conversation has turned fragile. Israel’s 70th anniversary offers an opportunity to reframe the Zionist conversation—asking not what American Jews can do for Israel, but what Zionism can do for American Jews. Hertzberg understood that Zionism wasn’t only about saving Jewish bodies but saving Jewish souls. As the celebrations of Israel’s 70th birthday begin, Zionism’s capacity to save our souls remains vital.
Many American Jews in the 1950s helped their fellow Jews settle in the new land. The fundraising short from 1954, “The Big Moment,” featuring Hollywood stars including Donna Reed and Robert Young, celebrated the secular miracle. “When you support the United Jewish Appeal, you make it possible for the United Israel Appeal to help the people of Israel,” the short told its viewers. They could help “rush completion of new settlements, new housing for the homeless, the irrigation of wasteland acres…. Israel’s people who stand for freedom must not stand alone.”
Four years later, Leon Uris mythologized the Zionist revolution in his mammoth bestseller, Exodus. “As a literary work it isn’t much,” David Ben-Gurion admitted. “But as a piece of propaganda, it’s the best thing ever written about Israel.” In Uris’s Zionist paradise, New Jews lived noble ideas and heroic lives. Exodus captured the texture of the Jewish return: the trauma of the Holocaust, the joys of the kibbutz, the thrill of rebuilding, the anguish of the Arab fight, the sweetness of idealism, the wonder of mass migration. In the 1960 movie version, Exodus even tackled serious ideological issues within Zionism. As Ari Ben Canaan escorts his non-Jewish love interest, Kitty Fremont, around Israel, the two look over the Valley of Jezreel. They marvel at seeing the “same paving stones that Joshua walked on when he conquered” the land, along with “every clump of trees” Ari’s father planted.
Thrilled that the valley is becoming Jewish once again, Ari proclaims: “I’m a Jew. This is my country.” Kitty dismisses differences between people as artificial. Ari makes the particularist case against universalism: “People are different. They have a right to be different.” They suspend the debate, Hollywood-style, with their first kiss.
In print, on screen, and in song, Exodus cast Zionism in such glowing terms that it condemned Israel to the inevitable comedown. Decades later, Thomas Friedman, trying to justify his anger at the Jewish state as its popularity flagged, would define this mythic place he missed as “your grandfather’s Israel.” Actually, Israel today—Friedman’s Israel—is more compassionate, just, equitable, and democratic than his grandfather’s.
As Exodus climbed the bestseller lists, Hertzberg’s Zionist Idea showed how a series of abstract debates spawned an actual state in mere decades. The texts, Hertzberg’s editor Emanuel Neumann wrote, illustrate “the internal moral and intellectual forces in Jewish life” that shaped this “idea which galvanized a people, forged a nation, and made history…. Behind the miracle of the Restoration lies more than a century of spiritual and intellectual ferment which produced a crystallized Zionist philosophy and a powerful Zionist movement.”
Recalling this period, Abraham Joshua Heschel would say American Jews took that miracle for granted. We became so used to the Tel Aviv Hilton, he said, that we forgot Tel Hai, where the one-armed Zionist warrior Josef Trumpeldor sacrificed his life for his country. Heschel was chiding American Jews for failing to use Israel to find greater meaning, to revitalize their Jewish identities, to launch “an ongoing spiritual revolution.”
Several political shocks in the 1960s upstaged the cultural and spiritual conversation that Heschel, Hertzberg, and others sought. Having grown up feeling secure as Americans, some Baby Boomers questioned American Jewish silence during the Holocaust. Frustrations at their parents’ passivity “while 6 million died” altered the community’s course—triggering a move toward activism. Cries of “Never again” shaped the Zionist, peoplehood-centered fight that ultimately brought 1.2 million Soviet Jews to Israel even as it nurtured and brought to adulthood two generations of new American Jewish leaders and activists.
The biggest shock was the Six-Day War. Both their fear of losing Israel in May 1967 and their euphoria when Israel won that June surprised American Jews. Many discovered that they were more passionate about Israel than they had realized. This “extraordinary response” led Rabbi Yitz Greenberg and others toward “a strategy of making Israel central in religious and Jewish educational life—if only because thereby we can tap strong loyalties and deep feelings.” The Holocaust and Israel’s founding partially Zionized American Jewry, showing how to live with a Jewish state while living happily ever after; 1967 showed most American Jews that they couldn’t live without the Jewish state.
Zionism became American Jewry’s glue. Israel reinforced a sense of peoplehood and renewed Jewish pride. It inspired the teaching of Hebrew, revitalized summer camps, and invigorated the Conservative and Reform movements. The community learned how to mobilize politically and raise money prodigiously. Indeed, writing in the 1970s, as periodic terrorist massacres kept returning Jews to the traumatic 1973 Yom Kippur War, Hertzberg declared that Zionism had become the only sacred commitment all American Jews shared. “Intermarriage, ignorance in the Jewish heritage, or lack of faith do not keep anyone from leadership in the American Jewish community today.” Hertzberg complained. “Being against Israel or apathetic in its support does.”
But while it was succeeding politically in America, Zionism was failing culturally and spiritually, Hertzberg charged. “Today there is no Zionist education in the U.S., no schools, no teaching seminaries, no commitment by Zionists” to cultivating “a Zionist kind of Jewish personality”—Ben-Gurion’s New Jew. Instead of stirring charges of dual loyalty, instead of adding “to the discomfort of the Jews in the Diaspora,” Hertzberg noted, Zionism contributed to Jews’ “acceptance of themselves and their acceptance by others.”
Today, it seems, personal concerns predominate. Now we wonder how having a Jewish state helps Jews navigate what Birthright Israel calls “their own Jewish journeys” and their quests for meaning. That could seem to be a chaotic souk, an oriental bazaar resulting in a gay Zionism and a Mizrahi Zionism, an Orthodox Zionism and a Reform Zionism, a feminist Zionism and an environmental Zionism. This is not entirely new. Early Zionists also fused their secular, Western agendas with the Jewish agenda—creating the kibbutz and the Histadrut Labor union, among other hybrids of hyphenate Zionism. In fact, a thoughtful Zionism might cure what ails us by focusing on what Israel means “to me, to us.” Which brings us to the greatest contradiction of our age: Succeeding as Americans individually poses a threat to Jews communally. Building careers usually trumps the labor of deepening traditions, morals, or communal commitments. Increasingly, many American Jews are happy being Jew-ish, reducing a profound cultural, intellectual, religious heritage to props, a smattering of superficial symbols to make us stand out just enough to be interesting—and not too much to be threatening.
Academic postmodernism validates that professionally driven Jewish laziness. After slaving away to perfect the CV and GPA, to get into the best college possible, Jewish students arrive on campuses that often caricature Judaism—like all religions—as a repressive system while slamming Zionism as particularly oppressive, privileged, and aggressive. This postmodernist updating of Marxist universalism loathes the kinds of red lines Jews traditionally drew around multiple behaviors and beliefs—among them, intermarrying, denouncing Israel, or indulging in self-indulgent behaviors from tattooing your skin to blowing your mind with drugs or alcohol. But a community cannot exist without any boundaries—it’s as useless as a house with no walls.
More powerful than these ideological issues is the simple fascism of the clock. Few high-achieving American Jews devote much time in their week to being Jewish. The demands of work and the lures of leisure leave little room in the schedule for much else—especially such unhip, pre-modern, and un-postmodern activities.
Then, perhaps most devastating, once American Jews carve out the time and overcome the static, what awaits them in most synagogues is a stale stew of warmed-over nostalgia. Judaism must be more than gefilte fish and lox, more than some colorful Yiddish exclamations and shtetl tales. The superficiality of so many Jewish experiences inside the walls of the large Semitic cathedrals that fill up just three times a year is so dispiriting that it takes most Jews another year to screw up the courage to return.
No comprehensive cures exist, of course. And Zionism, which is in many ways a conservative cultural initiative despite Israel’s liberal democracy, faces a hostile environment. American Jews, whose parents and grandparents were once more culturally conservative than the rest of American society, tend now to be far more liberal. Moreover, the systematic campaign to delegitimize Zionism has done great damage, just as conservative dominance of Israel has tarnished Israel’s luster among America’s passionately liberal Jews.
Nevertheless, Israel and Zionism still have a magic, illustrated by the great counterforce that most lamentations about the Israel-Diaspora relationship overlook: Birthright Israel. Young American Jews on those 10-day trips are thrilled by the experience. The enthusiasm comes from tasting a thick, dynamic, 24/7 Jewish experience that is qualitatively different from their thin, static, fragmented American Judaism. The impact comes from what Jonathan Sacks has aptly called turning Israel into world Jewry’s classroom, its living laboratory demonstrating vibrant, thriving Judaisms in sync with the environment. Seeing Jewish garbage men and police officers normalizes Jewish society, broadening the range of Jewish career paths and class stances, reducing the implicit pressure wherever American Jews look to be the next Zuckerberg, Spielberg, or Sandberg.
Swimming in a pool of Jewish symbols, traditions, values, and stories, Jewish pilgrims to Israel encounter an alternate universe that reveres the past, that seeks meaning beyond the material, that is more communal than individual and is more eternal than last week’s most forwarded YouTube video of cats frolicking. Israel proves Theodor Herzl right: Fitting in, not standing out, because you’re Jewish is liberating.
Even more surprising, unlike the media’s dystopic portrayal, Israelis are happy and fun-loving. Israel’s recent score of 11th on the world happiness index comes on the heels of reports about American mass unhappiness, especially in the upper-middle-class neighborhoods where American Jews live. The findings that half of Yale’s undergraduates at some point in their four years will experience severe psychological distress goes far beyond the anxiety produced by the crazy process of getting in. It suggests a specific sort of soul sickness that an elite life increasingly stripped of community, tradition, nationalism, God, group responsibility, and virtue produces. As the occasionally embattled Jewish state in an old-new land, Israel remains a Republic of Something, even as America risks degenerating into a Republic of Nothing. The shared past, purpose, and principles produce happier, more grounded, people.
Israeli normalcy risks its own laziness. But it’s the laziness of an instinctive, normalized Judaism in all dimensions rather than a Judaism you need to carve out time for, picking and choosing just what to do and when to do it—while often looking over your shoulder because you don’t want to look like a weirdo or a fanatic.
Beyond that, Zionism answers some core ideological conundrums many American Jews don’t even know how to formulate. Zionism resolves the confusion whereby the Judeo-Christian connection in America makes many nonreligious Jews feel Jewish even while calling Judaism their “religion.” Zionism welcomes Jews through the peoplehood portal—remembering that Judaism is this unique mix of nation and religion, of peoplehood and faith. Zionism celebrates nationalism as a force for good, cherishes religion and tradition as valuable anchors, providing meaningful “software” of values and beliefs running on the “hardware” of belonging. And Zionism celebrates the virtues of having red lines to respect, as well as blue-and-white lines to affirm. It “rewards togetherness,” in Anne Roiphe’s lovely phrase, and demands loyalty in many ways—especially considering Israel’s military situation.
With Judaism providing the background music to so much that is Israeli, with Israel instilling a strong sense of belonging in visitors, let alone citizens, American Jews encounter new ways of being Jewish. They see total Judaism, immersive Judaism, public Judaism. And, often without realizing it, they see a startling contrast, even with secular Israeli Jews who have figured out how to keep their kids and grandkids Jewish without being religious.
Finally, Israel helps American Jews shift from Anatevka to Jerusalem, from what Irving Howe called “the world of our fathers” to the lives of our brothers and sisters. Israeli Jewish identity is about speaking Hebrew and eating cheesecake on the holiday, often overlooked in North America, of Shavuot. It’s also, unfortunately, about fighting and defending the state. The need for American Jews as allies in that fight continues to offer nonreligious American Jews a passionate Jewish cause, a defining Jewish mission in their lives. And judging by the fact that AIPAC’s Policy Conference is the rare mass event that parents often attend with their teenage and twenty-something children, Zionism offers something one generation can pass on to the next.
Beyond that, the excitement—and, to be sure, the frustrations—of working out Jewish dilemmas and governing problems in real time with high stakes to keep this grand Jewish national project alive and thriving, is a lot more compelling than humming “Sunrise Sunset” as you enter your synagogue.
When done right and understood properly, Zionism can offer an important clarification to all Americans, especially in the age of Trump. In the 2016 campaign, whenever the word “nationalism” appeared in the media, it often came poisoned by words like “white” or “extremist” or “xenophobic.” The reaction against Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Brexit, neo-Nazis, and other manifestations of populist nationalism has soured too many Americans on any form of nationalism.
At its best, what might be called “liberal nationalism” infuses democratic ideals into the natural tendency for people to clump together with those like them. In the 1950s, Isaiah Berlin described this constructive nationalism as “awareness of oneself as a community possessing certain internal bonds which are neither superior nor inferior but simply different in some respects from similar bonds which unite other nations.” Many Enlightenment thinkers, following the 18th-century philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, compared this communal impulse with other human “desires” for “food, shelter, procreation, and a minimum degree of liberty.”
Today, this nationalist vision goes against the prevailing cultural tide. Amid what the sociologist Robert Bellah calls “radical individualism,” young Americans experience a “negative” process of “giving birth to oneself” by “breaking free from family, community, and inherited ideas.” By contrast, commemoration of the bar and bat mitzvah defines maturation as accepting communal responsibilities rather than shirking them. The Zionist reality demanding that young Israelis enlist in the army also roots them in communal commitments. In this view, national service is the defining step toward adulthood.
A resurrected, refreshed, Zionist conversation, one that focuses on what Israel does for us, might help Jews see liberal nationalism as a neutral tool that can unite a divided community and make us more determined, more purposeful, and more fulfilled than we can be individually—precisely what the young Arthur Hertzberg proposed seven decades ago.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
For a very limited time, we are extending a six-week free trial on both our subscription plans. Put your intellectual life in order while you can. This offer is also valid for existing subscribers wishing to purchase a gift subscription. Click here for more details.
The last remnant of Oslo crumbles
The whirlwind changes left Clinton unprepared for the meeting. Perhaps that accounts for the momentous mistake he made that day. “Rabin can’t make further concessions until he can prove to his people that the agreement he just made with you can work,” he told Arafat. “So the more quickly we can move on your track, the more quickly we’ll be able to move on the Syrian track.” Clinton thus tipped his hand: The U.S. saw an Israeli–Syrian peace deal as the real goal, and the president needed Arafat to make it happen. “Now that Arafat had used that deal to open up a relationship with Washington, he did not want to let Clinton shift his attention back to Syria,” reports Clinton foreign-policy hand Martin Indyk in his memoir. “And the more he managed to involve us in the details of his agreement with the Israelis, the less we would be able to do that. In his good-hearted innocence, Clinton had revealed his preferences. Arafat would not forget them.”
Indeed he would not. No foreign official would be invited to the Clinton White House more than Arafat. The Israeli–Palestinian peace process would not be a mere sideshow to the wider Arab–Israeli conflict. It would be a tapeworm inside U.S. foreign policy, diverting and consuming resources. Arafat had made the Palestinian Authority the center of the world.
Twenty-five years of violence, corruption, and incompetence later, the PA lies in ruins, with the Palestinian national project right behind it. Arafat controlled the PLO for a half-century before assuming control of the new PA. Thus his death in 2004 was the first moment of serious potential change in the character of Palestinian institutions. Mahmoud Abbas, far less enamored of violence than the blood-soaked Arafat, was his successor. Rather than reform Palestinian institutions, Abbas has presided over their terminal decline. As Abbas’s own health fades and as the world again turns its attention to Gaza, the part of the Palestinian territories not controlled by him, it’s worth wondering if there is a future at all for the Palestinian Authority.
The PLO was created at an Arab League summit in Cairo in 1964 to serve as an umbrella group for Palestinian organizations seeking Israel’s destruction. It was paralyzed by intra-Arab rivalries until various factions figured out how to wag the dog and draw the Arab states into war with Israel. “Palestinian guerrilla action was insufficient to achieve liberation, and so it needed to overturn reactionary Arab governments and assist Arab unity in order to provide the power necessary to attain the ultimate objective of liberation,” writes Palestinian intellectual and historian Yezid Sayigh, describing how some within the PLO saw it. Arafat’s Fatah faction, which delayed in joining the PLO but influenced it from the outside, was more explicit in a 1965 memorandum: Arab national armies would “intervene to decide the conflict, and to bring it to an end after the revolutionary masses had prepared the way for them.”
Palestinian provocations played a part in helping to fan the flames that exploded into the Six-Day War in June 1967. Yet rather than destroy Israel, the Arab armies lost territory to the Jewish state, including the West Bank of the Jordan River. The following year, Fatah—which had by now joined the PLO—provoked a costly battle with Israeli forces in the West Bank town of Karama. Fatah lost nearly 100 fighters, but Arafat’s mad gamble paid off: The Palestinians survived a face-off with the Israeli military and demonstrated their independence from Jordan. Arafat used this failure-as-success to complete Fatah’s takeover of the PLO in 1969 and become the undisputed public face of the Palestinian guerrillas. Documents captured by Israeli forces in southern Lebanon in 1982 showed extensive training and sponsorship of Palestinian guerrillas across the Communist bloc—the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, Hungary, Soviet-aligned Pakistan—in addition to PLO support from Arab states. After its expulsion from Lebanon in the wake of the Israeli incursion, the PLO went into exile in Tunisia.
The first intifada broke out in 1987, and even as it publicized Palestinian resistance, it gave the West a chance to consign Arafat and the PLO to irrelevance. Foreign Minister Moshe Arens proposed allowing the major Palestinian cities in the West Bank and Gaza to hold mayoral elections, after which Israel would recognize the winners as official Palestinian interlocutors. Rabin, then the defense minister, opposed the Arens plan, fearing it would undermine Israel Defense Forces’ control of the West Bank. A compromise plan was for the Palestinians in the territories to hold elections for negotiators, not officeholders. In his memoir, Arens explains that the idea “was meant to begin a process of negotiations with the Palestinians while bypassing the Palestine Liberation Organization.”
Before Arens or Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir could present the plan to the George H.W. Bush administration, Bush and Secretary of State James Baker preempted the Israelis by leaking to reporters their preference for the PLO and their belief that talks with Arafat should broach the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state. Shamir’s right-of-center Likud party revolted, and the government eventually collapsed. Bush had succeeded not only in throwing Israeli politics into chaos in the midst of the intifada, but also in effectively legitimizing Arafat as the rightful representative of Palestinian nationalism. This put the PLO and Israel on the glide path to that September 1993 breakthrough and the creation of the Palestinian Authority.
All this history taught Arafat one unmistakable lesson: Violence works. And so, after the signing of the Declaration of Principles in 1993, violence continued. Some of it was ordered by Arafat; some tacitly encouraged by him; some his security services merely allowed to happen. More than 250 people were killed by Palestinian terrorists in the five years after the signing ceremony. Arafat’s political rivals in Hamas pioneered the use of suicide bombings as a regular feature of terrorism. This served Arafat well: He could crack down on Hamas if and when he needed to but could also keep his fingerprints off some of the most heinous violence against Israeli civilians.
A perfect example of this double game occurred in February 1996. The Norwegian diplomat and UN envoy Terje Rod-Larsen met regularly with Arafat at the Palestinian leader’s Gaza home throughout the Oslo period. On February 24, 1996—a Saturday—Arafat asked his guest his plans for the next day. Rod-Larsen said he was thinking about spending the day in Jerusalem. According to the journalist Michael Kelly, Arafat cryptically said: “Why don’t you stay away from Jerusalem on Sunday.” The next day, Hamas blew up a bus in Jerusalem and another in Ashkelon, killing 26. “Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who thought he had persuaded Palestinian radicals to refrain from attacks on Israelis, condemned the bombings, saying they threatened the peace process,” reported CNN that day.
Violence wasn’t the only way Arafat hindered the cause of Palestinian statehood. Corruption tore through nascent Palestinian institutions. The numbers are staggering. After Arafat’s death, David Samuels surveyed the damage for the Atlantic:
The International Monetary Fund has conservatively estimated that from 1995 to 2000 Arafat diverted $900 million from Palestinian Authority coffers, an amount that did not include the money that he and his family siphoned off through such secondary means as no-bid contracts, kickbacks, and rake-offs…. In 1996 alone, $326 million, or 43 percent of the state budget, had been embezzled, and…another $94 million, or 12.5 percent of the budget, went to the president’s office…. A total of $73 million, or 9.5 percent of the budget, [was] spent on the needs of the population of the West Bank and Gaza.… Arafat hid his personal stash, estimated at $1 billion to $3 billion, in more than 200 separate bank accounts around the world, the majority of which have been uncovered since his death.
Why didn’t the creation of the PA result in Arafat’s transition from guerrilla leader to civilian state-builder? Three problems kept cropping up. The first was that his lack of accountability was enabled by both Israel and the United States, out of the naive belief that it didn’t matter how Arafat built his state and abided by agreements just so long as he did so. Arafat exploited this—he never built his state, in part because nobody was willing to make him.
The second problem was that the PA only added a layer of opacity to Arafat’s power structure. As the analyst Jonathan Schanzer notes in State of Failure: “Was he the chairman of the PLO, the president of the PA, or the leader of Fatah? These varying roles made it difficult to firmly establish his accountability.”
The third problem was more fundamental: Arafat shaped the PLO, and thus the Palestinian national movement, for a quarter-century before the PA was established. The only thing that changed was that nothing changed. Arafat’s predilection for violence, secrecy, and authoritarianism would be deeply corrosive to the institutions of an existing state; to a nonstate tasked with creating those institutions, they were fatal.
Not until Arafat died did the full extent of the PA’s failure become clear to all. Arafat’s absence was supposed to be cause for hope; instead, it revealed the bankruptcy of the PA’s model. Mahmoud Abbas inherited not a state but an illusion.
There is no doubt that Abbas was an improvement over Arafat. As Arafat’s deputy, he tried in vain to convince his boss to halt the second intifada (2000–2003), a bloody campaign of violence instigated by Arafat after he turned down Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s offer of a Palestinian state at Camp David in 2000. The intifada sapped Israelis’ faith in the PA as a negotiating partner and delivered Likud’s Ariel Sharon—the godfather of Israel’s settlement movement and a man who, as defense minister, had been instrumental in driving the PLO out of Lebanon two decades earlier—to the prime minister’s office.
Abbas’s ascension left policymakers in Jerusalem and Washington playing Weekend at Bernie’s with the corpse of the Palestinian Authority, waving its arms and propping it up in public. Both wanted to show the Palestinians they could get more with honey than with vinegar. But by 2004, it didn’t really matter. With President George W. Bush’s backing, Sharon went forward with plans to pull Israel completely out of Gaza and parts of the West Bank. The “Disengagement” of 2005 was a political earthquake: Israel’s great champion of the settlers uprooted thousands with no concessions from the Palestinians. More important, perhaps, was the fact that it was unilateral. How much did the PA even matter anymore?
Abbas’s legitimacy was another nagging problem. Though he won a presidential election in 2005, the PA was haunted by the ghosts of Arafat’s corruption. In 2006, Abbas called for legislative elections. Confident of victory, he permitted Hamas to participate in the elections, and the U.S. didn’t object. Had his Fatah party won, its legitimacy would have been undeniable. But in a shock, Hamas won. Fatah was hobbled not only by the perception of Arafat’s venality but also by the consequences of his one-man rule. In their biography of Abbas, Grant Rumley and Amir Tibon write: “Palestinian legislative elections are essentially a local election, in which every ‘district’ chooses its own members of parliament from the different political lists. While Hamas’s candidates ran under one banner, Fatah showed disastrous disunity by having splinter lists in multiple camps, towns, and villages.” Civil war engulfed the Palestinian territories. Hamas took control of Gaza and was booted from the government in the West Bank. Abbas is now in the 14th year of his four-year term.
His legitimacy in tatters, Abbas went about consolidating power and cracking down on dissent. But it wasn’t just the democratic deficit that made Abbas’s reign resemble his predecessor’s. The courts, legislative institutions, education, civil society—Palestinian state-building simply wasn’t happening. In 2010, the Carnegie Endowment’s Nathan Brown studied Palestinian government and society under Abbas’s Western-educated prime minister, Salam Fayyad, and he came to a dispiriting conclusion: “There was far more building of institutions under Yasser Arafat than there has been under Fayyad. It is true that many institutions were built in spite of Arafat and that Fayyad’s behavior suggests a greater respect for rules and institutions. But that is consolation only for those who mistake personalities for politics.”
Yet in one way Abbas is arguably more dangerous even than his predecessor. Arafat was notoriously defensive about possible successors because he had created an entire system centered on his role as the Indispensable Man. Nonetheless, PLO bylaws made Abbas the rightful successor, and he remained the consensus choice.
But to say Abbas has failed to claw back any control over Gaza would be an understatement. With a bevy of foreign benefactors—among them Turkey, Iran, and Qatar—no pretense of democracy, and no easy way in or out, the strip has become a Philadelphia-sized Islamist police state. Every few years, Hamas instigates a war with Israel to remind the world that no degree of physical isolation can make it irrelevant. On March 30, the group organized the first so-called “March of Return,” a day of protest and mischief at the border with Israel in which 20 Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli troops. A top Hamas official said the marches will continue until they succeed in overrunning the border and driving the Jews out of the land. For this, the protests were rewarded with absurd media devotionals; the New York Times hyped a Palestinian analyst’s comparison of the border rushes to the civil-rights protesters trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. Hamas displays the organizational control Abbas can only dream of, and the ability to have its propaganda amplified by the Times, CNN, and other major media across the globe. Abbas is reduced to gritting his teeth, and lately seems ready to just give up, telling Egyptian interlocutors in early April that unless Hamas turns over “everything, all institutions and ministries, including security and weapons,” the Palestinian Authority “will not be responsible for what happens there.”
The 82-year-old Abbas is in deteriorating health—yet he has dragged his feet on succession. He now indicates he’ll designate deputy chairman Mahmoud al-Aloul his next in line. But “anyone who thinks Aloul’s appointment will find smooth sailing within Fatah is wrong,” warns Israeli journalist Shlomi Eldar in Al-Monitor. The largest challenge could come from Mohammed Dahlan, Fatah’s former Gaza security chief, whom Abbas sent into exile in 2011 and who has been cultivating Sunni allies abroad. Jibril Rajoub is the party’s secretary general and believes he’s the rightful heir. Hamas could leap into the vacuum to try to take the West Bank by force, or it could play havoc by supporting someone like Dahlan. If the succession battle becomes a proxy fight among Arab states, it could get bloody fast. The PA as an institution survived Arafat’s death. It may not survive Abbas’s.
There is, of course, one remaining way for Abbas to distinguish himself from Arafat and ensure that he leaves something tangible behind: He could take yes for an answer and actually seek a negotiated settlement. Sadly, his track record here isn’t any better. In 2007, he walked away from a generous Israeli offer by Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert. The 2008 U.S. election briefly appeared to vindicate him—Barack Obama was elected president and proceeded to browbeat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into giving away the store. But Abbas made a fool of Obama, too. At first, he sat back and played for time. Then, seeing how difficult Obama was making life for Netanyahu, he thought he could wait for Netanyahu’s government to crumble. When Obama left office in 2017, Netanyahu was still prime minister. The one time negotiations got anywhere, in 2014, Abbas blew them up by abruptly agreeing to bring Hamas into the government, a move that cannot be countenanced by the U.S. or Israel as long as Hamas remains committed to terrorism and refuses to abide by existing agreements.
Obama did two other things that backfired on the Palestinian Authority. One was the Iran nuclear deal, which gave tacit American support to Tehran’s expansionism in the Middle East, scaring Sunni regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Egypt into strategic alignment with Israel. The other was more subtle but just as consequential: He helped orchestrate the passage of a UN Security Council resolution that deemed East Jerusalem, home to Judaism’s holy sites, occupied Palestinian territory.
The UN resolution at first seemed to be a clear gift to Abbas. But in reality, it was a ham-handed attempt to tie the hands of President-elect Donald Trump, who would be taking office just a month later. Trump wouldn’t have it. In the first year of his presidency, he publicly declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel and announced that his administration would move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. (While a new embassy compound is being built, the White House plans to officially designate the existing consulate in Jerusalem as the embassy in time for Israel’s 70th anniversary celebrations on May 14.)
The Jerusalem moves have been an unmitigated humiliation for the PA. They undid the damage to the U.S.–Israel relationship inflicted by Obama. Worse for the PA, Trump called the Palestinian bluff. Contrary to the fears of Western observers, and the ill-disguised morbid hopes of some in the media, the region did not go up in flames. The “terrorist’s veto” did. And the coordination that such a move required between the United States and its Arab allies made crystal clear just how isolated the Palestinian Authority has become—how vulnerable it is to the politics of the Arab world, and how impervious to Palestinian politics the Arab world has become.
It took four decades, but the dog is once again wagging the tail.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
The covert and overt sins of a celebrated scholar
Kristeva categorically denies the charges. Her critics argue that it is unlikely that the Bulgarian government would fabricate an 80-page dossier for the purpose of embarrassing a 76-year-old academic who is of no particular contemporary political importance. Professor Richard Wolin of the CUNY Graduate Center, who has written extensively about Kristeva, says flatly: “She’s lying.” And he adds that the Bulgarian government’s claims about her did not materialize ex nihilo: Kristeva recently began writing for a Bulgarian journal, and Bulgarian policy is to publish the dossiers of public figures who had served the state intelligence agencies during the Communist era. That policy is carried out by “ComDos,” the Committee for Disclosure of Documents and Announcement of Affiliation of Bulgarian Citizens to the State Security and the Intelligence Services of the Bulgarian National Army.
But what Kristeva did or did not do in secret is if anything less troubling than what she did in public. For decades, she lent her intellectual prestige and her powers as a writer (and propagandist) to some of the most repressive and vicious regimes of the second half of the 20th century. And she did so as someone who had first-person experience with real-world socialism as it was practiced in what was arguably the single most suffocating regime in Eastern Europe.
Once inescapable on college campuses (I was assigned readings from her work in at least four different classes in the 1990s), Kristeva has faded a little: She has authored a number of novels that have not been generally well-regarded, and she has got on the wrong side of her fellow feminists by criticizing the subjection of the individual identity to the demands of identity politics. She belongs, with Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes and a few others of that kidney, to an era of postmodernist excess during which American academics aped the jargon-heavy (and famously unreadable) prose style of their Continental idols, especially the French ones. Discipline and Punish took on the totemic status later enjoyed by Capital in the 21st Century—which is to say, a book with many more owners than readers, A Brief History of Time for Reagan-era graduate students. Revolution in Poetic Language might not have generated quite as much awe as Foucault’s famous lump, but The Kristeva Reader ornamented a great many coffee tables—and who could resist “Experiencing the Phallus as Extraneous”?
Kristeva arrived in France in 1965 on a research fellowship. She soon moved from the École normale to the Sorbonne, and she studied under Claude Lévi-Strauss and Jacques Lacan, taking in the intellectual fashions of her time: psychoanalysis, poststructuralism, semiotics, feminism, and, of course, radical left-wing politics. Indicting midcentury French intellectuals for covert or overt support of Communist dictatorships around the world is like writing speeding tickets at the Daytona 500, but Kristeva’s political history and that of the journal with which she was long affiliated, Tel Quel, is a remarkable testament to the weakness of Western intellectuals for totalitarianism—provided it is dressed in sufficiently exotic trappings—careering from Marxist-Leninist to Stalinist to Maoist. Kristeva was an enthusiastic supporter of the French Communist Party, arguably the most servile of all of the Western European Communist parties, indulging Adolf Hitler when it suited Moscow and later justifying the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 as a necessary prophylactic against “counterrevolution.” There was no Communist outrage too great for Tel Quel, whose editor, Philippe Sollers (Kristeva married him in 1967), declared in the familiar language of the period his opposition to all things “counterrevolutionary” and advertised his allegiance to “Marxist-Leninist theory, the only revolutionary theory of our time.” V. I. Lenin was later displaced from the Tel Quel intellectual pantheon by Mao Zedong. Professor Wolin, an intellectual historian, tells the story in his 2017 book Wind from the East:
As a result of the May  events and their contact with the Maoists, French intellectuals bade adieu to the Jacobin-Leninist authoritarian political model of which they had formerly been so enamored. They ceased behaving like mandarins and internalized the virtues of democratic humility. In May’s aftermath, they attuned themselves to new forms and modes of social struggle. Their post-May awareness concerning the injustices of top-down politics alerted them to the virtues of “society” and political struggle from below. In consequence, French intellectual life was wholly transformed. The Sartrean model of the engaged intellectual was upheld, but its content was totally reconfigured. Insight into the debilities of political vanguardism impelled French writers and thinkers to reevaluate the Dreyfusard legacy of the universal intellectual: the intellectual who shames the holders of power by flaunting timeless moral truth…. The Maoists started out as political dogmatists and true believers. But they soon found it impossible to reconcile their pro-Chinese ideological blinders with the emancipatory spirit of May. Once they ceased deluding themselves with revolutionary slogans, they began to understand politics in an entirely new light. The idea of cultural revolution was thereby wholly transformed. It ceased to be an exclusively Chinese point of reference. Instead it came to stand for an entirely new approach to thinking about politics: an approach that abandoned the goal of seizing political power and instead sought to initiate a democratic revolution in mores, habitudes, sexuality, gender roles, and human sociability in general.
There was a substantial intellectual component to the Maoism of the Kristeva-Sollers set, but there was also a superficial one: Sollers began affecting the Maoist mode of dress, and Kristeva, one of the most important feminist thinkers of her time, dutifully authored articles in defense of Chinese foot-binding, which she described as a form of feminine emancipation. Calling to mind Senator Elizabeth Warren and her fictitious “Cherokee princess” ancestor, Kristeva boasted that she is a woman who “owes my cheekbones to some Asian ancestor.” Despite having almost no facility with the Chinese language and very little knowledge of its culture, she authored a widely read and translated book, About Chinese Women, in which she made unsupported claims about the “matrilineal” character of classical Chinese culture. Tel Quel adopted an editorial line that was uniformly and cravenly pro-Mao, even going so far as to argue that the absence of professional psychiatric practice from China resulted from the fact that Maoism had delivered the Chinese people from “alienation,” the traditional Marxist diagnosis for what ails the capitalist soul, rendering professional mental-health care unnecessary.
“I don’t fault her” for serving the Committee for State Security, Professor Wolin says. “It was the most repressive dictatorship in Eastern Europe.” Signing on to inform for the Bulgarian government might well have been a condition for Kristeva’s being permitted to study in France in the first place, and she had vulnerable family members still living under the Bulgarian police state. “I don’t know why she doesn’t come clean,” he says.
But that is not the end of her story. “What I do fault her for is jumping on the Communist bandwagon,” Wolin adds. First she served the interests of Moscow and then those of Chairman Mao. Unlike most of her French colleagues, the Bulgarian expatriate was in a position to know better from direct experience. Nonetheless, Kristeva and the Tel Quel set undertook a pilgrimage to Maoist China in the middle 1970s, where they saw the usual Potemkin villages and came home to write fulsome encomia to the wisdom and efficacy of the Great Helmsman. “By ’74, everybody knew that the Cultural Revolution was a power play and a debacle on every level,” Wolin says, an excuse for the Chinese authorities to purge their rivals. “People who had been sent down wrote memoirs, and those were published in French in 1971 and 1972…. Kristeva knew how repressive these regimes were. She didn’t have to celebrate Communism. No one compelled her to do that.”
If this were only a question about a Bulgarian-French intellectual who is obscure beyond academic and feminist circles, then it would be of limited interest, one of those French intellectual scandals that give Anglophone writers and academics a twinge of envy. (When was the last time there was a truly national controversy in the United States over a book? The Bell Curve?)
But Kristeva’s advocacy of what was in terms of gross numbers the most murderous regime of the 20th century is only one tessera in the great mosaic of Western intellectuals’ seduction by totalitarian systems, especially those that come wearing exotic costumes. (Jeremy Jennings, writing in Standpoint, describes Kristeva’s Maoism as “part radical chic, part revolutionary tourism, part orientalism.”) Sometimes, that seduction has come from the right, as with Italian Fascism’s ensorcelling of Ezra Pound and F. A. Hayek’s embarrassing admiration for the government of Augusto Pinochet, a political crush that earned him a private rebuke from no less a figure than Margaret Thatcher. But, more often, that seduction has come from the left: Lincoln Steffens returning from the Soviet Union to declare, “I have seen the future, and it works.” Walter Duranty’s embarrassing misreportage in the New York Times, which still proudly displays the Pulitzer prize earned thereby. The moral equivalence and outright giddy enthusiasm with which Western intellectuals ranging from the left-wing to the merely liberal treated Lenin and Stalin. The New Republic’s footsie-playing with Communists under Henry Wallace. Noam Chomsky’s dismissal of the Cambodian genocide as an American propaganda invention. The reverence for Fidel Castro. The embrace of Hugo Chávez by everyone from Hollywood progressives to Democratic elected officials. Chants of “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh / The NLF is going to win!” on the streets of New York in 1968. Ten million Che T-shirts.
“There are Western intellectuals who don’t succumb,” Professor Wolin says. “The George Orwells, Susan Sontags, and others who learn the lesson. Among the French leftists in the late 1960s who swooned for the Cultural Revolution, many of them came to their senses in the ’70s.” But what about those who are seduced? “Often, they’re naive about politics, and they project holistic and idealistic solutions—totalizing solutions—onto events that don’t admit of those kinds of solutions.”
Political ideologies tend to define themselves in two important ways: first, in opposition to the most important and prominent of their direct ideological competitors; second, in an effort to distinguish themselves from immediately adjacent ideologies and factions. In the case of 20th-century radicals such as Julia Kristeva, the enemy was capitalism, and the most prominent alternative to capitalism was Communism. Whether the pursuit of the idealized new man and his utopian new society took the form of old-fashioned bureaucratic Soviet socialism or the more rambunctious and anarchic mode of the Cultural Revolution was a dispute between adjacent factions, something that may seem almost immaterial from the outside but that is the source of all-consuming passions—and rage—inside the radical milieu.
The West is perversely fortunate that its hedonism and materialism have inoculated it against the premier radicalism of the early 21st century—jihadism, which has gained very little purchase in the West outside of poorly assimilated immigrant communities, mostly in Europe. But Islamic radicalism is not the only rival to democratic liberalism on the world stage: As Xi Jinping consolidates his position in Beijing (a project that goes far beyond the recent removal of the term limits that would have ended his rule at the conclusion of his second term), where are the Western intellectuals with the moral authority and political acumen to articulate a meaningful critique of what he represents? The left in Europe and in the English-speaking world has never been obliged to make an accounting—or a reckoning—for its indulgence of a far more dramatically violent expression of Chinese nationalism, and even liberal technocrats such as Thomas Friedman dream of turning America into “China for a day,” begrudgingly admiring the Chinese government’s raw ability to simply act, unencumbered by democratic gridlock.
And if the left and the center-left are ill-equipped to mount an intellectual defense of democratic liberalism, the right is even less prepared, having mired itself deeply in the very kind of authoritarian nationalism practiced by Beijing. Like the 20th-century left, the 21st-century right has gone looking for allies and inspiration abroad, and has settled upon Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, the fascist Le Pen political dynasty in France, Alternative für Deutschland, neo-nationalism, neo-mercantilism, and ethnic-identity politics. The right-wing populists of Europe do not have Mao’s practically unbounded scope of action (or his body count), but they play for intellectuals on the radical right the same role that Maoism once played for intellectuals on the radical left.
It is not clear that Kristeva has learned very much from her political errors, or even indeed that she ever has come to understand them genuinely as errors. Her alleged collaboration with the Bulgarian secret police, tawdry as it might have been, would not constitute the greatest of those errors. But it is that allegation, and not the plain facts of her long career of advocacy on behalf of inhumane political enterprises, that embarrasses her. In that, she is typical of the radical tendency, a spiritual cousin to the Western progressives who once winked at Stalinists as “liberals in a hurry.” But radical chic is not an exclusively progressive fashion. Xi Jinping is in a hurry, and so is Marine Le Pen, and both have their attention set on matters of more consequence than “intersectionality,” the matter of who uses which pronouns, and the other voguish obsessions of our contemporary intellectuals.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
It was Ben-Gurion himself who proposed a compromise: Israel’s Declaration of Independence would conclude by asserting that each signer placed his trust in the “Rock of Israel,” the Tzur Yisrael, a phrase from the Jewish liturgy inspired by the biblical reference to God as tzuri ve-go’ali, my Rock and my Redeemer.
By referring to the “Rock of Israel,” but refraining from any explicit mention of divine redemption, Israel’s declaration was one that both devout and atheistic Zionists could affirm. For believers in the Bible, the phrase could refer to the divine defender of the Jewish people; for the secular socialist signers of the document, the words could instead make reference to the flint-like resolution of the Israeli army. The compromise was accepted, and the modern Jewish state was born by eliding the issue of the existence of God.
For myself, a religious Zionist and American-history aficionado, the story is doubly painful. Thomas Jefferson, the deistic drafter of the Declaration in Philadelphia, produced a first version without any reference to the divine designs of history. The continental Congress, however, representing an America obsessed with the Bible, edited the dramatic closing of the original draft so that it made clear that the revolution was being launched with “a firm reliance on divine providence.”
The irony is difficult to miss. America, inspired by the Israelite commonwealth in the Hebrew Bible, ordered that a reference to a providential God be added to its Declaration of Independence. But in the 20th century, the restored Israelite commonwealth went out of its way to remove any such reference.
For religious Zionists, however, removing God from a document did not do away with God’s role in the divinely directed drama that is Jewish history; in fact, the contrary is true. Sidney Morgenbesser, the kibitzing Columbia philosopher, once inquired of a colleague at the end of his life: “Why is God making me suffer so much? Just because I don’t believe in him?” Morgenbesser’s droll dialectic captures, for people of faith, something profound: It is those agnostic of God’s existence who can at times reify that very same existence. In a much more profound sense, the events that preceded and followed Israel’s declaration of statehood are so staggering that providence alone explains them.
Harry Truman, the former member of the Missouri political machine whom no one had ever expected to become president of the United States, overrode his hero, General George C. Marshall, in supporting and recognizing the birth of a Jewish state. And he did so, in part, because of his relationship with a Jew named Eddie Jacobson, with whom Truman had run a haberdashery business decades before.
Joseph Stalin, whose anti-Semitism rivaled Hitler’s, ordered the Soviet bloc at the United Nations to support partition, and then he allowed Czechoslovakia to sell airplanes and arms to the nascent state. The Jews of the IDF, fighting against overwhelming odds, did indeed illustrate flint-like toughness in their heroic victory; but the honest student of history can see that this is only part of the story.
Seventy years after May 14, 1948, religious Zionists still smart at the words with which Israel came into being. At the same time, they take comfort in the fact that what followed that extraordinary day vindicates their own interpretation of the words Tzur Yisrael. In his memoir, former Israeli Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, the youngest survivor of Buchenwald, describes the moment when the concentration camp was liberated by Patton’s Third Army. Many inmates, having longed for release, ran to the gates—and as they did so, the Nazis, in a final attempt at murdering the prisoners, opened fire from the guard tower. Lau was in the line of fire; suddenly, someone jumped on him and held him down until the shooting had stopped. Having no idea who had saved his life, Lau made his way to Palestine, attended yeshiva, and entered the rabbinate. The first position for which he interviewed was chief rabbi of Netanya. Interviewing for the job with city officials, he encountered hours of question from the mayor of Netanya and his staff. The deputy mayor of Netanya, a man by the name of David Anilevitch, who ought to have been deeply involved in the interview, sat on the side and oddly said nothing. As the interview came to a close, Anilevitch stood up and said:
Friends, honored rabbi, before we disburse, please allow me to say my piece…. I have been reliving 11 April 1945. I was deported from my hometown to Buchenwald. On April 11, American airplanes circled in the skies above the camp. The prisoners, myself among them, were first out of the barracks. As we ran, a hail of bullets passed us. Among those running toward the gate was a little boy.…I jumped on top of him, threw him to the ground, and lay over him to protect him from the bullets. And today I see him before me alive and well. Now I declare this to all of you: I, David Anilevitch, was saved from that horror, fought in the Palmach, and today serve as deputy mayor of an Israeli city.
Anilevitch, Lau concludes, then banged on the table so that all the glasses shook and said: “If I have the merit of seeing this child, whom I protected with my body, become my spiritual leader, then I say to you that there is a God.”
The definition of a miracle is an event that should not naturally have occurred. For us, this tends to mean the splitting of the sea, the stopping of the sun, the opening of the earth. Yet, by the very same definition, it is a miracle that Israel was born, and endured in the way that it did. It is a miracle that after a generation in which many Jewish children grew up without parents, let alone grandparents, we have experienced the fulfillment of Zachariah’s prophecy that grandparents will watch their grandparents play in the streets of Jerusalem. It is a miracle that after so many civilizations have disappeared, Jewish children continue to be born. It is a miracle that as anti-Semitism continues to haunt the nations of Europe that persecuted the Jews for so long, religious Judaism flourishes in Israel even as a now secular Europe demographically declines.
More than any other event in the last 70 years, the state that was born in avoidance of any explicit affirmation of Israel’s God now stands as the greatest argument for the existence of that very same God. And that is why many Jews, on the 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence, will recite with renewed fervor prayers in the daily traditional liturgy that 70 years ago had been at least partially fulfilled:
O Rock of Israel,
Arise in Defense of Israel,
And redeem, as you have promised,
Judah and Israel.
Our redeemer, the Lord of Hosts is your Name, the Sacred One of Israel
Blessed are you, O Lord, Who redeemed Israel.