Good Idea, Bad Idea: North Korea Edition


Kim Jong Un’s taking East Asia on a roller coaster ride.

Just how crazy is this Kim Jong Un guy, anyway? In the week or so since KJU had his uncle, Jang Song-Thaek, branded a traitor, executed, and expunged from official existence, I’ve read several articles describing him as a dangerous enfant terrible, and perhaps even a “modern Caligula.”

That notoriously depraved Caesar was eventually assassinated by his own Praetorian Guard, and some voices in our foreign policy establishment would like to see the U.S. expedite this process. This argument comes in two basic flavors. The first is that we should try to get rid of KJU because he’s a really bad guy who commits crimes against humanity and flouts international laws, especially the nonproliferation regime, with impunity. The second is that KJU’s behavior has been so erratic that he cannot be trusted to make decisions that are consistent with the survival of his regime. In other words, he may not deterrable, which could be a big problem given the DPRK’s rudimentary-but-still-plenty-fissile nuclear stockpile.

Neither flavor tastes good, in my opinion. KJU is indeed a monstrous individual who deserves to be locked up in The Hague for 999 consecutive life terms, and so were the two previous Dear Leaders. Luckily, the state of North Korea isn’t a useful vehicle for causing serious international security trouble, because those three guys have driven it like a budget rental for 60-odd years.

Consequently, most of the nasty stuff the DPRK does on the international scene amounts to small-time mafioso crap: drug smuggling, counterfeiting, and illegal weapons sales, all done to keep the lights on in Pyongyang (12 hours a day). Peddling nuclear and missile technologies to the highest bidder is somewhat more serious… but what do the North Koreans actually have to sell, anyway? DPRK is very unlikely to sell a completed weapon or fissile material–the risks associated with that transfer are practically insurmountable, given how often DPRK’s weapons shipments are intercepted–and the other states in the market for nuclear weapons can likely do better with indigenous programs.

In short, DPRK is effectively contained, leaving the irrationality argument. The thing is that KJU’s purge doesn’t seem irrational to me. Quite the opposite, in fact. He was able to eliminate his uncle, an experienced and very well-connected politician who was close to the levers of power, suggesting both animal cunning and a knack for self-preservation, not madness. For all we know, KJU may not have lasted another year if he hadn’t acted when and how he did. Whatever the case, this kind of action isn’t unprecedented in new totalitarian governments.

I’ll end with this final thought: we don’t actually want KJU’s regime to collapse, and neither does South Korea, believe it or not. Nothing KJU has done to this point is as unpredictable as what could occur in the wake of a North Korean civil war or coup. And if you think reintegrating Germany was difficult for the Germans, just imagine what the South Koreans will have to do to bring 25 million of their starving Northern cousins up to speed.

I think the best way to get rid of KJU and his regime, ultimately, is to sign a peace treaty and formally end the Korean War, depriving the DPRK of its main excuse for oppressing its people so horribly under “wartime conditions.” From there, let the Sunshine Policy do the work, and maybe we get reunification several decades down the road.


On Stealing Elections

If all goes according to plan–and despite Mother Nature doing her damnest to introduce climate change as a campaign issue–the United States of America is going to have a presidential election next Tuesday. According to professional polling prognosticator Nate Silver, while Barack Obama is tied or even a little behind in national polls, he is comfortably ahead in the swing state polls and looks to have close to an 80% chance of a second term. Not bad for a guy who barely seemed to be awake in Denver a few weeks ago.

The accuracy of that prediction, however, is contingent on a number of factors:

  1. Whether the polls are unbiased and representative of the population at large;
  2. Whether a similar sample of the population turns out to vote on Election Day;
  3. Whether their votes are counted properly.

The media has devoted quite a bit of attention to the first two factors, with the right wing alleging polling bias and the left wing alleging voter suppression, but not so much to the third factor. This despite the fact that Mitt Romney’s former partners at Bain Capital, as well as his son, Tagg, have business connections to the private firm responsible for operating some of Ohio’s electronic voting machines. Incidentally, these are some of the same machines that can be hacked by an eighth-grader for about eleven bucks in parts. Some of these machines produce paper receipts; others do not. The 2002 Help America Vote Act specified a minimum standard for voting machines, but implementation has been left up to the states, resulting in an ugly hodgepodge of machines and procedures.

Would other developed countries stand for this level of disorganization and vulnerability? No. In fact, even some developing countries have more secure elections than the United States, particularly those that have been subjected to dictatorships in the past.

The United States has no history of dictatorship, but it does have a rich history of stolen elections at every level of government. Historian Tracy Campbell wrote a wonderful little book about it, Deliver The Vote, outlining exactly how many of our elections have been stolen, bartered behind closed doors, or otherwise distorted. It’s not a pretty picture on either side of the aisle.

One of the more prominent examples includes the election of 1876, where Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was handed the Presidency despite a loss in the popular vote and Electoral College in a straight-up quid pro quo; Hayes got to be President, and in exchange, he and the congressional Republicans agreed to withdraw federal troops from the South and end Reconstruction.

Remember this guy?

Another famous example was the election of 1960, when John F. Kennedy appears to have benefitted from a little of that ‘ol Chicago magic, courtesy of machine politician Richard Daley. Lyndon Johnson’s command of local politics in Texas may have proved decisive as well.

And there there is the 2000 election, where George W. Bush won Florida by 537 votes. A Mexican friend of mine  recently asked me how the country could possibly accept that margin of victory without a full recount, let alone a runoff or revote of some kind.

The proximate answer is that the Supreme Court told us to, albeit in a straight party-line vote, and Democrats acquiesced. The underlying and much more interesting reason is that by virtue of institutional design the United States values stability above all else, especially the strictly democratic “will of the people.”

This ethos is most famously codified in The Federalist No. 10–which muses extensively on the dangers the unpropertied masses would pose to “personal security and rights of property” if they ever gained direct control of the state–and continues through the two-party system, the Electoral College, the way Representatives are elected, the Senate’s supermajority rule, and, most importantly, the procedures necessary to amend the Constitution itself.

So the United States, in truth, has never been a democracy in the technical sense of the word, but it has been a very effective limited government, with the key power holders switching like clockwork every four to eight years. It has been a government designed not to give the people what they want (at least not immediately), but what is generally good for them, by eliminating volatility in government to the greatest extent possible.

Suppose that George W. Bush had been a Fascist and Al Gore had been a Communist. Any suggestion that Bush had stolen the election would have probably resulted in blood running in the streets. Instead, Bush was a Republican and Gore a Democrat, and their policy positions were similar enough for Democrats to grin and bear it when Bush won under questionable circumstances.

The real danger would have been an extended interregnum where it was not clear who was legitimately in charge of the country, giving factions an opportunity to mobilize. This happens frequently in the developing world (consider the recent case of Lopez Obrador’s shadow government in Mexico) and can result in very serious problems, up to and including civil war. As far as stability goes, accusing others of cheating is as dangerous as cheating yourself.

No matter who wins on Tuesday, and by what amount, I expect a winner to be declared and a loser to make a very public concession speech as quickly as possible, safeguarding the legitimacy of our institutions. Going forward, however, I am troubled by the ever-increasing polarization between our two parties. The distance could eventually result in one party or the other deciding not to accept the other entering power.

Quick Updates

Whoa! Hey! Six months can go by pretty quick when you’re buried in schoolwork. I’ve been neglecting this blog something fierce, but will be back on a regular posting schedule tout-suite now that my second field paper is in. For now, a quick series of bullets, bang-bang-bang:

Protest Propensity in Africa, 1990-2010

How likely is protest after a 1 std. dev. food price shock?

  • The food security/protest in Africa field paper passed, so it’s on to the dissertation prospectus… which will also be about food security. Probably.
  • I presented the above paper at MPSA in Chicago a few weeks ago, in poster format. You can download a copy working paper from the conference website here.
  • The poorer/less democratic the country, the more vulnerable it is to protest when food prices rise. That’s not very surprising. What is kind of surprising is the marginal increase in effect: about 400% from the most democratic countries to the least, and 300% from the richest countries to the poorest.
  • The major outlier on the heat map above is South Africa, which is both wealthy and democratic by African standards. I think this may have something to do with the legacy of Apartheid on protest in that country.
  • I’m currently cleaning the draft up for submission/publication. I’m not 100% happy with the statistics yet.
  • For my next trick, I have some interesting results lined up connecting international food price volatility to leadership transitions in Africa. The upshot is that only autocracies seem to be vulnerable. More on that soon.
  • My advisor, Michael Ross, has a new book out on The Oil Curse. It’s way good, and the implications therein are troubling. Save money (and trees), read on Kindle!
  • The world has moved on since I posted on Msrs. Breivik and Putin. Breivik’s on trial in Oslo trying to prove that he’s not insane so his political point will stick. Two teams of Norwegian shrinks split the vote on that one, but his rationality was never a question for me. Putin, meanwhile, has been subject to protests in an increasingly restive Russia, which I did not forsee.

The Most Interesting Man In The World

Vladimir Putin’s recent announcement that he will be returning to the Russian presidency in 2012 is about as surprising as a Yaakov Smirnoff punchline. In America, citizens choose president by voting… in Putin’s Russia, president chooses votes by citizens! Or something along those lines. Putin first won election in 2000 with 53% of the vote; in 2004, he smashed the opposition by winning 71%, a feat that his deputy Dmitry Medvedev duplicated in 2008. I would say that the over-under on Putin’s number next year is a healthy 75%.

Cool shades.

Why not something a little higher, like 80%, 90%, or even a Saddam Hussein-style flawless victory? It could be arranged. The Putin circle’s mastery of Russian politics is complete. The media has been brought to heel by years of mergers and acquisitions activity and well-placed bribes, not to mention a steady drip of journalist assassinations. The opposition has been cowed into silence–even the Communists, who were once quite adept at seizing and holding political power, but seem to have lost their street-fighting chops on their way to the Duma, where they are content to play the loyal “opposition” to Putin’s United Russia party with a token number of seats. The regional governments have been packed with cronies. The military just had its budget increased.

Medvedev, the most serious (and only realistic) threat to Putin’s control of the Russian state, is heading back to the prime minister’s office, where he will no doubt spend the next eight years (two Russian presidential terms, the maximum allowed by the constitution) waiting to spell Putin in 2020. Western hopes that Medvedev would play the Gorbachev to Putin’s Brezhnev were completely unfounded.

Yes, Putin would appear to have Russia on a string… and yet heavy lies the crown. Personalistic authoritarian regimes like Putin’s often lack the institutions necessary to “reproduce itself in a legitimate way,” as Vladislav Imozemtsev recently noted in a shrewd piece in Foreign Affairs.

The temporary switch to Medvedev only worked because Putin was still in the public eye, constantly reminding Russians that he was as vigorous as ever. Rather than a democratically appropriate alternation in power, the whole exercise was couched as a sort of four-year adventure vacation for the president.

Indeed, Putin’s roster of activities during his time away from the presidency reads more like a page out of The Most Interesting Man In The World‘s battered travel journal than a typical stint in a prime ministership. A partial list includes plumbing the world’s deepest lake in a sub, riding with notorious Russian biker gangs, shooting Siberian tigers with a tranq gun, and piloting various military aircraft (fixed- and rotor-wing!). The guy wasn’t just trying really hard–he was trying too hard.

So what? Maybe the guy’s having a delayed midlife crisis or something; maybe he’s just checking items off his bucket list. Could be, except that everything we know about Putin personally suggests that the man has few romantic or adventurous inclinations. He is most often described as a cautious–even colorless–pragmatist who is methodical to a fault. In fact, his efficient, calculating, essentially passionless nature was a major selling point for Boris Yeltsin, who needed to pick someone who could squelch Russia’s burgeoning economic and social anarchy as his successor. Putin got the job because he was the Least Interesting Man In The World.

The transformation from KGB suit to invincible muscleman strikes many observers in the West as overly facile and tone-deaf from a marketing point of view. But the fact is that Russians eat this stuff up. Putin’s personal popularity stands at 68%, a number that most US politicians would kill for.

Another fact is that Putin needs his personal numbers to be legitimately sky-high–much more so than Barack Obama, say, who can perhaps survive a personal popularity score in the high 40s. Putin cannot, for the same reason he can’t win the presidential vote with 100% of the vote.

Russia’s economic future depends on two things: rising commodity prices (especially in oil and gas) and foreign direct investment. The latter is more important than the former in the long run, in part because Russia’s energy infrastructure desperately needs to be modernized, but mostly because Russia stands no chance of escaping its steady decline without economic diversification.

In short, the Russians need General Electric (and similar firms) to come invest in their country. Investors, in turn, are looking for credible signals that Russia will keep its end of the many deals it wishes to sign. Risk management experts tend to look at absolute dictatorships with a jaundiced eye, particularly when it comes to longterm infrastructure investments, because the investment climates in such countries are actually less predictable than they are in democracies. Absolute dictators may decide to do impulsive things like revoke foreign property rights; they might privilege crony-owned local concerns over more efficient foreign investors; and, most importantly, their countries might explode into civil war upon the dictator’s death.

An anocrat like Putin, on the other hand, floats along winning 70% of the vote, generally without widespread fraud. His popularity is genuine–albeit heavily stage-managed and augmented by media control–and foreign firms are confident in it. By the time he’s on his deathbed, the public should be familiar enough with Medvedev (who is a full 12 years younger) that the transition will go smoothly.

Of course, Putin doesn’t look like a guy who’s going to be on his deathbed anytime soon, does he?