Communist reform: Could it happen in North Korea?

Amid reports of a major political gathering in North Korea, communist history suggests post-Kim moderation is possible.

When a Communist dictator dies, moderation follows. It's a virtual axiom of political science, supported by much of 20th-century history. But could reform follow the rule of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il? The answer will shape both the nuclear ambitions of a rogue state and the outcome of one of Asia's longest-running conflicts, on the Korean Peninsula.

Soviet and Chinese Communist history is instructive. After Joseph Stalin's death in March 1953, new Soviet Premier Georgi Malenkov spoke and acted in decidedly non-Stalinist ways.

For example, he worried about the Soviet Union's intensifying arms race with the United States, warning that nuclear war would bring "the end of world civilization." And he recommended that Germany be reunified on essentially Western terms. He also issued liberal ukases on the home front. Under Malenkov, Stalin's ruthless secret police chief Lavrenti Beria amnestied thousands of political prisoners from the Gulag in 1953.

The Malenkov syndrome

This Malenkov succession syndrome was followed across the Soviet bloc. In the wake of the departed autocrats after 1953, Communist epigones were successively retired in Hungary, Poland, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia as more moderate leaders took over.

Likewise, in Communist China soon after Mao Zedong died in 1976, reformers began to lead the party. Successors like Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao have enacted a train of more moderate, non-Maoist domestic and foreign policies. A similar pattern appears to be under way in Cuba as Raúl Castro gradually relaxes some of his ailing, comandante brother's harshest policies.

Could the same Malenkov pattern happen in North Korea? Stalinist dictator Kim Jong-il is ailing but appears still to be very much in charge of his brutal regime.

Even so, there already are faint signs of a post-Kim succession in Pyongyang, one that could bring moderation in policy. This process could take the form of relaxing Kim's strictly centralized, statist economic principles, which have brought only misery to the population. This in turn could lead to a gradual transition to Chinese-style market economics. Moderation of foreign policy could well follow, as it did in the other postautocrat Communist dictatorships.

Hope for post-Kim moderation

In a hopeful sign, The New York Times reported recently that North Korea had reinstated Pak Pong-ju, a former prime minister who was purged in 2007 for his market-oriented reform policies. His return to power may signal a fresh willingness by Kim and his circle to consider modernizing steps.

Should US policy toward North Korea be crafted to help hasten the Malenkov process? Diplomatic assertiveness has its place, but precedent after 1953 in the Soviet bloc, and in China after 1976, shows that a low-profile American stance toward such regimes is probably the best posture. Yet US strategy may not matter much. As with Mikhail Gorbachev's embrace of liberalization policies and the demise of Communist rule in the Soviet Union in 1991, US policy toward the USSR may have had little impact on the internal unraveling of communism. So when it comes to thinking about a post-Kim North Korea, the US may be wise to let events unfold naturally.

Albert L. Weeks is a professor emeritus of New York University and the author of several books on Soviet politics.

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