Realist Disobedience: Protest, coercion and the limits of an appeal to justice

by Dr Guy Aitchison, School of Politics and International Relations, UCD.

This paper addresses a very specific question regarding the ethics of civil disobedience and political resistance in liberal states: When (if ever) is it legitimate for political actors to use coercion to advance their aims?

This issue has provoked public controversy in recent years following an upsurge in vigorous – occasionally violent – forms of street protest and activism. We have seen the occupation of sacred lands to prevent fracking by indigenous activists and environmental protesters; ‘political’ strikes against cuts and labour market reforms; ‘bossnapping’ where workers temporarily restrain their employer to compel negotiations; co-ordinated rent strikes and squatting movements and the forceful obstruction of immigration enforcement measures.

Coercion involves imposing costs on some course of action or making it impossible to pursue by force. Liberal political philosophers have typically argued that while such tactics may be required to oppose an authoritarian regime, they are not legitimate in democratic states with established electoral and constitutional channels for pursuing change. According to liberals, civil disobedience is a wholly communicative act: through dramatic acts of political law-breaking, activists convey their opposition to a particular law or policy they believe to be unjust. Here, civil disobedience is understood as a form of public speech aimed at fellow citizens and law-makers. It functions not by coercing opponents, but by means of rational persuasion. In the words of John Rawls’s influential account, civil disobedience appeals to the ‘sense of justice’ of fellow citizens and law-makers and ‘while it may warn and admonish, it is not itself a threat’.[1] Peter Singer likewise stresses that disobedience is ‘not an attempt to coerce’, but a means of demonstrating the strength of feeling behind an issue and asking a political majority to think again.[2] Jürgen Habermas, too, emphasised the ‘exclusively symbolic character of an act of protest, even when that act oversteps the bounds of the legally permissible’.[3]

For these liberal philosophers, any attempt to coerce governmental action is a form of anti-democratic elitism. It is an attack on the principle of majority rule which requires that the views of citizens as delivered in free and fair elections be treated as sovereign. For these authors, aggressive protest actions undermine the deliberative ideal of politics as a collective process underpinned by reason and a norm of mutual respect among citizens. The adherence to exclusively communicative forms of protest is understood as a sign of respect for the rule of law, distinguishing disobedient actions in liberal states from militant, revolutionary forms of engagement aimed at the overthrow of the state.

This liberal view is criticised by radicals for being overly naive and optimistic given the constraints political movements face in attempting to advance their goals in the context of unresponsive political institutions and intrusive state surveillance and policing.[4] However, this still leaves a number of important ethical questions unanswered. Specifically, how can the use of compulsion be compatible with widely-shared democratic norms? What kinds of costs is it legitimate to impose in pursuit of one’s aims and upon whom? And what ethical considerations should guide and constrain the use of coercive tactics?

My basic contention is that constrained forms of coercion can be justified on democratic, republican grounds as a means to collectively contest certain forms of arbitrary power. The republican understanding of democracy provides a useful framework for thinking about historical and contemporary forms of disobedience since it calls attention to the relative power of different groups, rather than the liberal focus on the defence of individual rights. Under the republican understanding, those subject to political authority – the ‘people – must be suitably empowered to influence and oppose the law to ensure it is not a source of arbitrary power and domination.

It would, I think, go too far so suggest that any instance of arbitrary power justifies the possibility of coercive resistance. Not every case of governmental over-reach is sufficiently objectionable to justify such exceptional measures. Instead, I propose that more robust forms of engagement are justified to contest forms of political domination that are severe (threatening the rights, opportunities and life chances of some group or future group of persons) and entrenched (distorting the conditions under which reason can be relied upon to influence change). While disobedience certainly aims to bring reasons and arguments into the public sphere, it may also involve the imposition of costs upon adversaries. The deployment of popular power here functions as a response to political inequalities stemming from the systematic disadvantage of some social group or class or the monopolisation of power by some private agent or group of agents.

There are three types of case where coercive resistance may be called for. First as a surrogate tool of political action for those who lack effective participation rights. This can be seen in contemporary migrant movements that physically obstruct immigration raids, resist deportation flights, sabotage border fences or else attempt to overwhelm the institutional viability of immigration enforcement with false information. Second, coercion may be legitimate as a remedial tool of political action to counteract the dominating influence of powerful private actors over the process of democratic decision-making. This can be seen in the direct action tactics of environmental activists in the context of the dominating power the extractive industries wield over public debate and the policy process. Third, the use of coercion may also be justified internally within social movement as a mobilisational tool to maintain participation and discipline in collective action. It may, for example, be appropriate to defend the integrity of a strike through the coercive enforcement of a picket line.

There is however good reason to think that the use of more aggressive actions should abide by certain moral norms. It should be proportionate to the measures being opposed, holding out a reasonable prospect of success and not straying into forms of reckless intimidation aimed at spreading fear and panic. Those who undertake such actions should also enjoy a certain degree of representative legitimacy in relation to the groups whose rights and interests are most directly affected.

In sum, the liberal notion of disobedience as a form of speech that functions purely by moral persuasion is overly restrictive. Where political actors confront relations of domination that are severe and entrenched there is the case for the direct exercise of popular power. The aim here is not merely to promote deliberation or to get the government to listen, but to pressure them to yield.

[1] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, (Belknap Press, 1999), p. 322.

[2] Peter Singer, Democracy and Disobedience, vol. 82 (Cambridge University Press, 1973), p. 84.

[3] Jürgen Habermas, “Civil Disobedience: Litmus Test for the Democratic Constitutional State,” Berkeley Journal of Sociology 30 (1985), p. 99.

[4] Celikates, Robin. “Rethinking Civil Disobedience as a Practice of Contestation—Beyond the Liberal Paradigm.” Constellations 23.1 (2016): 37-45, at p. 43

 

Guy Aitchison is a political theorist and Irish Research Council postdoctoral fellow at the School of Politics and International Relations at University College Dublin. He specialises in human rights, democratic theory, citizenship and political resistance and is currently conducting research on migrant rights and political activism. This forms part of a wider book project on popular republican citizenship, ‘Citizenship at the Margins’. He was a Max Weber Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence (2015 – 2016) and completed his PhD at University College London in 2015. He has work published, or forthcoming, in Political Studies, European Journal of Political Theory, Social Movement Studies, CRISPP and Raisons Politiques. You can follow him on Twitter @GuyAitchison and read more about his research here. He can be reached at Guy.Aitchison@ucd.ie

Dublin Political Theory Workshop
This blog was written to accompany a workshop by Guy Aitchison for The Dublin Political Theory Workshop. This is hosted by UCD School of Politics and International Relations and brings together political theorists located in or visiting Dublin. We discuss work in progress in the area of political theory widely understood including debates on applied ethics and social and legal philosophy.

Guy Aitchison’s workshop is Friday, 29. September 2017, 12:30 – 14:00
Title: Realist disobedience: protest, coercion and the limits of an appeal to justice

Full schedule for Dublin Political Theory Workshop series.

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Solidarity in the (un-)making? Insights from media discourses in the Eurozone crisis

By Stefan Wallaschek

My current research interest starts with a basic question: What does solidarity mean? This concept is used quite often – but in regard to different topics: the welfare state is attributed as a solidarity mechanism, trade unions and NGOs perform solidarity actions, individuals help people in need and after a terrorist attack, we express our solidarity with the effected population (e.g. ‘Je suis Charlie’). This leads to the question: How can we make sense of these rather diverse actions and events with regard to solidarity?

Solidarity is contested
I claim that we have to look at the discursive construction of solidarity. Solidarity is a “contested concept” that is disputed by actors about the proper meaning. Five important influences on the concept of solidarity should be acknowledged:

• in the Roman law the phrase ‘obligatio in solidum’ indicates a liability statement from the member to the group and vice versa,
• the idea of Christian Brotherhood is created through the connection between all believers and God and catholic social teaching was an important factor in the origins of the welfare state in the 19th century,
• in the aftermath of the French revolution fraternity or solidarity was politicised and linked to ideas of republicanism and democratic representation,
• last but not least, the labour movement and socialists have prominently called for solidarity as an emancipatory force to overcome capitalism.

Additionally, the omnipresence of solidarity in the EU Lisbon treaty (mentioned 22 times) and the fact that solidarity is the title of chapter IV of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union demonstrate that solidarity is an important concept in Europe.

Therefore, it is crucial to identify the different meanings of solidarity, understand how they are linked to each other and who is arguing for what type of solidarity. In the following, I provide some insights into the discursive construction of solidarity in the German and Irish mass media. The empirical focus is on the Eurozone crisis, because I assume that during hard times, claims for solidarity are more prominent and thus actors are expected to claim support for or demand support from others.

The discursive construction of solidarity
In order to identify who says what and how, German and Irish newspaper articles from 2010 to 2015 were coded. The discourse network methodology visualises which actors appear in the media and who is talking about which specific concept of solidarity. The two following discourse networks depict the debate between 2010 and 2015, separated into the German and Irish case. The concepts (blue label) were used by actors (black label) in the newspapers during this time period. The size of the labels stands for the centrality of the concept or actor in the network. The bigger the size, the more influential the actor or the concept is. The thickness of the edges illustrates how often an actor refers to a concept. The thicker the line, the more statements of an actor were related to this concept.
Figure 1: Discourse networks in Germany and Ireland 2010-2015

Figure 1: Discourse networks in Germany and Ireland 2010-2015

Note: The discourse network was visualized with the R package igraph. I used the Kleinberg authority algorithm to compute the centrality of the actors and concepts. All statements without a justification by the actor – why s/he is claiming a certain position – were deleted. Otherwise, the code ‘no justification’ would have be included into the network graph without a proper meaning.

Germany: number of nodes – 37 (17 concepts, 20 actor groups); number of edges – 110.
Ireland: number of nodes – 36 (16 concepts, 20 actor groups); number of edges – 94.

Two aspects concerning the actor constellation and the concept prominence can be highlighted. Firstly, government officials and journalists highly dominate the public discourse on solidarity in the Eurozone crisis. In both countries, these two actors are the most visible ones, and thus, also the actors who have the most influence on the discourse. They can set the public agenda and have a huge impact on what solidarity means in times of crisis. The network visualization clearly shows that civil society groups, trade unions and even European institutions (except the European Commission) are less represented in the German and Irish discourse. This corroborates earlier findings that national public spheres are strongly dominated by national executives and that less institutionalised actors are the losers of Europeanised public debates. Secondly, while the actor constellation is similar, the concept visibility differs between both countries. Financial solidity (aka austerity) and monetary solidarity are the most prominent concepts in the German discourse on solidarity while monetary solidarity and responsibility are the most often featured concepts in the Irish discourse. The relevance of claims to monetary solidarity in the Eurozone crisis is hardly surprising. While new institutional arrangements such as the EFSF, ESM or the European Fiscal Compact have put monetary issues at the top of the public debate, alternatives such as a transfer union or a banking union provoked claims of monetary solidarity among the EU member states. The dominance of austerity in the German discourse can be explained by its strong cultural-ideological mindset on price stability and ordoliberalism. The prominence of the responsibility concept in the Irish discourse is related to two different aspects: One the one hand the responsibility refers to other EU member states (e.g. Germany) helping Ireland, because they have dealt with Irish banks which collapsed and caused the bank bailout and high debt rate of Ireland. On the other hand, it refers to citizens who should act more responsible in times of crisis, because they might have lived beyond their means in times of economic prosperity.

Austerity vs. solidarity
So, what are the implications for solidarity in the Eurozone crisis? The discourse network supports study results showing the dominance of austerity frames in the policy arena. The public and the policy arena are highly influenced by this idea. Even if we look more concretely at solidarity, we see that solidarity is justified with fiscal consolidation. This underlines the enormous ideational power which actors such as the German government exhibit in the public debate. However, the Irish discourse and to some extent the German debate show that there were alternative perceptions on how to deal with the Eurozone crisis. The battle of ideas was not won a priori.

Normatively speaking, solidarity has the ideological, societal and political potential to be the leading value and guiding principle of European politics. Perhaps, a new pan-European solidarity movement is needed emphasizing that solidarity is essential for the legitimacy and future of the European Union.

Speaker bio
Stefan Wallaschek is a PhD fellow at the University of Bremen, Bremen International Graduate School of Social Sciences (BIGSSS) in Germany. From April to June and from September to November 2017, he is visiting fellow at the School of Politics and International Relations (SPIRe). He is writing his dissertation on The politics of solidarity: Comparing the Eurozone crisis and Europe’s migration crisis. His research interests are European politics, solidarity research, political communication, migration and refugee studies as well as discourse network analysis. Forthcoming publications are: Notions of Solidarity in Europe’s Migration Crisis: The Case of Germany’s Media Discourse. In: EuropeNow Journal (special issue on the ‘refugee crisis in Europe’) and The Politics of Solidarity in Europe’s Migration Crisis: Media Discourses in Germany and Ireland in 2015. In: Jenichen, Anne/Liebert, Ulrike (eds.): Europeanisation and Renationalisation. Learning from Crises for Innovation and Development. Opladen: Barbara Budrich.

Email address: wallaschek@bigsss.uni-bremen.de
Institutional homepage: https://www.bigsss-bremen.de/people/phd-fellows/stefan-wallaschek
Twitter: https://twitter.com/s_wallaschek

SPIRe Seminar Series
This blog was written to accompany a seminar in the SPIRe seminar series. Stefan’s seminar ‘Contested Solidarity in the Eurozone Crisis. Comparing the Discourses in Germany and Ireland from 2010 to 2015’, is on Wednesday, September 27, 2pm, in G316 Newman Building.

The full schedule for the SPIRe seminar series semester 1 can be found on our website.

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What happens to North Koreans who flee their country – and what can they tell us?

Alexander Dukalskis, University College Dublin

There is no shortage of commentary on what should be done about North Korean weapons programmes. Op-eds in major news outlets variously advocate for talks, a strategy of deterrence combined with progress on humanitarian and economic issues, and even regime change.

But while rhetoric about North Korea heats up, the abstract talk about military options, sanctions, and engagement obscures the people at the centre of it all: millions of ordinary North Koreans.

When demonising the “rogue” behaviour of an enemy state, it’s easy to vilify its citizens or tar them all with the same brush. But the reality is more complicated. North Koreans are neither brainwashed robots nor aspiring democracy activists desperate for liberation. Here I want to focus on a small subset of North Koreans: those who have left.

Over the last six years, I have interviewed 60 of these North Koreans about their experiences, and they’ve told me a great deal about life in the north as well as their escape and new lives in the south. I’ve written before about their stories, as have many other authors, and the collective insights from these studies are valuable for understanding North Koreans’ lives.

Like people in any country, North Koreans have aspirations for themselves and their families, and their beliefs are complex and sometimes contradictory. Some support their government; others are apathetic or downright sceptical, and some even leave in search of a better life. Tens of thousands of people have left North Korea in the last 20-plus years, and at the moment, more than 30,000 North Koreans live in South Korea.

Leaving North Korea is not easy. Those who do choose to leave usually pay a broker to smuggle them into China. Once they get there, their status is often precarious: if Chinese authorities catch them, they will be sent home. Some stay in China regardless, or cross the border back and forth to smuggle goods into North Korea to sell. This cross-border smuggling supplies a quasi-legal market that has blossomed in North Korea since the mid-1990s.

Others who make it to China focus on getting to a third country, where they can present themselves at a South Korean embassy or consulate. The next stop is South Korea itself. Once the North Korean authorities discover someone has left, their family is usually subjected to intensified inspections and surveillance.

Breaking in

The North Koreans who make it to the south usually leave the north for economic reasons. They are trying to secure better conditions for themselves and their families. Many remit money back to their families in the north via brokers. They are also often able to share information about their lives in South Korea via clandestine communication channels.

This means that the idea that the North Korean people are hermetically sealed off is outdated. Many ordinary North Koreans know that South Korea is better off, that China has developed significantly, and that their country has fallen behind.

A persistent question is what all this means for the Kim regime’s resilience. If North Koreans in the south can tell their families back home about life in the outside world, could this erode the north’s authoritarian legitimacy? If North Koreans get their daily goods from the grey or black market and not the state rationing system like they were promised, could this foster opposition?

Some who deal with the north directly seem convinced the answer is yes. The likely new US ambassador, Victor Cha, has argued that creeping marketisation will lead North Koreans to develop individualistic values, which will eventually spell the end of the regime. I myself am sceptical of this view, but it’s good to see high-level policymakers like Cha thinking about North Koreans’ everyday lives, not just the behaviour of their government.

Changing minds

A lot of outsiders do seem to think the dictatorship can be brought down by breaking its monopoly on information. Their argument goes like this: once North Koreans encounter information from the outside world, they will know their despotic government has been lying to them. Analysts and defectors themselves often credit South Korean TV shows or movies in particular with the ability to change people’s thinking inside North Korea; some initiatives take great risks to smuggle outside information and entertainment back in, particularly on flash drives. The idea is to erode northerners’ faith in the Kim regime, undermining its legitimacy and paving the way for change.

The problem is that North Korea remains an extraordinarily repressive state, and it seems collective opposition to the government is almost entirely absent. Furthermore, what if watching South Korean dramas encourages people to leave North Korea rather than stay and try to change the government? After all, most of the evidence about the transformative power of South Korean media comes from interviews and surveys with North Koreans who’ve left, not those who still live there.

That makes sense. In the highly repressive context, it’s extremely difficult for people to even imagine taking a collective stand against the government, and if the outside world looks better, a reasonable response is to try to get there.

This is not to say that getting outside information to North Koreans is pointless. Far from it. The north’s system of censorship and social control is repressive and unjustified. The point is that there’s still no sign of any direct relationship between the clandestine dissemination of TV shows and agitation against the government.

The ConversationBut ultimately, that this is even being discussed is the sign of a healthy debate. With geopolitical tensions extremely high, it’s vital that all involved remember North Korea is about more than nuclear weapons, missiles and deterrence. These issues are incredibly important – but they also have implications for the millions of ordinary people under the Kim regime’s control.

Alexander Dukalskis, Assistant Professor, School of Politics and International Relations, University College Dublin

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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A (student) manifesto for Leo

David Farrell

The UCD School of Politics and International Relations ran a session at the 2017 UCD summer school earlier this week. A group of 5th year students, from schools across the length and breadth of the country, were in attendance. For part of the session we met in the Garret FitzGerald debating chamber at the UCD student centre where there was a student-led debate on the direction that Fine Gael’s newly elected leader should take his party and the country. While hardly a representative sample, the ‘Leo manifesto’ is instructive in showing the direction some of our younger citizens would like to see our prospective new Taoiseach go.

Three key themes were foremost in the students’ list of priorities.  It’s no surprise that top of the list were social and housing issues. There were calls for more investment in infrastructure. There were impassioned pleas to take better account of the needs of rural communities (and how to do so would have knock-on benefits for urban communities).

There was also a lot of emphasis on the need for a more assertive foreign policy. In particular the students wanted clearer policies on how to deal with Brexit and Trump’s USA, and a more coherent immigration policy.

A third main theme was focused on how Leo should make a virtue of his own personal identity as young, gay and of mixed background, that he should expressly embrace these features so as to help promote an image of an Ireland that is young, inclusive, and one that is trending towards greater secularization.

To sum it up, this ‘manifesto for Leo’ lays emphasis on a vision for Ireland that makes a virtue of social equality, is more assertive in foreign policy, and promotes a more modern outlook.

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Relationships and Responsibilities Conference, Dublin, 23-24 May

Royal Irish Academy – Copyright Adina Preda

23.-24. May 2017, Royal Irish Academy, Dublin

by Dr Alexa Zellentin

This conference in honour of Iseult Honohan’s work on the occasion of her retirement from UCD SPIRe brought together political theorists from all over Ireland and Europe to discuss papers on central themes of her work. Over the two days of the conference frequent reference was made to Iseult Honohan’s article Friends, strangers or countrymen? The ties between citizens as colleagues and we who are so fortunate as to be her colleagues thoroughly enjoyed taking her powerful vision of active citizenship as a starting point for addressing the normative challenges of our current political world.

Prof Iseult Honohan – Copyright Adina Preda

This world – even in the narrow frame of the so-called West – is much more divided than many of us were aware of. The divisions that recently emerged between Trump and Hillary voters, between Brexiters and Remainers, between those responding to the so-called European Migration Crisis with a culture of welcoming and those who build walls and fences, and between those who argue for austerity and those campaigning for pan-European solidarity and debt-release in view of the Euro Crisis often seem so deep that it raises severe questions as to what still unites us as citizens of particular countries or the EU. When we developed the theme for this conference – relationships and responsibilities – we were not yet fully aware of just how topical Iseult’s work would be today. What kind of relationship should we strive for as fellow members of any particular political unit? And which responsibilities follow from this relationship? How then should we best understand the purpose and the scope of our different polities? How should we think about understanding, granting, and/or limiting membership for each of them? And how should we balance their potentially competing demands?

Four panels each spearheaded by a renowned keynote speaker discussed different aspects of these questions. The panel on Attachment and Values included a keynote by Cécile Laborde on Cosmopolitan Patriotism as a Civic Ideal with a response by Attracta Ingram as well as papers by Cillian McBride (A Critical Theory of Domination), Suzanne Whitten (Recognition, Religious Offence, and Public Reasons), and Andrew Shorten (Domination and the Accommodation of Religious Diversity). The panel on Migration and Citizenship saw a keynote by Dora Kostakopoulou on Who is my Neighbour and Fellow Citizen? with a commentary by Graham Finlay as well as presentations from Kieran Oberman (‘Foreigners need not apply’ – Immigration Restrictions as Employment Discrimination), Rutger Birnie (Does Deportation Dominate?), and Ashwini Vasanthakumar (The Problem of Multiple Political Allegiances). The panel on Republican Obligation started with a keynote lecture by John Horton on Civic Republicanism and Associative Political Obligations with a response by Peter Stone. It also included papers by Jonathan Seglow (Citizen’s Duties), Sergi Morales Gálvez (Why Majority Groups Should Learn Minority Languages), and Jennifer Todd (Constitutional Moments and the Prospects of Everyday Emancipation). The final panel on Democracy and Leadership heard a keynote by Rainer Bauböck on ‘We and the People – Is there a Republican Response to Populism?’ to which Iseult Honohan herself responded. Presenters in this session were John William Devine (Private Lives and Public Office), Maeve Cooke (Non-Authoritarian Authority: Legitimacy at its Best), and Guy Aitchison (Republicanism, Popular Resistance, and the Idea of Rights.

We hope that this conference provided her with some food for thought and allows Iseult to start her “retirement” with a busy research agenda. We also hope to continue SPIRe’s proud tradition as Ireland’s centre for normative political theory and are hoping for the opportunity to discuss the results of all this inspiration in the Dublin Political Theory Workshop someday soon.

We are grateful for the generous support from UCD SPIRe and the PSAI making this event possible.

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By focusing on its nuclear weapons and disasters, the West misses a lot about North Korea

alex dukalskis

By Dr. Alexander Dukalskis

North Korea essentially has two international images: the bellicose nuclear provocateur run by a mad dictator, and the impoverished country in dire need of humanitarian aid. At the moment, both faces are on depressing display.

North Korea recently conducted its fifth nuclear test. As on previous occasions, talk of how to resolve the nuclear crisis ensued, with debates about sanctions, regional co-operation, and the rationality (or irrationality) of the Kim Jong-Un government.

This is of course a matter of huge international concern. But another major event hit North Korea around the same time as the nuclear test: Typhoon Lionrock caused widespread flooding that put over 140,000 North Koreans in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. International organisations and NGOs stepped in to provide aid. The Kim government acknowledged “great suffering” and deployed labour teams to assist affected communities.

These events evoke the famine of the mid-1990s, during which somewhere between 600,000 and 1m people died. As then, the irony of recent events wasn’t lost on outsiders: as North Korea’s people struggle, their government expends vast resources on a nuclear program that only isolates them further.

How do we navigate between these two images of North Korea? Is the country a serious threat to global security, or a weak state unable even to care for its population – or both?

On the move, slowly

North Korea often gets only sporadic Western attention, usually in the aftermath of a military advance or humanitarian crisis. Other noteworthy developments crucial for understanding the country, meanwhile, are overlooked.

Avoiding nuclear catastrophe in East Asia (and beyond) is essential and urgent appeals for aid are necessary and laudable. But between these extremes, North Korean society is changing, with serious implications for the country’s politics.

For example, North Korea’s economic system is far more market-basedthan the country’s communist political structures suggest. The mid-1990s famine shattered the state’s centralised rationing system, and most North Koreans have spent the 20 years since participating in one way or another in the country’s various (and often illegal) markets.

Time will tell what political impacts these processes will have. But what’s clear is that there are a number of vested interests that stand to gain from marketisation. Illicit trade along the border with China and even Russia has a big impact on the North Koreans living in those areas, and can help alleviate chronic shortages – in turn relieving a little pressure on the regime.

Political science research on sanctions shows that their record of actually achieving political goals (such as forcing authoritarian governments to liberalise) is spotty at best. As an alternative, perhaps the West should start coming up with another plan – such as finding a way to harness China’s economic success as a means to help ordinary North Koreans prosper.

After all, North Korea is well-known among Western governments for being the “land of lousy options”. If the economic equation changed substantially, a process border trade might speed up, better new pathways to dealing with the country could open up.

From the outside in

There’s another force with the potential to change the balance. The mid-1990s famine and its aftermath led tens of thousands of North Koreans to take the decision to leave their country. High-level defections like that of the deputy ambassador to the UK justifiably receive international attention, but it’s generally less well-known that there are now more than 27,000 North Koreans living in South Korea.

In bad shape. EPA/Jeon Heon-Kyun

While the South Korean government offers some support to new settlers, many northerners still face serious challenges, among them the onerous task of adjusting to a new society, psychological distress, and unemployment.

But North Koreans living abroad can still influence the politics of their home country. They can speak out through memoirs, form civil society organisations in the South, and share their knowledge about North Korean society with researchers and journalists. Many can also communicate with family members who remain in the North, and send them information they would struggle to obtain in a highly restrictive and propaganda-rich country.

Nuclear and non-nuclear developments in North Korea are very much intertwined, and the outside world needs to understand the latter if it wants to take an informed approach to dealing with the Kim regime.

It’s not that issues between the extremes of a nuclear North Korea and a poverty-stricken one are entirely overlooked. To be sure, there are numerous journalists and academics who provide valuable insights into North Korea, even if rumour still muddies the water and concrete information remains scarce. Rather, the challenge for those who hope to change North Korea is to understand the social developments already underway and connect them with opportunities for political progress.

Many people are already thinking along the right lines, but there are many others still trying to understand the country principally in terms of nuclear machinations and domestic disasters. They need to update their thinking.

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Book review – McKay, Sophia’s Story (2004)

Alison CoyneAlison Coyne is a UCD Law with Politics student. The best book reviews written as part of the course requirements for POL30080 Irish Politics and Policy are posted here to let UCD students contribute to critical reflection on key issues in Irish political and social life.

Susan McKay, Sophia’s Story (2004). Dublin: Gill and Macmillan

Sophia’s Story is the autobiography of Sophia McColgan, a woman with a harrowing story of her childhood in a household full of abuse and horror. Sophia bravely tells the story of life as the daughter of Joseph McColgan, a brutal man who raped and abused his family. A book full of torment, tears, terror and turmoil, Sophia’s Story is a must-read; it will leave you questioning the Irish system for child abuse, and perplexed as to how such unspeakable events could occur in modern society. Continue reading

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Book review – McDonald and Sheridan, The Builders (2009)

Daniel O'TooleDaniel O’Toole is a UCD Law with European Studies student. The best book reviews written as part of the course requirements for POL30080 Irish Politics and Policy are posted here to let UCD students contribute to critical reflection on key issues in Irish political and social life.

McDonald, Frank & Sheridan, Kathy (2009) The Builders: How a Small Group of Property Developers Fuelled the Building Boom and Transformed Ireland. London: Penguin.

Who were the main people responsible for the astounding rise and subsequent demise of the Irish property sector during the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years? The Builders comprises a series of articles by Irish Times journalists Frank McDonald and Kathy Sheridan, and details the journeys of several high-profile property developers involved in the Irish construction boom of the mid-1990s to mid-2000s. Continue reading

Posted in UCD SPIRe students, Uncategorized | Leave a comment