One of the memorable scenes in “The Lives of Others” — an exemplary German movie whose plot centers on the Stasi secret police in the late, unlamented German Democratic Republic — involves a joke about Erich Honecker, the Soviet puppet who served as the GDR’s head of state. Honecker came out onto his balcony one morning, spotted the sun and greeted it accordingly.
“Good morning, Comrade Honecker!” the sun replied cheerfully. At midday, Honecker did the same thing. “Good afternoon, Comrade Honecker!” the sun trilled back. That evening, Honecker popped out onto the balcony for one last time and wished the sun goodnight.
“Get lost,” the sun answered. “I’m in the West now.”
Dark jokes like these served as a coping mechanism for repressed and exhausted citizens across Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe, and as a way of expressing basic truths about communism’s assault upon the soul. In a 2013 interview, Natan Sharansky, the figurehead of Jewish resistance to the Soviet ban on aliyah, explained what a “good citizen” meant in the Soviet environment. “It is to say what you are supposed to say, to read what you are permitted to read, to vote the way you are told to vote, and, at the same time, to know that all this is a lie.”
In 1989, the monumental lie unraveled. As East Germany, and then the Soviet Union, crumbled into fleeting dust, it seemed to many observers that the collapse of communism would foster a new culture of political liberty.
As a prediction, it was wrong. Yet behind it was a deeper insight into the ills of communism — and, indeed, all forms of government where party, state and ideology converge under a supreme leader. In a week when the president of the United States met with the dictator of North Korea, it is worth restating.
We had absorbed (or so we thought) the knowledge that any political system in which opposition is proscribed and dissidents locked up can never be legitimate. As 1989 reminded us, political legitimacy is rooted in the informed consent of the people. We also realized (or thought we had) that anti-democratic systems contribute to their own dissolution from birth; in the case of Nazi Germany, the process took 12 years, and in the case of the Soviet Union, it took 72.
In that light, even those Communist governments that survived 1989 — China, Cuba and Vietnam, among others — seemed to be living on borrowed time. Their economies sank, and public demands for democracy surfaced.
President Donald Trump’s summit with Kim Jong-Un in Singapore does not, I submit, undercut the validity of these observations. When it comes to North Korea, even former Secretary of State John Kerry, an arch-appeaser of the Cuban and Iranian regimes, found it within himself to describe the ruling Kim dynasty as the “illegal and illegitimate regime in North Korea.”
Moreover, since the end of the Cold War, the regime’s primary goal has been to secure its own power. Unlike dictators such as the late Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, who lavished goods and financial windfalls on the poor when oil prices were high, the Kim dynasty has always kept its incarcerated population cold, hungry and abidingly fearful of not being the sort of “good citizens” described by Sharansky.
Once the Cold War ended, this human suffering fueled the perception of North Korea as being on the verge of collapse — that is, until the regime’s acquisition of nuclear weapons meant that it could shield itself effectively from a U.S.-centered world order. But now, North Korea has apparently agreed to engage in a process aimed at achieving its emasculation, in terms of hard power, by 2020.
There are many reasons to consider such an outcome fanciful, but the historical example of the Soviet Union, where disintegration followed disarmament, is the most compelling of all. The Soviet Union didn’t go under because the United States refused to guarantee its external borders; it happened because of the pressures from within.
By the same logic, without its nukes, North Korea cannot remain a shuttered society, with the Kim regime the sole focus of enforced public devotion. Should the regime turn its back on future negotiations, dread at the political consequences of opening up brains and markets — what the Soviets called “glasnost” and “perestroika” — will likely be why.
So however absurd and distasteful Trump’s encomiums to the tyrant of Pyongyang are, engaging the regime in dialogue is not in itself objectionable. It all depends what the goals are.
Many of the people now advising Trump are longtime advocates of regime change in North Korea because they understand that political reform in an enslaved state is outlandish, unless, by some extraordinary twist, the regime decides of its own volition to devolve power or even surrender it entirely.
But, as the sun clearly understood from its conversation with Erich Honecker, history has never worked like that. So far.