Hacker News new | comments | show | ask | jobs | submit login
on Nov 23, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite

When the Berlin Wall fell and the USSR was dismembered in 1989, there was a peaceful transition to democracy in my country, Hungary.

A lot of people say that "we should have made a revolution", what they mean is that the "free", externally imposed peaceful transition may not have been the best thing in the long run.

Now that I'm older, approaching 30, I'm learning what this mean. Basically, we got rid of the soviets, we got ourselves a democracy, but the political and economic system hasn't changed enough. We have very high levels of debt, we don't have good politicians or political parties, we have lots of corruption, high and constantly changing taxes, high administrative overhead, the so-called redistribution factor is 50% (meaning every second dollar produced is eaten up by the gov't and then redistributed to its network of "friendly" companies through gov't jobs, projects and grants or sent abroad to pay interest). Yesterday I went to a meeting where I learned that the buzzword "innovation" is defined in hungarian state documents as getting a gov't grant and then doing something with that.

We're doing a startup, and one of the first question we usually get is "which grant did you get?". When we say we didn't, that we bootstrapped ourselves people think we're crazy.

I don't know whether we would have been better off with a not-so-peaceful transition, and nobody wants violence in their country, but we definitely need some kind of politico-economic "revolution". Unfortunately, I'm beginning to think we don't have the necessary political resources (good people on the state side) for that. I don't think a smart and good-intentioned person today goes into politics here.

So, based on my experiences here --- given how much they're behind economically, politically and technically --- unless the North Koreans overthrow Kim Jong-il themselves, they're pretty much fucked for the next 50-100 years, because no externally imposed force will magically fix their system for free. Their best bet is to unite with South Korea in a painful way (eg. forget their own laws, taxes, gov't agencies and crappy gov't run companies, which means tons of people loose their job, and adopt what they have in South Korea), the way East Germany united with West Germany.

Of course, I'm just a programmer, so what do I know =)

> I don't think a smart and good-intentioned person today goes into politics here.

I don't think this is a localised phenomenon. PG mentioned in one of his essays that following the industrial revolution and the rise of modern-day capitalism, a lot of the driven individuals who would have gone into politics, now decide to go into business.

Here in the UK, we had a lot of noise made about political reform this year after a fraught, tense election. Talking with friends about it though, we feel that nothing is likely to change until the type of politicians we have changes, and that seems unlikely to happen. All the people we think would make good politicians don't want to go into politics, and we end up with a situation where we just get career politicians who grow up with a particular way of thinking and a particular mindset regarding politics.

All the clever, driven people are busy running startups. Who'd take politics over that?

> All the clever, driven people are busy running startups.

No. Don't fall into the "my profession is smarter than everyone else trap". There are very many very smart people with something to contribute to governance who have no interest in running startups.

I used to feel this way, and it's actually part of the problem. It makes it ok for techies to disengage, politically.

We've had a case here in the Toronto mayoral election where I now wish that I'd done some organizing, instead of just voting. Voting is not enough when the issues really matter. Your opponents know this, and will use it against you.

I would recommend following and getting involved in local politics.

Yes, bureaucracy is frustrating, but you have to deal with that in business too. Not all companies are < 20 person shops.

Don't disengage. Your opponents won't.

UPDATE> We're used to hearing sermons on the importance of voting. The thing is -- your individual vote doesn't matter. What matters much more is how well you can organize others to vote in support of your goals.

I did not say my profession is smarter than everyone else. I was merely using startups as a familiar example that was pitched towards the audience (of HN) as one of many things that people find more interesting than politics. Apologies if that was unclear.

I'm sure there are a great many able-minded potential good politicians in many other sectors of business, as well as other areas like charity-work or the armed forces.

The point is not 'which non-political area are they in', the point is 'they're in ANY non-political area'.

You are right about "career politicians" though - I have immense respect for the older generations of conviction politicians, you might not agree with them but at least you knew that they were basing their policies on some fundamental personal beliefs.

These days UK politics looks more like an extended and expensive reality TV contest where people say/do anything to get into and maintain power purely for the sake of it.

On the other hand that makes politicians focus on their customers (i.e. voters).

Democracy can be viewed as an attempt to make career politicians listen to the demands of normal people.

"All the clever, driven people are busy running startups."

I know a few engineers, academic scientists, lawyers, medics and people in the armed forces who meet both of those criteria to a level at least equaled by any start-up founder I have ever met.

I'd think there a couple of smart guys at places like Harvard who go into politics. I went to a wealthy middle class neighbourhood High School in California and there were some very smart guys there (top of the class) who were planning to go to an Ivy League college and then go into politics.

I don't doubt it, but being intelligent is only a part of it, maybe a small part. There are also leadership skills, communication, vision, and just plain luck with being the right person for the time.

I don't think anyone will say that Pres. Obama is not brilliant. Many people might argue about his goals, but I don't think that anyone could argue in good faith that he has failed spectacularly at bringing about the change that he promised.

(not to pick on Democrats alone; GOP politicians have obviously failed every bit as much, even though some of them have brilliant minds as well)

The real problem is that you have to "play ball" with entrenched institutions, both public and private, in order to get anything done. Political parties exist to perpetuate their franchise and prevent outsiders from being elected on their own terms, and they are much more effective at executing this task than they are at governing well.

I've worked at startups, currently founding my own, and some day I aspire to running for office.

Luckily they don't overlap too much, you can't really be elected to federal offices in your 20s.

Now will an engineer beat a lawyer? (because odds are, my future campaign will be against a lawyer), who knows.

While I was reading your excellent comment, I realized I could simply replace "Hungary" with any country of the former eastern block or the Balkans and still get a correct view of how things are over there. Many ex-Yugoslavians are, just like yourself, wondering if a revolution could have sped up the transition. I must tell you I don't think it would have. Just look at Romania, for instance: They had a violent revolution and things aren't actually peachy over there even after 20 years. I think it is hard for us to admit to ourselves that the process is going to take much longer. IMO, generations that were born and raised during communism have to leave this earth before anything can truly change.

That said, the problem of government-sponsored innovation, which you mention, isn't exclusive to post-communist countries. It is an (extremely wrong) EU policy.

What you're talking about is a problem of the political culture (that takes centuries to establish) and of the legitimacy of the core institutions and of the political system (democracy).

I don't see how a revolution instead of a peaceful transition would help in any sense.

Right on target. I'm from Poland and I can definitely relate to problems described by Maro (although we seem to have fared better than Hungary in the long run).

Everybody thought that re-establishing Democracy (with a capital D, to signify a pervasive culture of democracy along with ethics, not just a political system) would take several years. It turns out it might take generations.

The worst part is that people are used to subsidized life and instead of DOING something they expect the government will provide.

The worst part is that people are used to subsidized life and instead of DOING something they expect the government will provide.

This. I'd call this attitude the number one problem across most of Europe. (bad political climate is a massive problem, but I think its root cause is this) Riots in France due to raised pension age? Multiple attempts at budget reform in various countries failing? Students on the streets complaining about studying conditions due to poor funding?

Something has to give, and we're approaching the point where the answer isn't "higher taxes" anymore. (we're already well beyond the "more debt" option) Except nobody is willing to sacrifice anything personally.

Amen! I qualify for a lot of government help as a student, but because I qualify for a good job, I'm working 30+ hours a week to pay for my schooling without having to go into debt or get grants from the government. I'm not a big fan of Obama, but it makes me sick when I see people around me complain about how he's ruining the economy, and then go by X-Boxes and motorcycles with the money the government gave them for tuition.

Agreed. I am from Ukraine and after the USSR broke up a "democracy" was established, except the people in charge are basically the same ones who where in charge under the communists. Same agenda, just different pretense. I think it will take several generations to realizes that nobody is going to come and fix the problems.

I'm not really qualified to have such a discussion, but I guess the reasoning is that, if you have an actual revolution, you can quickly throw out the old crappy stuff (bad laws, bad taxes, gov't agencies, etc.) and introduce new, better ones. Then, more importantly, if a nation had to fight for its political system, it will value it and not fuck it up.

Eg. as I describe in a post below, our current gov't is using its current power to change the constitution to better fit its short term political goals, in other words they don't respect it, unlike eg. the way the U.S. Constitution is a symbol of the country's core social values.



Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose...

Rules chosen in haste are very far from guaranteed to be better than what they replace. Most likely, in the massive rush to replace everything, cronies and political allies will carve off chunks, loopholes etc. to profit from.

The USA is different in that its institutions grew up over a few hundred years, starting out with a fairly trivial population and minimal government over a primarily agricultural people, and growing the state in response to crises. It's certainly important that it had a very good core in the constitution and the early amendments (bill of rights etc.); but that just laid down the architecture of what grew like a crystal afterwords.

Unfortunately, there's a brand of anacho-libertarianism in certain influential chunks of American thought, especially in economic circles, which believes that government itself is evil, and that if you only overthrow it, everything will be better. They tried that with shock therapy in Russia, and to a degree even tried it again in Iraq - no planning for aftermath etc.

It's my opinion that almost every part of a well-functioning state is balanced between strain in multiple directions, getting larger and getting smaller, regulating more and regulating less, clamping down on moral offenses and easing back on others, etc. These kinds of strains oscillate with the political winds, and the organizations that are grown in prevailing winds are stunted in one direction or another, and only corrected when they've gone too far, in a crisis.

In the light of this metaphor, it should be clear that an overthrow isn't the right recipe to grow a good new state: the organization won't have had the time and crises to grow in balance with its competing stresses. Instead, the immediate insiders will be unstoppable political gales, deep structural faults will be embedded into the heart of the operation that guarantee the politically favoured factions rents for decades to come.

I speak of an Irishman, who has, of late, longed for a revolution in my homeland, but recognizes it for the folly it would be. My country's primary problem is that it has too many representatives, too much clientelism, too much of politics is cynically local, and above all too much voting is based on tribal allegiances that date back to civil war nearly 100 years ago.

I think what Marco is alluring to is that if the change isn't coming from the inside, because of an awareness of it's necessity, it's going to be very hard to maintain an actual change.

In other words without a clean swipe, the power structures are still maintained making it possible for those who ruled before to rule again even if their titles are new.

If it's any consolation, Austria got rid of the Soviets in 1955 and yet the situation you describe sounds extremely similar to the one here. The main difference seems to be overall wealth - GDP per capita is about 3.3x as high here, despite being neighbours. Neighbours on the other side of the Iron Curtain for 3-4 decades.

I don't know what the answer is, but I have a feeling it's not violence. The countries of former Yugoslavia to me don't seem to be doing better than those that emerged from Soviet rule peacefully. It's hard to judge from the outside, but the societal problems there seem even deeper.

The people of former Yugoslavia weren't really fighting the communism, they were fighting between themselves. It wasn't a revolution but a mixture of civil war, agression, ethnic violence, etc.

I am aware of that; my understanding is that the sudden release from the grip of communism also released this brewing internal tension. I've been lucky enough to avoid getting caught up in any sort of revolution, violent or not, but pure black & white "us vs. them" rebellions seem to be rare these days. Any other kind of violent uprising tends to end with some kind of societal rift due to the former oppressors living among the formerly oppressed or having to cooperate in some way. Presumably, the more violent, the deeper the rift. I strongly suspect the original reason for the revolution to be irrelevant to that part of the outcome.

Here in Canada we never got rid of Soviets... Actually we never had them in the first place.And you know what ? The amount of government bureaucracy, corruption, cronyism and nepotism is staggering.

> A lot of people say that "we should have made a revolution", what they mean is that the "free", externally imposed peaceful transition may not have been the best thing in the long run.

I think you are concentrating on the wrong word: "peaceful" instead of "external". A revolution need not be violent, and either way it implies that there is a real chance a sufficient percentage of citizens is ready to move on from the current system although both violent and peaceful revolutions are prone to slipping back toward the old system or some other form of authoritarianism, for different reasons: violence also attracts the wrong elements whether in itself or as opportunists whereas a peaceful transition may not be able to remove all the remnants of the old system.

The fundamental idea, though, is that the society needs to be ready and willing to change internally. In a way, as much as it infantilizes people, when most of a nation has grown up with a powerful authority, it is hard if not impossible to go straight to relative liberty. Part of it is cultural, part of it is the seeming evolutionary human trait of being either submissive (most people) or dominant (few people). It takes some time for a submissive person to learn to fend for themselves, and as we see with "highly developed" societies today, many are still highly susceptible to needing leaders.

Of the famous recentish revolutions, it should for example be remembered that Marx stipulated the "communist revolution" should happen in the highly industrialised nations (ill-advised as the idea of armed revolution is). Russia in particular, a backwards agrarian empire, was about the last place he thought would be ready for it. And turned out he was right.

Edit: clarified wording of drawbacks of violent/peaceful revolutions.

>>Russia in particular, a backwards agrarian empire, was about the last place he thought would be ready for it. And turned out he was right.

Hmmmm, communist regime turned the agrarian empire into world's 2nd industrial power, that won the biggest battles in human history and was the 1st to send robots and humans to space.

And killed off a sizeable chunk of the population.

Russia until the first world war was one of the fastest growing economies in Europe, though from a low base. So you can't really compare, without a time machine.

> Of the famous recentish revolutions, it should for example be remembered that Marx stipulated the "communist revolution" should happen in the highly industrialised nations (ill-advised as the idea of armed revolution is). Russia in particular, a backwards agrarian empire, was about the last place he thought would be ready for it. And turned out he was right.

Do not forget the marxist model was exported by Russia wherever it could (Easter Europe block pops in mind) and failed in every case even if the country was industrialised. It is just plain wrong. Even China ditched it and now has real chances of becoming a superpower.

China was (at that time) also a pretty backwards agrarian empire after its more glorious days. I do not want to delve too far off-topic, but then you are talking about two completely different things:

A) An internal revolution (borne out of people's desire to change their system in the idealised version);

B) An already-failed-at-communism totalitarian state's external enforcement of totalitarianism upon a mostly unwilling populace.

The latter will, of course, not work. The former might.

Thanks for the comment, you may be right wrt. to "peaceful instead of external".

I've always wanted someone smarter than me to compare the US to Canada as a case study for or against revolution. It seems one could learn a lot by comparing the violent revolution that created the US and the slow and peaceful transfer of power that created Canada. Since the cultures are so similar, it's striking that the 49th parallel created such different paths to statehood.

Do you really think England would have been willing to let Canada go without violent precedent? Point is, I don't know if the future US had Canada's options.

And about Hungary and economy, there is a Diaspora of tech workers from Hungary; the country is obviously badly managed. A pity.

And about revolution, don't forget that Hungary tried one: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hungarian_Revolution_of_1956

It might have been that history which resulted in harder Soviet control -- and a bit worse transfer to freedom, than the rest of Eastern Europe in 1989?

Reading this only makes me wonder one thing; Do you really think it would have been anything different had there been violence in you revolution ? Do you think anyone different would be running the country now ? Do you think years of violence, revenge and deeply nested hatred would make things better ?

You can probably tell, but I think not. Violence thrown into the fray only makes matters worse. IMHO

Personally I'm against all violence, but here's a story.

4 years ago a voice recording was leaked, where our democratically elected president (F. Gyurcsany), who's been in power for 4 years, said in an internal party-meeting that "we fucked the country up really bad".

As a result, tens of thousands of people, including me, went out on the streets to protest and demand he resign. A very small fraction of people (a few 10s, mostly soccer huligans) started burning cars and breaking windows. Police responded of course, and shot tear gas and rubber ammo at the crowd, I remember a tear gas canister almost hit me on the head. The mayhem continued for a couple of days, plus we had another similar situation a couple of weeks later on a nat'l holiday. (The damage caused by the huligans to fellow citizen's and gov't property was probably around a few million dollars.)

In the end the president did not resign, which I thought is outrageous, but with police shooting at mostly peaceful protesters, including members of parliament from the opposing party being hit in the head with rubber bullets (not pretty), public opinion shifted, so eventually, 2 years later he did resign, and then in the 2010 election his party went from ~45% support to ~15% support. So overall, the protests and ensuing mayhem worked in the sense that it, and the goverment's response to it shifted public opinion.

So what happened after?

The then-opposing party went from ~45% support to >66% support, they won the elections a couple of months ago, which is important because in our system if you have >66% you can basically pass any law (2/3 majority).

So we were all pretty hopeful that the then-opposition, now ruling party would use its huge popular support and power to do great things.

The verdict is not out yet, but it seems that these guys, although they're very much different from their predecessors, aren't that good either, and unfortunately with their 2/3 parliament majority they can wreak parliamentary havoc (eg. they just changed the constitution to fit their short term political goals). A friend of mine more knowledgable in politics said that our system is basically not designed for a single party to have a 2/3 majority.

Final twist: the then-president F. Gyurcsany is actively working on his comeback =)

So, overall I do think that sometimes you gotta go out to the streets and protest, because it does have an effect, but as the above example shows, it's all pointless if you don't have good politicians to take over.

Is it really that big of a secret when some party is "fucking a country really bad"? The fact that a politician was heard saying it should not have changed things. The level of debt, regulations and taxation is pretty much public knowledge. And so, if a subsequent party gains power and does nothing about those issues, there should be equal outrage.

I've just been rereading de Tocqueville's recollections of the 1848 revolution in France. He remarks on the pervasive corruption of the July Monarchy, which came about--how else?--through a revolution. Not an especially violent one, but a revolution even so.

> Their best bet is to unite with South Korea in a painful way (eg. forget their own laws, taxes, gov't agencies and crappy gov't run companies, which means tons of people loose their job, and adopt what they have in South Korea), the way East Germany united with West Germany.

Who knows. The German unification is still a work in progress today.

The UK is an interesting case, we have never revolted either. We're definitely worse off for it. Longest working hours in europe.

EDIT: As pointed out we do not have the longest working hours in europe, but we do in "western" europe.

And I was too hasty to describe the UK has having never had a revolution, I should perhaps constrain it to "the English."

There have been more revolts in what is now the UK than I can list easily... some were completely successful and ended up with regicide, or the effective independence of that part of the island for a few hundred years.

The most recent case that I can think of, was that soldiers had to patrol Glasgow with tanks in 1919 to suppress what was perceived, probably incorrectly, as an attempt at a Marxist revolution.

At a small scale things like the Battle of the Braes on Skye where people stood up to the Clearances eventually led to huge reform in the shape of the Crofting Act.

So I would hardly say that we've never revolted.

[Edit: And of course there is the history of the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland as well]

Yes, you have: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_Civil_War

It was a long time ago but it was a very important turning point in British history as it has lead to a transition from a strong king & weak parliament monarchy to a weak king & strong parliament monarchy and eventually constitutional monarchy and democracy.

The english civil war was not a popular uprising against the state by the populous, in the way that the French revolution was. The soldiers were largely paid professionals fighting for politicians. Most english paesants were not ideologically invested in the conflict. That is why these events have not had the same effect on the national psyche and culture of the English, their idea of what England and Englishness is, that other nations' revolutions have had on their people.

The failed 1745 rebellion certainly did leave a huge impact on the culture of Scotland.

I didn't vote your comment, but "Wikipedia" does not agree http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Yearly_working_time_2004.j...

Point taken. However we work substantially longer than France, our neighbours who are a stone's throw away with a similar national history, except they had a successful popular revolution. I am not saying there is a direct causal link but it forms a part of a general cultural divergence with regard to the population's relationship to the state and to authority that I believe stems from Britain's relative lack of revolutionary culture/history compared to other similar countries.

There are 4 most likely scenarios for how the whole North Korean situation can work out.

1. Continuation of the status quo. The DPRK stays a basket case and continues lashing out locally but nothing major happens.

2. Hot war breaks out (precipitated by the DPRK or the South or the US), the North loses fairly quickly, there are catastrophic civilian casualties in the South and the North and perhaps elsewhere (e.g. the North launches a nuke or chemical weapons or what-have-you against Japan or the US, just 'cause it can), American military losses are comparatively minor in comparison to everything else. Ultimately, the industrial base and economy of the Korean peninsula is in shambles and is all the worse for having to deal with bringing the North into the 20th (let alone 21st) century, despite lots of foreign aid it's still a shitty situation for a lot of people for a long, long time.

3. The DPRK regime falls from within relatively peacefully. The North and South reunite and a crap-ton of effort and struggle is necessary to bring the North out of the dark ages. It's a crappy situation except for the Northerners who had been abused and/or starving, but it's still a hell of a lot better than option 2.

4. China forces the DPRK regime to step down through some means and takes over control of North Korea (either via direct annexation or through proxy control). Hostilities in the region diminish greatly and conditions improve for the North Koreans. It's a crappy situation but still better than option 1 or 2.

There are lots of other things that could happen, of course, but I think these options take up the bulk of the probability space.

I would add,

5. China topples the NK regime and offloads the starving nation onto South Korea. That would ensure the end of Korean competition for decades, as the economic price of reunification would be humongous, yet the Koreans would not be able to turn this offer down.

I would not underestimate the productivity of millions of starving people. China is very competitive despite most of their population living in subsistence. It is an endless pool of cheap labor.

Combine the technological advancements of South Korea with a pool of 'cheap' North Korean labor and you've got the makings of an economic powerhouse. Not that South Korea is not in it's own right.

North Korea is poor because of the way their resources are squandered, not because of the geography or the people. North Korea could easily feed itself if it stopped buying missiles and developing nuclear weapons.

Consider this: This world in arms in not spending money alone.

It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities.

It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population.

It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals.

It is some 50 miles of concrete highway.

We pay for a single fighter with a half million bushels of wheat.

We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.

This, I repeat, is the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking.

This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

China is positively prosperous compared to DPRK.

Key issue here is whether the influx of cheap unqualified labor will outweigh the necessary investments into infrastructure, reeducation, integration and peacemaking for the territories.

>Combine the technological advancements of South Korea with a pool of 'cheap' North Korean labor and you've got the makings of an economic powerhouse.

China can do that because of in their political system the concept of Human Rights is basically none-existent. The ruling elite can treat some portion of their population as they please and they don't have to answer to anybody.

Interesting, seems unlikely but reality has always outpaced fiction and speculation in weirdness.

I doubt that it would stall the South Korean economy quite as much as you imagine. There would be a lot of foreign aid coming in as well as foreign investment. And economic growth in the North would likely be rapid. It's one of those things that we won't really know how it'll go until it happens (if it does).

Well the only known example, the German economy took massive hit with reunification, felt even today. And there was much less of a chasm there in economic, infrastructure, political and social terms.

China, as long as the Communist Party in power (and doesn't get through any political reform), will have a very strong interest in keeping the current NK regime. Sure, sometimes NK is annoying, but most of the time, NK is a tremendous leverage for the current China regime to negotiate with the U.S. and SK. However, things do get more dynamic once the succession of Kim Jong Un comes into play. If China were 10 years ago (Jiang in power), I would expect that some China supported military leader in NK will topple off the kid and start some kind of economic reform. But as for now, the China regime becomes more conservative and IMHO, even itself isn't holding much belief in economic reform, I doubt that would be a likely scenario.

Unfortunately your option 4 is the wishful thinking the starry-eyed idealists in our foreign service and media have been whispering among themselves for 20 years. The Chinese coms like the regime in the North very much, thank you. It keeps regional rivals Japan and South Korea off guard, and keeps the U.S. tied-up. The Kim dynasty could not even exist without the backing of the PRC. We let slip the window of opportunity to exert pressure to change the situation in the early 90s. Instead we sent nuclear technology, oil, and food, which Kim tells his people is tribute from the U.S.

2. Hot war breaks out (precipitated by the DPRK or the South or the US), the North loses fairly quickly, there are catastrophic civilian casualties in the South and the North and perhaps elsewhere (e.g. the North launches a nuke or chemical weapons or what-have-you against Japan or the US, just 'cause it can), American military losses are comparatively minor in comparison to everything else. Ultimately, the industrial base and economy of the Korean peninsula is in shambles and is all the worse for having to deal with bringing the North into the 20th (let alone 21st) century, despite lots of foreign aid it's still a shitty situation for a lot of people for a long, long time.

Not so fast. The North has millions of trained, ready soldiers and nukes, and a single-minded determination to fight to the end. A full-blown war would cost millions of lives on all sides, and a win for us is not certain at all. It could easily end with a bloody stalemate and new truce after they've conquered most of the south and we lose the will to send >100,000 US soldiers to die. Just look at how it went the first time. The army of North Korea is quite formidable.

The DPRK has a large standing army, but its armaments are 50 years out of date, and its food supplies are limited at best.

If the South tried to invade the North, the DPRK army could probably wage an effective guerilla war. But if you're invading another country, you don't have that advantage.

The first Iraq war demonstrated that in conventional military confrontations, obsolete tanks and aircraft have little chance against their more modern counterparts. The DPRK would also have to cross the most heavily fortified DMZ in the world, and somehow maintain a supply chain with enemy forces controlling the air and sea. It wouldn't really work.

The first Iraq war demonstrated that in conventional military confrontations, obsolete tanks and aircraft have little chance against their more modern counterparts.

Iraq invasion also showed that to be true. However, war is not won until ground troops get a hold of control over conquered area - which is something US troops never were able to do (not counting japan after WWII - which is not the same as modern conflicts).

Yes, and that's why I said that on their own turf, the DPNK might be able to wage a successful guerilla war. My disagreement was with the idea DPNK had a realistic chance of invading the South.

That said, I'm also not entirely convinced a guerilla war would be successful, either. The foundation of DPNK propaganda is Korean nationalism, and a good guerilla war needs an enemy that can be demonised. It would be tricky for the DPNK to try and paint the South as inhuman after harping on about unification for so long.

The last Korean war was backed by opposing superpowers, but North Korea doesn't have anyone backing it up this time. China is sympathetic because it doesn't like the idea of NK refugees flooding over its border, but it's not going to help out if a conflict begins.

I've seen the argument that China likes that lots of US resources and attention is tied up with the axis of North Korea, Iran and Syria.

If that is true, then don't hold your breath for too much of changes in the NK status quo.

Last hn discussion of North Korea, http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1927038, in which I suggested that we bomb the shit out of them, and InclinedPlane demonstrate just how much a threat North Korea is to Seoul, http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1928289 and how naive a suggestion that would be.

Propaganda is so effective in NK that the people believe their leader is the good guy and that the rest of the world is evil. Bombing them will only get rid of the leaders, set the country a few decades back wasting time rebuilding everything, but these corrupted ideas will remain in place amongst the survivors.

I believe the only long-term solution to NK is education of their people, which will hopefully lead to either progressive reform of the regime, or even revolution.

Education is happening right now with Internet slowly penetrating the country, notably via black market cell phones. Edit: as one of the child posts point out, propaganda is eroding. Change is on its way!

The Economist was suggesting a few weeks ago that this is not (so much) the case any more.


I wonder how practical it would be to create a modern version of WWII airdropped pamphlets. A cheap/light device to offer internet access.

Wonder if'd be better to go with mesh networking all the way, or to parachute/hide cells with satellite dishes.

They do this already, with air dropped pamphlets from balloons. It doesn't help because almost all of the people they're trying to reach can't even read. Also, being caught with a pamphlet is punishable by whatever arbitrary punishment the state comes up with.

This seems like a good idea to counter their offensive. Generally I'd say this would be interpreted as an attack, but this seems like it'd be more justified and classy.

Put aside the China factor, I still believe that with a surgical strike, it is possible to remove the current regime and reunited the Korea, given the crappy economy in NK and that there are some reformers inside NK itself. There are young people in NK that doesn't believe the ideology at all. And the recent failure of its currency reform would be a sign that the brain-wash education may not be as effective as outsider's thought.

It would be more interesting if you weight the China factor in. I do believe that the current Communist Party in China has strong interest to keep the current status in NK.

The idea was to get rid of the Artillery positions and leave the rest, I don't think getting into another nationbuilding exercise would be wise.

Realistically, if the regime in the North fell (in whatever manner) the Korean peninsula would likely re-unite with the South taking the leadership position (much like German re-unification).

If I were the South I wouldn’t be enthusiastic about that. West Germany had it easy. People in the East were never completely cut off, they weren’t starving, they weren’t even poor, they had educations and knowledge that would be useful in a united Germany and they weren’t ruled by a tyrant. Oh, and unification was still hard for Germany.

Just imagine how hard it would be to give the North in an united Korea something as ordinary as a working public administration. Those who now have that job in North Korea probably aren’t the best material for the task and I doubt that many other people in North Korea are sufficiently educated to put them to work immediately. You would have to ship thousands of South Koreans with the right training to the North – I have no idea how you could lure them – who would presumably have to stay there for years to take over public administration and educate people from the North. And that’s just one of the problems you would have to solve in order to unify Korea.

It would be a far harder problem than unifying Germany. But there would likely be a lot of foreign aid coming in. In the end it doesn't really matter how hard the problem is, if it has to be done it has to be done. The only long-term alternatives are annihilation of the North, the North turning into a failed state but sans the Stalinist regime and WMDs, or annexation to China, which would be even more difficult than unification because of the language and cultural differences, not to mention all of China's serious problems in basic administration.

These things you speak of are not something that is given, rather it is something that the people build. Whatever the situation in North Korea it would only be made better by allowing the populace to trade freely, communicate freely and enjoy all the other rights endowed to every human being by their creator.

Do you not think there are many people in North Korea willing to work 16 hour days to have enough money to buy food? Do you not think there are people willing to employ people to work 16 hour days for enough to buy food?

I'm not saying this is an ideal situation, however it is a vastly better situation than that which currently exists. North Korea survives on a shoe string, it would not be difficult to match this with foreign aid, let alone the capital investment that would pour into a free North Korea. China was in a similar situation 30 years ago.

Waiting longer to solve this problem will not make it easier, everyday North Korea falls further behind the rest of the world.

Unification would definitely be preferable to the status quo. I’m only saying that no government in the world would be happy about actually having to implement an unification with North Korea. South Korea’s economy would struggle tremendously, even with the large amounts of foreign aid that will probably come flooding in. But, as InclinedPlane said in response to my comment, “if it has to be done it has to be done.”

They also speak a slightly different language

Given that North Korea is one of the poorest country in the world, and is ~ 50 % of south korea population, what do you think is realistic about reunification today, really ? I also doubt China would allow for the North Korean regime to fail through force so that a closed US ally would have borders with it - assuming the US could allow yet another war in the current climate and its current economy, which is somewhat doubtful.

It's realistic in that it's one of the few viable long-term outcomes to the whole mess, the other option being annexation or proxy rule by China. China would probably be ok with a unified Korea as the lesser problem. The DPRK is not exactly helping China currently, except making them look good in comparison. But the problem with North Korean belligerence is that it serves as a strong motivation for militarization of the whole region. China may be hesitant of a unified Korean peninsula but on the other hand the continued existence of the DPRK regime gives excuse for a strong American presence in South Korea and could lead to escalations in the region the Chinese don't want (a nuclear armed Korea or Japan?) Also, a unified Korea would save the Chinese from having to deal with the mess of the North.

Given the past history of how that panned out in other countries, maybe it is actually naive to think bombing will solve anything, no ?

Also, maybe neither the US, S Korea or China want to see a collapse of the region with all refugees that would ensue ? Comparison with east germany is out of touch IMO: difference between south and north korea are much, much wider (not to diminish East Germany shortcomings, but most of its population was not dying from hunger AFAIK), and whereas German reunification happened after Soviet collapse, China is not about to collapse.

Also, West Germany was the top economy of western Europe, and much bigger in population than East Germany (14 millions vs ~ 60 millions in 1990, whereas N Korea is around 25 millions for 45 in South Korea).

Rightly or wrongly, I came to the conclusion several years ago that North Korea is completely China's problem. That is, although the rest of the region and the world has to deal with an increasingly belligerent and unstable North Korea, it's the Chinese who provide them food and are uninterested in any change in the status quo. Not only do the Chinese not want a change, they're more than happy to let Japan, South Korea, and the U.S. continue along with the farcical arms talks that have been going on for decades.

In this case, I'm not yet convinced that there is anything going on here besides North Korea yet again yanking everybody's chain. I sure hope that's what it is. I'm watching for further escalation and China's response.

And as much as I hate to pointlessly rag on China -- its not clear to me that the Chinese have purposely caused this as much as they've just been distracted and neglectful -- somebody pointed out the other day that wherever in the world you find gross human rights abuses and festering problems nobody seems to be able to fix, somewhere in the background there's always China.

This situation bears some concern and watching

I think you're 100% on the mark here. Also, it may be to Chinas advantage to have North Korea the way it is now because it gives them bargaining power.

As I understand it, it's a case of the status quo being less-bad for China than the fall of the state. Right now, they don't have a refugee crisis on their border, mostly because the North Korean state manages to keep a lid on things. If the regime falls, they will.

The people of Seoul are pretty relaxed about this sort of thing. I, however, am a foreigner and thus am terrified. People keep stopping me on the street to explain to me just how terrified I am.

> People keep stopping me on the street to explain to me just how terrified I am.

I'm not sure what you're getting at here. Are you saying that you look scared and lots of people are pointing it out to you? Or are you saying that the fear of the Korean people is suppressed and projected upon the foreign nationals living within the country?

IMHO, one way to see how this situation will develop in mid- to long- term perspective is to look at interests of China and, to a lesser degree, Russia. If China wants Taiwan more than it wants to have an argument to bring up during currency negotiations, they'd be inclined to make a deal: control over TW for control over NK, in one form or the other. If the currency negotiations are more valuable to them, they'd be inclined to keep the status quo, within some reasonable limits. There maybe some other interests worth looking at, which I'm missing.

Russia wants an upper hand in European missile shield negotiations. There's also a Russia-Japan situation, where both countries are still in de-jure state of war, and they've been positioning themselves recently to finally sign the peace treaty. It's worth noting that Russia's role in this conflict seems to be smaller than China's.

There's a new perspective is opening up with a new Supreme Leader taking over any time now. He has not seen the war, neither he has seen much of human suffering, and that's a dangerous trait to have while having control over nuclear weapons. To me, this is the scariest part of the puzzle.

I find it difficult to believe that the US would have any real capability of planting agents into that region, let alone the upper echelons of the dprk. Last I checked our intelligence agency were light on manpower especially in the field of developing human assets and all attention was being diverted to the middle east.

Secondly I don't think that any military action in north korea is possible without huge consequences, huge number of casualties both South Korean civilians and coalition forces. The dprk has been watching our moves for the past 60 years and despite what our media wants us to believe, we are not as invincible as we think we are. For one we westerners don't have the stomach to accept the sheer number of casualties, time and time again this has always been one of our critical weaknesses as evidence by the current war in iraq and the vietnam war. The US would never accept another Vietnam. Our military planners know this and have geared our troops for surgical strikes and precession. North korea has built countless number of tunnels and underground bunkers. If you watched one of the videos from the reporters who sneaked in a camera in, their subway systems are designed to double as troop bunkers.

I'm inclined to believe that for whatever reason the western media always seems to downplay the the north koreans. Very few countries have the organization and the will to carry out total war with the US. What a lot of people don't get is that they've been playing this defense game for over a millenia. It been well known suspicion that the DPRK export their trench/tunnel warfare tech to Vietnam.

It's a shame the koreas being sandwiched between china, russia, japan and the us with each vying for their own interests. It's a shitty situation which plays to NK's advantage.

Is our intelligence so poor that we do not know where the top 100 or 1000 leaders of the DKRP are? Is our ability so degraded that we could not execute a blitz strike on all leadership centers within minutes? We have so many assets in the region it isn't even funny. Not to mention the South Koreans.

Imho, the only solution is a blitz decapitation. Allowing the petulant DKRP to steer the course of events by violence whenever they feel like it is insanity. Allowing them to enhance their war making capabilities is also insanity.

It is as if Canada were belligerent towards the US and would sink our ships and lob artillery at Detroit without regard. All the while building a nuclear weapons stockpile. I do not think the American people would let that stand.

On the other hand there has been 60 years or so of cold peace with far less casualties than full blown hostilities would incur. The only problem is that the South has lived under a threat of constant war in that time.

Why do you think it's so easy to track North Korean officials? Decapitating the leadership in Iraq didn't happen quickly, why would it so much easier in North Korea, a country with far lusher vegetation?

Seoul is only 35 miles from the border with North Korea. The North has artillery which can hit Seoul, hence the South needs to be very careful not to provoke the North. Any engagement would be costly.

Have we seriously learned nothing from Iraq? Take out the leadership, and you are left with a failed country and a population that is likely to be hostile.

Next you'll tell me that we'll walk into NK as liberators...

It is not another Iraq. Iraq has a very specific nationality problem between Shi'ya and Sunni, and it is a separate nation from 1920s. People in both side of Korea are connected through blood and family relationship, South Korea have a very strong will to help restore the government/police/economic system in NK. The U.S. wouldn't have got into such bizarre situation as in Iraq.

Are you kidding me? Do you even know Iraqis?

The whole Shi'a/Sunni division is blown out of proportion by intelligence agencies, both foreign and local, trying to alienate Iran.

If the Koreans are "connected", the Iraqis are intertwined. Intermarriage is very common, with couples maintaining their own sectarian identity.

I was raised as Sunni (not in Iraq) but have attended a Shi'ite religious school for a whole year .. without realizing. That's how similar the two are.

Now, that's not fair. By most measures NK is already a failed country...

It won't make its population any less hostile (and armed) when they find out that their beloved leader has been assassinated by the exact people they've learned to hate for as long as they can remember themselves.

Yes, "liberate" the people with bombs and assassination.

History appears to like iteration.

It annoyed me for a while. People didn't kill themselves and bomb for an ideology; they do so to realize a political goal. Sometimes, the religion pursuit serves as a very good medium to convince people into such extreme action, nevertheless, it is not meaningless. In your post, you imply that such suicide attack would invoke in the process of reunification but IMHO, it is very unlikely. Most of suicide bombers hold a religion belief and a very strong desire to realize or just spell out a particular political pursuit. Someone would argue that the Communism ideology is a religion, but you should look at Russia, at East Europe, even if it is a religion, it must be a very unpersuasive one. There must be a loads of troubles when you try to reunite two countries, but I guess that would be much more peaceful process than the Iraq or Afghanistan.

It was sarcasm man. I'm not defending using suicide attacks to invoke the process of reunification. Personally I would let the Korea peninsula future alone, where koreans would take care of themselves.

But again, what do I know? I'm a westerner programmer with limited sociopolitical knowledge.

The problem as we found out in the 50s is not in defeating the DKRP, it is in defeating China.

Canada is much different geographically and geopolitically than North Korea, also North Korea ISN'T on the US doorstep.

As a better example of what would happen to North Korea if it were on the US doorstep, look towards Cuba. The US by and large tolerates Cuba to exist in it's current form as long as it does not pose a significant threat to US interests. If Cuba decided to stockpile nuclear weapons you'd see a much different reaction.

Since the 50s the DKRP has been essentially in China's hemisphere of influence under it's own unwritten version of the monroe doctorine.

It's really interesting that you mention China because seems to start to get a bit annoyed and ashamed by North Korea. What North Korea is doing is very bad for business (and war would hurt it even more so), North Korea is not a significant trade partner and China doesn't care about ideology any more as these days it's a communist country only in name; it's de facto a capitalist dictatorship.

I don't think China will abandon North Korea but I also don't think they would be as willing to support North Korea as they have done in the past.

I agree, but that means that the USA doesn't need to respond if China will keep NK in line.

The problem as we found out in the 50s is not in defeating the DKRP, it is in defeating China.

That's not a difficult matter. Unlike the situation between the US and Russia in the 50-60's, China is heavily dependent on trade with the US and the rest of the world.

Step 1: Cut off all trade with China.

Step 2: All Chinese-owned T-bills are declared null and void and Chinese assets at US banks are seized. (Followed by some forensic accounting to track down bonds they own through subsidiaries.)

Step 3: Japan/SK will almost certainly do the same. So would Taiwan if they want to stay under our military umbrella.

If steps 1-3 haven't completely destroyed China's economy:

Step 4: Naval blockade. Any cargo ships entering or leaving a Chinese port are seized.

China has a lot to lose, and very little to gain. If we were serious about overthrowing NK, China would be foolish engage in open hostilities in an attempt to stop us. All they could really do is play passive aggressive games that would make our life marginally harder.

It's likely all the guns they have aimed at Seoul have a fail deadly fall back in the case of an attempted decapitation attack. In which case, we would be blowing off South Korea's head off.

Hell, the Soviet Union and the US during the cold war assumed it would be retard hard, if not impossible to wipe out each other's entire chain of command. And they had nukes. And they tried REALLY hard.

Anyone know what Russia and Japan think about all this? The entire discussion seems focused on the China/US aspects of it.

Things will get only worse when Kim gets a sizable nuclear arsenal.

Not really, Nukes can't actually be used in war - if NK does that the US would launch back and end NK.

You assume the survival interests of general North Korean population and North Korean ruling class perfectly align. One of those groups was known to starve to death, the other - not so much. You shouldn't really consider the interests of DPRK populace as any driving factor when analyzing political situation on the peninsula.

EDIT: actually the nuclear war is beside the point. Just that conventional shelling South Korea while having a number of deliverable nukes on hold might become a weekly routine for the North.

It's this simple: circa. 10,000 artillery rounds per minute, falling on densely populated urban neighborhoods.

The first hour of a full-on war on the Korean peninsula would make 9/11 look like a day at the park and would generate more civilian casualties in an industrialized first world nation than any event since WWII.

This is the finding of every sensible study on the military situation on the peninsula, and is most of the reason we haven't buried Kim four times.

The second order effects of losing South Korea don't bear thinking about, either. Everybody saw how fast the dominoes fell when 10% of one sliver of American mortgage holders decided to go late, right? If Seoul gets burned, several hundred billion dollars worth of high quality bonds held by primarily Japanese and American financial institutions burn with it. That would put the market into pure, unrestrained panic within literally seconds. It would get worse over the coming months as countries who traded heavily with South Korea (let's see: China, Japan, Taiwan, US, etc) saw their orders go to near zero and had their supply chains dependent on SK products start blocking on input.

Plus, in the middle of this, Obama gets to make a phone call to whomever takes over when the Japanese government falls and say "Listen, I know you're kind of spooked at the moment and have just been elected on a platform of We Must Stop North Korea, but please please please please don't announce nuclear capability despite that being within the capability of Japanese industry in a matter of weeks. China would get a trifle upset."

That might not be an option. The North Korean people are portrayed in the media as victims of the regime rather than a horde of blood-thirsty, war-mongerers so laying waste to swathes of the country with nuclear weapons is not going to go down well domestically or in the court of world opinion. The options for retaliation might well be very limited and the regime knows this well.

Believe me once the pictures from Seoul comes in, nobody is going to care much for the NK civilians.

I don’t think those with the power to launch nuclear weapons care all that much about TV pictures. At least I hope they don’t.

I would think the goal would be to save as many humans as possible (while, admittedly, probably not willing to trade South Korean lives for North Korean lives) and toppling the regime in North Korea as quickly as possible. I don’t know whether that includes nuclear weapons. I would hope that nobody would be willing to launch a nuclear weapon just to kill as many North Koreans as possible.

We're still talking about the scenario when NK nukes SK, right? The "nuclear umbrella" doctrine, where nuclear deterrence is used to protect one's allies from nuclear attack, is well-established policy. The question smackay raised was whether public opinion would allow such a retaliation. The TV pictures take care of public opinion; the nuclear umbrella doctrine (and the need to demonstrate the West's will to enforce it) take care of the leadership.

I am not sure the West has the will to enforce it - certainly judging by recent events in Afghanistan where there seems to be a limited amount of support for the USA.

The deciding factor might be China's position on the matter. It provides quite a bit of support for North Korea and whether the USA would want to get dragged into a conflict that might escalate beyond the Korean peninsula remains to be seen.

Having said that I don't think there is a significant risk of serious conflict since it is in China's long term interest to keep some form of low-level conflict with the USA or its allies going in the area, if only to further its territorial ambitions with the Spratly Islands, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spratly_Islands and other parts of the South China Sea which apparently has significant old reserves.

I would assume that should North Korea use nuclear weapons, masses of conventional military will roll in. Could China or anyone else sufficiently powerful really object to South Korea and the US (maybe others?) invading in that case? I guess China would want in on the action, themselves invading North Korea.

Why would the Chinese want to invade North Korea?

This applies to a pre-emptive nuclear strike of course, but few would object to a nuclear response after Seoul is a smoking crater. If we didn't do it the Chinese would probably do it for us.

That is... a fairly optimistic opinion.

And presupposes that North Korea choses the least self-destructive action.

Feeling lucky?

No I don't feel lucky, I just know that people like the fear leader are addicted to power and would loose a lot if they die or their country becomes a ruin.

Their country is already a ruin.

You're assuming that the leader isn't self-destructive.

South Korea is a very wealthy, well educated country with a very well equipped, well trained modern military and tech thats on par with anything else in the world. And they've been sitting on one of the most volatile borders in the industrialized world for the last half century+. I guarantee there is nothing they don't know about or don't anticipate coming from DPRK.

The only reason they let DPRK get away with these types of attacks is that the cost of reunification would be so great as to cripple the south korean economy for decades. From an economic perspective it costs less to maintain the status quo than to force a reunification. Ditto from China's perspective, they will pay a steep price for reunification as well.

The situation is in good hands without the US meddling. If the S. Koreans and the Chinese aren't freaking out, that means its under control.

Does anyone else view the Koreas to be worlds cranky Aunt and Uncle and whenever either of them says something wrong the other starts an argument about it?

I think its more the crazy drunken, unpredictable bull of an Uncle that at any moment could beat the Aunt. The only thing holding him back is that the rest of the village hates him and would string him up if he did it.

Doesn't mean he won't, though.

Yeah the analogy falls down for me because my uncle doesnt have the power to evaporate thousands of people on a whim. However cranky he is.

hopefully it doesn't escalate any higher....def puts everything else happening right now in the US into perspective (like TSA pat downs)...

No it doesn't. TSA pat downs are still bad, even if North Korea starts a war with the south.

So instead of "everything changed after 9/11" it's "everything changed after North Korea got cavalier with their nukes?"

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact