Bluster and North Korea

Nobody would be worried about missiles fired from North Korea if the Yalta Conference of February 1945 had turned out differently.

The Yalta Conference was the second of three meetings involving the heads of state of the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union during World War II. President Franklin Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Premier Joseph Stalin had met in Tehran, Iran, in 1943. All three also attended the Yalta Conference on the Crimean Peninsula in the Black Sea. The third meeting, held in Potsdam, Germany, also included Stalin, but Roosevelt had died and been replaced by Harry S Truman. Churchill was still alive, but Clement Attlee had displaced Churchill as Prime Minister.

These meetings had two purposes. They helped the allied governments cooperate in their war against the Axis powers, and they also helped those governments plan for the post-war era. For example, as the United States and the United Kingdom planned their D-Day invasion, they were able to persuade Stalin in Tehran to launch an invasion of German-held territory at about the same time to pin German troops on the eastern front. The partition of Germany following the war was also determined at these conferences.

Probably the most important agreement made in Yalta was that each of the allied powers would set up governments in the lands that they captured from the Axis. Aside from eastern Germany, the Soviet Union also formed governments in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary at the end of the war. Churchill and Roosevelt had insisted that free elections be held-especially in Poland-and Stalin promised that such elections would be held. Instead, all those countries were placed under governments following the Soviet system, and they remained under Communist Party rule until 1989.

Stalin also promised that the Soviet Union would enter the war against Japan roughly three months after the surrender of Germany. This promise he kept. In the beginning of August, Soviet troops entered Korea and began battling the Japanese forces occupying the country. This Soviet invasion factored into President Truman’s decision to rush the end of the war by dropping atomic bombs on two Japanese cities, although his fear of the loss of life that would be caused by a conventional invasion of Japan was a larger concern. When Japan surrendered, Soviet forces had captured the northern half of Korea, and they invoked the Yalta agreement to create a Soviet-sponsored government there as well. Roosevelt and Churchill had never intended Korea to be divided, but Truman and Attlee were not about to concede all of Korea to the Communists. Korea was split into two countries, and today it remains two countries under separate governments.

North Korea is the only Communist nation to be ruled by a single dynasty. Three generations of the Kim family have ruled North Korea since 1945. In 1950 North Korea invaded South Korea, setting off a three-year war which would later spawn an eleven-year television show called MASH. The United Nations condemned the invasion. Soviet representatives in the UN were absent that day, so they failed to veto the UN’s decision to send troops to support South Korea. (This is generally offered as proof that Kim and North Korea were invading on their own and not under instructions from the Soviet Union.) When the UN forces prevailed against the North Korean army, Chairman Mao sent reinforcements from the Peoples Republic of China, and the war became a stalemate that was settled by treaty in 1953, leaving things much as they had been before 1950.

The division of Korea became an interesting test case for different economic beliefs. With the support of the United States, South Korea built a capitalist economy, while North Korea built a socialist economy inspired by that of the Soviet Union. South Korea has blossomed into an economic power, while North Korea has remained stagnant economically. The government of North Korea has invested heavily in military equipment, including atomic weaponry and missile technology. With little opportunity to boast about anything else, the North Korean government regularly reminds the world of its power. The United States in particular has responded to these reminders with its own reminders of American military power.

I teach history classes. I am more qualified to discuss the past than to predict the future. I can say with confidence, though, that governments like those in North Korea and Cuba are doomed to failure sooner or later. No matter how hard they try, despots can only fool their people for a while. News of what people in other countries possess leads to discontent and a desire for change. At some point the mistakes made at the Yalta Conference will be upended and freedom will prevail, even in North Korea. J.



As a history teacher, I must define a few words so that the students and I can use them properly in the classroom. I want my students to know to true meaning of words such as “conservative,” “liberal,” “capitalist,” “socialist,” and “communist.” When we all use those words the same way, our conversations are much more productive.

Conservatives want to conserve things. They want to keep things the way they are. A conservative is likely to say, “If it’s not broken, don’t try to fix it.” Liberals want to change things. They don’t think things are good enough, and so they want to fix what is broken. A liberal is likely to say, “We can make it better.”

Actually, conservative and liberal are two words that cover some territory on a broad spectrum. A conservative wants to keep things the way they are, but a reactionary wants to change things back to the way they used to be. A liberal wants to improve the system, but a radical wants to destroy the system and replace it with a new system. Moderates are between conservatives and liberals. They want to change some things, but they want other things to stay the same. Convinced conservatives and convinced liberals think of moderates as weak and indecisive. They find it hard to fathom why anyone would want to remain in the middle between two choices. Yet political opinions are generally shaped like a bell curve. I suspect more people are moderate than are either conservative or liberal.

People sometimes change their minds, becoming more conservative or more liberal because of different experiences and new perspectives. Ideas can also change, generally from liberal to conservative. A new idea is going to be liberal at first. To adopt a new idea is to want to change. Two hundred years later, that idea has become old. Conservatives want to keep that idea, not to change it; but liberals might reject that idea that used to be liberal, because they think things can be better.

Limiting the power of government was once a liberal idea. Now it is a conservative idea. Defending human rights, such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion, was once a liberal idea. Now it is a conservative idea. Abolishing slavery was once a liberal idea. Allowing women to vote was once a liberal idea. Even capitalism was once a liberal idea. Once an idea has been around for a while and people have gotten used to it, the idea is now a conservative idea.

Capitalism has its origin in the High Middle Ages of Europe. As an economic idea, though, it was not expressed clearly until the late eighteenth century. When people thought at all about economics, they assumed that a limited amount of value exists in the world. For one person to gain wealth, someone somewhere would have to lose wealth. Nations competed for limited forms of wealth, such as precious metals. Explorers claimed newly-discovered lands for European governments, believing that they had to compete to see who would be wealthiest and strongest and safest. Adam Smith was one of the first writers to show that value in the world can increase, benefiting all people. A diamond found in a mine has value, but after a jeweler has spent hours cutting and polishing that diamond, the gem is more valuable, even though it is smaller. Wool sheared from a sheep has value. After the carder and spinner and weaver and fuller and tailor have worked with that wool to produce garments, the wool is far more valuable, even though much of it has been lost in the process.

Liberals at that time, believing in limited government, also believed that the government should be uninvolved in the national economy. They were convinced that the economy would regulate itself and would become stronger, benefiting all people, if the government would just get out of the way and let things happen. Private owners would be motivated to do their best to succeed with their property. They wanted customers to buy their products. Some would try to improve the quality of their products to attract customers, while others would try to cut costs to attract customers. Those seeking quality would pay their workers more to attract the better workers; but those who tried to cut costs might not need to pay workers as much, since their expenses would be smaller. Competition would waver between the higher quality and the lower cost, value would increase, and everyone would benefit. Liberal capitalists did not see any way that the government could help that process other than by staying out of the way.

Unregulated capitalists had critics by the middle of the nineteenth century. Capitalists hired children to work in their factories; those children worked from before sunrise until after sunset, labored in dark and dangerous conditions, and brought home less money than an adult would have expected for the same work. Liberals thought that conditions could be better. Some formed utopian communities, but others looked to the government to take over the factories and fix the problem. They figured that if the government owned the factories, they would improve working conditions, pay better wages, produce quality products, and sell those products for less, since the government would not be seeking to make a profit. Radicals (including Marx and Engels) expected the workers to rise in revolt, take over the factories, entrust them to the government for a time, and eventually replace the government with a world-wide utopian community in which each person would work for all and each would receive what he or she needed from all.

“Capitalism,” then, is defined as private ownership of the means of creating value, whether farms, factories, oil wells and refineries, or hospitals and medical clinics. “Socialism” is defined as government ownership of the same means of creating value. “Communism” is defined as shared ownership of these means without government control.

These definitions became confused when the Bolshevik Party in Russia changed its name to the Communist Party. They based this name on their promise of communism in the future, even though they named the country which they ruled the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. For seventy years the Communist Party ruled the USSR, but the country remained socialist; it never became communist.

During the Cold War, Americans spoke of the struggle between communists and the free world. Other countries were ruled by Communist parties, but all of those countries were socialist. Moreover, all those governments were totalitarian, controlling the lives of citizens by controlling elections, education, communication, and every workplace, as well as law enforcement. It was a crime to disagree with the government. When citizens protested their governments, they were arrested or killed. People voted with their feet when they had their chance. Between three and four million Germans left East Germany to live in West Germany before the Berlin Wall was built; not many left West Germany to live in East Germany. When Vietnam was divided into a communist North Vietnam and a noncommunist South Vietnam, one million people traveled from North to South. Only ninety thousand traveled the opposite direction. When Fidel Castro said in 1980 that anyone who wanted to leave Cuba was free to go, 125,000 gathered at the port of Mariel waiting for transportation to the United States. That many Americans have not tried to escape to Cuba in the entire fifty-five years that Castro’s Communist Party has ruled Cuba.

Small groups of people have experimented with communism. Even the early Christians were communist, according to Acts 4:32. No country has ever been communist, and no country ever will be communist, because governments are not good at surrendering their power to the people. Socialism has been tried at various times in various places with various levels of satisfaction among the citizens.

If unregulated capitalism was so bad, why did the workers of the industrialized nations not rise in revolt as Marx and Engels predicted? Marx and Engels did not envision regulated capitalism, in which the governments make laws about how farms and factories will operate, even though the government does not claim ownership of the farms and factories. Laws restricted child labor and eventually placed limits on the number of hours any worker could work. Laws allowed inspectors into factories to ensure that the factories were safe for workers and that their products were safe for customers to use. Laws forced capitalists to allow their workers to gather into labor unions which could then represent the workers and negotiate with the business owners. Capitalism survived and thrived because of its compromise with regulation. By 1988 it was easy to compare East Germany to West Germany, North Korea to South Korea, China and Vietnam to Japan and Singapore and Taiwan. In every comparison, it was easy to see that regulated capitalism produced a better life for citizens than totalitarian socialism.

Yet in regulated capitalism citizens often disagree with one another about the amount of regulation that is ideal. This conversation is part of an idea that has been called “the social contract.” On another day, I will write about that contract and what it means for people living under regulated capitalism. This post is too long already. J.


First Friday Fiction: The Last King of Caspinistan

Why did the king admire Benjamin Jackson? Perhaps he appreciated the fact that Benjamin was the first person he met who neither groveled before him nor frowned at his wealth and his power. For that, the king welcomed Benjamin with neither pity nor magnanimity. Because Benjamin was American, the king was prepared to be treated as an equal, and he was not disappointed.

Why the king sought an American pen pal is a small mystery that will never be solved. Why Benjamin applied for a pen pal from overseas is equally unknown. The larger mystery—but the one most easily explained—is how two young men, worlds apart, were matched to one another. Their applications arrived at the international pen pal agency the same day and were opened by the same clerk. No further explanation of their opening correspondence needs to be sought.

The clerk mistakenly identified the king as Carl King, an error that the king hastened to correct in his first letter to Benjamin. His father had named him for Charles the Great of France, believed to be a distant ancestor of the royal family, although historians doubted the connection. King Carl wrote without shame of all he had inherited when his father died three years earlier: the palaces, the servants, the monthly gifts from his people, and the responsibility of running a nation. Benjamin, in return, wrote without bitterness of his life in Canterbury, Iowa. Benjamin was the only son of a widowed farmer who had finally sold the farm to pay his debts and bought a small house in town. Randy Jackson now worked for a small manufacturing plant in Canterbury. Benjamin was fifteen years old and attended the Canterbury High School. King Carl was twenty-five and had never seen a manufacturing plant or a high school. His tutors had taught him fine arts and several languages, including English, French, and German. At his father’s suggestion, the tutors had covered ancient and medieval history, world literature, and some basic natural sciences, but they had avoided such esoteric arts as political science and economics. King Carl was skilled in archery, fencing, swimming, and various equestrian activities; but his sense of current events was fuzzy at best, and he had no head for geography whatsoever.

Benjamin’s first letters to King Carl were probably destroyed during the revolution, when the palace was burned to the ground. Benjamin may have saved his first letters from King Carl, although no one else has seen them. Clearly the two of them did exchange letters, though, trusting at first to the postal systems of the United States and Caspinistan. Eventually, the thought of meeting his pen pal from Iowa grew from a royal whim to a desire. Benjamin was invited to the palace of King Carl. Probably then the king obtained detailed information about Benjamin’s private bank account, for suddenly the young man had sufficient funds to buy a plane ticket and travel out of the country for the first time in his life. This access to Benjamin’s account might explain much of what was to happen some years later.

Benjamin bought a series of tickets that sent him to Athens, Greece, by way of New York and Paris. In the Athens airport a courier from Caspinistan met Benjamin and escorted him to the king’s private jet. After an additional flight, the fourth leg of his journey, Benjamin arrived at the Caspinistan national airport, which lies north of Alkhasad, the capital city of Caspinistan. The king’s personal chauffer was on hand to drive Benjamin to the palace in the king’s royal Cadillac. The journey took them farther away from the city, so Benjamin did not see how the people of Caspinistan lived. Nor did he have an opportunity to measure their reaction to the sight of the royal car. All Benjamin saw of Capinistan was forested hills, meadows filled with flowers, and of course the royal palace. King Carl himself was on hand to greet Benjamin when the royal car stopped at the entrance to the palace. He folded his pen pal into an exuberant embrace, and he insisted immediately on conducting a personal tour of the palace and its grounds.

Benjamin looked a few years older than fifteen. Hardened already by Iowa summers and winters, his eyes maintained an eternal squint. Sandy-haired and broad-shouldered, he had the stride of a mature man. King Carl looked a few years younger than twenty-five. His dark eyes twinkled with pride and with unabated humor, and he gestured wildly to point at everything in sight. His dark hair, carefully groomed, still refused to remain in place as he practically skipped from room to room in the palace. When he could not find an especially beautiful piece of furniture or particularly fine painting to admire, he began listing the number of servants in the palace and the cost of feeding them each day and clothing them each year. “It costs a bundle,” he lamented, shaking his head with mock sadness, “but such are the affairs of royalty.” All the same, the cares of state had not robbed his majesty of a youthful zeal for royal life and all that it contained.

“All this is yours, because you are the king,” Benjamin remarked—not a question, but merely a statement of fact.

“Of course, old friend,” King Carl exclaimed, patting Benjamin on the back as they strolled through the rose garden.

“And you use it,” Benjamin continued, “to maintain a corps of cooks and maids and gardeners.”

“And seamstresses, tailors, three butlers, four horsemen, tutors for the children, a series of valets (changing every three months), a chauffer…”

“Have you ever considered,” Benjamin interrupted, “how little you get in return for all this money?” The king stared in amazement. “Have you ever considered,” Benjamin continued, “how much more productive your money could be if you put it to work for you instead of giving it away?”

“How do you mean?” the king inquired.

Benjamin’s history and economics teacher back in Canterbury, Iowa, had ingrained the virtues of capitalism into the minds of his brighter pupils. Mr. Dillard admired the virtues of John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and Sam Walton. “Hard work is no shame,” Mr. Dillard frequently preached, “and money without work is no virtue. Money exists to work for you. When money does its job, you have more money, and you’ve done something worthwhile into the bargain.”

Now Benjamin tried to repeat to the king the lessons he had learned at Canterbury High School. “A rising tide lifts all the boats,” he proclaimed. “The more you do with your money, the more it will do for you. And meanwhile your people will prosper with you.”

On occasion the king had been vexed that there was only so much wealth to go around in Caspinistan, that the more he had, the less there was for everyone else. He had never thought of a fair way to change that problem. Now, told that he could become even richer while seeing his people increase their possessions too, he was fascinated. During the next week, Benjamin quizzed the king about the products of Caspinistan. “We sell wood from the forests, and somewhere fine furniture is crafted from our wood. We raise flowers and sell them. A few are worn as ornaments or used to decorate tables until the fade, but many are boiled somewhere to produce an expensive perfume. We have some very valuable metals buried deep in our hills. Companies have bid for mining rights, and then they have brought their workers, taken what they wanted of our metals, and left the mines empty.”

“It never had to be that way,” Benjamin explained. In that same week, he described for the king the Industrial Revolution and the many jobs that industry could provide. “You have rivers that can generate electric power. You can build factories and make your own furniture and perfume. Instead of taxing your people for a share of what little they have, you can offer them jobs and then tax the things they make and sell. You will have more than ever before, and they will have more too.”

The king was a fast learner. Before Benjamin had left Caspinistan, King Carl had already bought books and began to study. Not long afterward, he hired five consultants to assist him with his plans. Not long after Benjamin had reversed his course, traveling through Athens, Paris, New York, and home, the king had begun to industrialize Caspinistan.

Benjamin, of course, never saw the bulldozers enter the green forests and flowery meadows of Caspinistan. He never saw the peasant’s huts in Alkhasad leveled to make room for the new factories. He was not a witness to the two grand hydroelectric dams that spanned the rivers to power the factories. As Benjamin finished his last two years of high school, letters continued to flow between Canterbury and Caspinistan, and Benjamin read how the people grew richer every day, how furniture crafted in Caspinistan was already being sold in the cities of Europe and Asia, how the secret of the perfume had been procured, with production carefully limited to keep the price high. He read how King Carl truly did find himself richer than all his ancestors because of the prosperity of Caspinistan. In return, Benjamin was able to attend the college of his choice in the United States, and he never had to ask a single question about financial aid. He bought a new car, and his father Randy paid off his back debts and bought a pick-up truck. People wondered how the Jacksons were able to afford two new vehicles at once. Because both vehicles were Chevys, nothing ostentatious, not many questions were asked around Canterbury.

A Wal-Mart store was built in Alkhasad, and a McDonalds restaurant opened inside the Wal-Mart. Fancier grocery stores replaced the old family food shops in even the smaller villages of Caspinistan. Shoppers could choose between Coke and Pepsi, or even between Budweiser and Coors. Televisions were sold and satellite receivers appeared next to houses all over the country. The citizens of Caspinistan bought laptop computers and hand-held devices of every kind. Though King Carl’s advisors had always carefully watched the one national newspaper and monitored the one national radio station, they had no way to keep track of the many kinds of messages that were bring exchanged inside the country and over the borders with the new technology. The king was delighted that the people were investing their new wealth in all these modern devices, because every time a television or a computer was bought, the sales tax enriched his treasury.

The revolution began within three weeks of the date predicted by United States intelligence reports. Quiet gatherings in the streets grew larger each night, as the people demanded a new constitution which would give them a voice in their government and freedom from fear of the police and military forces. At first the heads of those forces were inclined to disperse the gatherings, even with the threat of violence if necessary, but the king told his three generals not to send their soldiers to fight their own fellow citizens. In a radio and television address carried all over Caspinistan, he offered compromises to his citizens, but the gatherings only grew even larger. Sensing the king’s weakness, some soldiers and police officers lay down their weapons and joined the people. Others joined the people but kept their weapons. Government buildings were entered, looted, and burned. Even inside the king’s palace, the rumble of unhappy crowds could be heard both day and night.

King Carl left Caspinistan by jet one summer night. He left behind his wives and his children with no more visible regret than he felt for his palace and his cars. A morning of rejoicing led to a lawless afternoon of rioting and pillaging before the army seized control of the country with a promise to schedule elections for the fall. Two nights of violence followed before order was finally restored. A group of scholars met with the three generals to write a new constitution. Districts were hastily drawn to create the structure for a representative government. The stores and factories were closed for a few days, but in barely more than a week, the country was operating smoothly again.

King Carl’s jet landed at O’Hare airport in Chicago. Five hours later, the pilot offered the jet to American authorities and requested asylum. By that time, King Carl had rented a Lincoln Towncar from Hertz using a credit card belonging to one of his five aliases. Whether through luck or cleverness, the king did not u se that alias again, not even to purchase gasoline. The car and its driver were never found.

Carlos Reyes appeared at the Jackson home in Canterbury, Iowa, on a Tuesday afternoon. He looked at their four small rooms, visited with Randy and Benjamin for a couple of hours, and then rented a room at the Days Inn on the highway. The next morning he visited with the manager of the Days Inn, made a few phone calls, and bought the entire motel. Carlos Reyes now had everything he really wanted. He owned an American mansion with twenty rooms, as well as twenty full bathrooms, an outdoor swimming pool, a large fancy dining room, and a fully-stocked kitchen. He had a trained staff to keep the place in order. Carlos kept on the entire cleaning staff. He kept a crew to manage the grounds and the pool. He kept most of the kitchen staff, with two waitresses who took turns serving lunch and dinner to Carlos and his guests. The manager remained to serve Carlos breakfast in bed, to turn away travelers with the regretful news that the motel had no vacancies, and to pay the bills. The manager did not ask how money appeared in the motel’s bank account; he merely used it to pay the bills. He also gave himself a generous raise, and no one asked him any questions either.

On Wednesday, Carlos bought a yellow Corvette. On Friday he completed negotiations to purchase the manufacturing plant on the edge of town. Some employees were kept, but others were released. Randy Jackson was promoted to manager of the plant. Trucks began delivering pieces of furniture to be assembled and finished. The good people of Canterbury whispered rumors of Mexican drug money, but no open accusations were made.

Meanwhile the rebels in Caspinistan reopened the factories, not realizing that the man who led them was uncle to the missing king. Exports again flowed from Caspinistan, including furniture, perfume, and rare metals. King Carl’s father had a younger brother who had regularly functioned as the king’s link to the outside world, traveling among the people and sending coded messages to the palace with reports of what was being said and done in the country. When the king died, the new king’s uncle, named Pepin, continued to spy on the people for the throne. Pepin had realized very early that a new spirit was sprouting and growing in the land, a spirit that called itself liberty and freedom, but a spirit that could very easily lead to anarchy and destruction. Pepin, under a different name, made himself the friend of the more outspoken of the rebels. At the same time, he carefully cultivated ties to the three generals and ties to the factory managers and to their clerks. In the early demonstrations, Pepin was careful to be seen in the streets, shouting slogans with the rest of the crowd. Later he worked behind the scenes, leading nothing, but making himself indispensable to all. He developed a network of old sources and new sources, and no one but Pepin himself knew all the links and connections in his network. Overseas contacts were part of its structure, carrying the exports of Caspinistan to markets in five of the world’s continents.

The twenty-room mansion of Carlos Reyes in Canterbury, Iowa, began to look more like a motel again. Up to four of the rooms were frequented by guests, businessmen in suits who carried cases of important documents. The motel restaurant remained Carlos’ private dining room, but he frequently entertained large groups of visitors, needing help from additional waitresses hired from town. Though he did not travel, Carlos remained intricately aware of international politics and business. He did not obtain his information from newspapers or from television news; what little data and analysis he gained from those sources only drove him to scornful laughter.

Carlos was found dead in his favorite room one morning, mere hours after his uncle Pepin was assassinated in Alkhasad. Local police made the discovery, but federal agents quickly followed them to carry out a full investigation. Three weeks later they announced that Carlos Reyes, also known as King Carl of Caspinistan, had committed suicide. The officers who had first arrived on the scene shook their heads and muttered that they wounds they had observed could not have been self-inflicted. They further added, to anyone who would listen, that the corpse had not looked to them much like the Mexican drug runner they had been watching since the day he arrived in town. Surprisingly few people would listen to the officers’ account.

The mansion became once again a Days Inn. The manager stayed on, but at his former salary. The factory was also returned to its former owners, who hired back many of their old workers. Randy Jackson quit his job at the factory and bought back his old farm. He grew corn and soybeans, rotating his crops, and he also raised about twenty head of beef cattle each year. Unlike his neighbors, he did not seem to care much about costs or about the prices paid to him for his harvests. Benjamin finished college and applied to graduate school, again never asking questions about financial aid. Along the way he missed almost a year of classes due to a battle with cancer, but he received the finest care at the University Hospital and is now in full remission.