(June 15, 2018 / JNS) One of the many 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 the indiscreet telling of a joke about Erich Honecker, the Soviet puppet who served as the GDR’s head of state. The joke begins with Honecker coming out onto his balcony one morning, spotting the sun and greeting it accordingly.
“Good morning, Comrade Honecker!” the sun replies cheerfully.
At midday, Honecker does the same thing. “Good afternoon, Comrade Honecker!” the sun trills back.
That evening, Honecker pops out onto the balcony for one last time and wishes the sun goodnight.
“F*** you,” the sun answers. “I’m in the West now.”
Similarly dark humor was encountered across Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe. Jokes like these served as a coping mechanism for repressed and exhausted citizens, and also a lyrical means of expressing basic truths about Soviet communism’s assault upon the human soul. In a 2013 interview, Natan Sharansky, once the figurehead of Jewish resistance to the Soviet ban on Jewish aliyah to Israel, explained succinctly what the term “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,” he remarked.
In 1989, that monumental lie unraveled with what we called, back then, “the collapse of communism.” As East Germany and then the Soviet Union crumbled into fleeting dust, it did seem in the moment to many observers that this collapse would inevitably foster a new culture of political liberty.
As a political forecast, that was badly 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—that is worth restating in a week when the president of the United States met with the dictator of North Korea.
We had absorbed (or so we thought) the certain knowledge that any political system in which opposition is proscribed and dissidents are locked up in atrocious conditions can never be truly legitimate because, as 1989 reminded us with a jolt, political legitimacy is rooted in the informed consent of the people. We also realized (or thought we had) that anti-democratic systems have a tendency to contribute to their own dissolution from birth; in the case of Nazi Germany, that 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—in China, Cuba and Vietnam, among others—seemed to be living on borrowed time as their economies sank and public demands for democracy surfaced.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s summit with Kim Jong-Un in Singapore does not, I modestly submit, undercut the validity of those three 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, in a speech in 2016, 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 consumer goods and financial windfalls on the poorest sections of society when oil prices were high as a political tactic, the Kim dynasty has always kept its incarcerated population of 25 million cold, hungry and abidingly fearful of not being the sort of “good citizens” as described by Sharansky.
Once the Cold War ended, this human suffering fueled the outside perception of North Korea as being permanently on the verge of collapse—that is, until the regime’s acquiring 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 the shuttered society that it is at present, 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 certainly are, the act of 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 talk of political reform in an enslaved state like this one 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. At least, so far.
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.