Recently, the new dictator of North Korea had his uncle and potential power-behind-the-throne executed. It seemed at first like a garden-variety power play, but it seems like there might have been something weirder going on. From the times:
The clash was over who would profit from North Korea’s most lucrative exports: coal, clams and crabs.
North Korean military forces were deployed to retake control of one of the sources of those exports, the rich crab and clam fishing grounds that Jang Song-thaek, the uncle of the country’s untested, 30-year-old leader, had seized from the military. In the battle for control of the fishing grounds, the emaciated, poorly trained North Korean forces “were beaten — very badly — by Uncle Jang’s loyalists,” according to one official.
This is totally bizarre. The country is being run for the benefit of the party elite, who slice up the country’s productive institutions and each get their own cuts. When Kim Jong Un wanted to take it back and deployed the army, the army ran head-first into troops loyal to his uncle. As a result of the ensuing struggle, he ended up rooting out his uncle’s entire power base. It’s a little bit like something out of Game of Thrones, or medieval European history, right down to the conflict over rich clam-fishing grounds. No wonder they call North Korea the “Hermit Kingdom”.
Most non-democratic systems seem to eventually end up in the same place. Even the Soviet Union, founded on a radical rejection of everything about the past, ended up with hereditary leadership, feudalistic power bases, and a patronage economy. It can be easy to get glib about how different democracies really are, especially when yet another Bush might run for President in 2016. But liberal democracies, once established, simply don’t seem to devolve into this kind of feudalistic structure. At least they haven’t for the few centuries they’ve been around. How resilient is that tendency over long periods of time?
When compared against the whole sweep of history, long-term optimism seem unwarranted.