war on the rocks

Entry 46: Obama, North Korea, and the Arc of History

February 15, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the 46th installment in Van Jackson’s daily writing journal, “Nuke Your Darlings,” which tracks his six-month battle to write a new book on North Korea. Will he meet his deadline?

I only had time to do about an hour of research and an hour of writing today, yielding a little under 600 words.  A slower pace than my daily average the past couple weeks, but the new normal is me spending my day satisfying my various non-research obligations as an educator, thesis supervisor, editor, and husband and dad (not in that order).  Less time will hopefully force me to be more efficient.

My hour of research was spent looking up some statements Obama made in 2015 espousing a belief in “collapsism”—the idea that North Korea’s regime would inevitably collapse for whatever reason.  I was trying to snag some quotes from his collapsist remarks, but also was curious about his particular formulation of collapsism.  Since the 1990s, a lot of experts have predicted the end of the Kim regime was just around the corner, but for occasionally different reasons.  Some from recurring famine, a backward economy, or the contradictions of paternalistic cult communism—or all of the above.

It turns out Obama’s collapsism stems, somewhat paradoxically, from his humanistic optimism.  He believed that the arc of history, no matter how long, bends toward justice—which means a fundamentally unjust regime in Pyongyang cannot last.  Obama also believed that technological change—and especially information and communications technologies—made it impossible for dictatorships that rely on information control to keep up their firewalls.  He even approved the State Department’s efforts to smuggle in information from the outside world in order to give history a nudge

The information smuggling efforts, like so much of Obama policy on North Korea, was well intentioned but misguided.  The Kim regime does retain a firewall against information from the outside world, but it’s also a sophisticated enough dictatorship that it adapts its narratives that enable societal control to account for new information from the outside world.

Sandra Fahy did some really interesting research a few years ago interviewing North Korean defectors who suffered through extreme famine in the 1990s, even as they were learning through smuggled information about how good the South Koreans had it.  It’s been a while since I read her book, but I recall her writing something along the lines that even when starving people in the North learned about lavish living in the South, the regime (and society) adapted how it referred to the suffering.  The North Koreans actually shifted narratives—literally the vocabulary they would use—to accommodate the new reality in a palatable way, using euphemisms to describe extreme hunger and relativizing the success of the South by taking pride that their way of life was different.  I’m surely missing some nuance in her argument, but the whole study drove home the reality that flexible narratives in a dictatorship make regime control more resilient, and information penetration less effective.

So back to Obama.  The arc of history and technological determinism.  Those are the reasons why Obama believed North Korea couldn’t last, and that’s how he justified—including in public interviews—not doing much about the North Korean nuclear threat as it became direr.  The problem would maybe sort itself out with time.  Of course, he wasn’t banking on Donald Trump winning the presidency, and I wonder how that expectation might have changed his behavior in office.


Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks and an associate editor of the Texas National Security Review.