Sunday 30 August 2015

4 Strings - Turn It Around

I was going to write about Tony Blair (again) tonight, but lassitude and an anime binge (Attack on Titan, if you must know) intervened. Here instead is a trip 11 years back to one of that summer's most brilliant compositions.

Local Council By-Elections August 2015

Number of Candidates
Total Vote
+/- July

* There were eight by-elections in Scotland
** There was one by-election in Wales
*** There were no Independent clashes
**** Other this month consisted of Scottish Libertarian (12), Pirate Party (13), Scottish Christian (77), SSP (117), Orkney Manifesto Group (593), North East party (214), Mebyon Kernow (85), Yorkshire First (115)

Overall, 37,337 votes were cast over 16 local authority (tier one and tier two) contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. A total of six council seats changed hands. For comparison see July's results here.

If this has been the silliest of silly seasons ever where long-held political certainties were trampled beneath the stampede of tens of thousands of new Labour Party members, it's apt that August's by-elections reflect the weirdness.

First off, the SNP vote across just seven by-elections has made it the popular vote winner UK-wide for the first time. It is unprecedented that Labour and the Tories have been forced to concede their duopoly. Will the SNP wave ever show signs of ebbing? That Tory result as well is the worst ever since I've been recording local election results. Though the blues shouldn't feel too blue. It's unlikely to be evidence of a Corbyn surge swamping their redoubts: with eight Scottish by-elections and only three in favourable Tory territory. That said, despite awful polling, Labour's holding its own.

Also of interest is the scrap between the minor parties. This is the third month on the trot the LibDems have beaten UKIP. The yellows I think have grounds to be cautiously optimistic, even though their results here weren't great. And UKIP, well, without the the muck of the media to fertilise them they're not doing terribly well. Long may it continue. More interestingly, the Greens have beaten both for the first time. Remember the Green Surge? The huge pile of extra members they picked up since the Scottish referendum are starting to bear fruit with more seats contested and, presumably, a better ground operation. If Jeremy wins, will this progress get thrown into reverse?

In all, an astonishing month. Will September revert to business as usual or hold yet more surprises?

Friday 28 August 2015

Who I Voted for Labour Leader

Like my friend Lawrence, I haven't been terribly inspired by the Labour leadership campaign. Even Corbynmania has failed to stir me, except to the extent of writing many posts trying to understand what it means and how it will effect our party and our movement. So when it came to deciding who to vote for, I found it very difficult.

Now, I have a confession to make. Last month our constituency party met to decide who to nominate. Liz, Yvette, and Jeremy had their speakers - Tristram gave a good account for Liz. Andy, a new comrade, spoke for Jeremy. And I spoke for Yvette. Why? In a frankly terrible speech (so much for applying the 'be prepared' maxim I berate others for failing to employ), I laid down the reasons why I liked Jeremy's policies, but also that a strategy dependent on mobilising non-voters is most unlikely to win. Of Yvette, Andy, and Liz, it was Yvette who had the best chance of winning over those Tory voters we need to capture. Much to my amazement, these incoherent mutterings did the business and the Stoke Central nomination narrowly went to the shadow home secretary. This was before the Welfare Reform debacle saw the party descend into disarray and put a Saturn 5 under Jeremy's campaign. Has my mind changed much since?

I have found choosing incredibly difficult, so let's talk about the easy parts first. There was no way Liz Kendall was getting any of my preferences. I think she comes across as someone who's terribly insincere, and has shown an appalling lack of judgement in the running of her campaign. Berating members for not getting it, and allowing herself to be painted as a continuity Blair figure raises serious questions about whether she could win an election. Matters are not helped by stubbornly defending free schools and invasive private sector penetration of the NHS. If that wasn't enough, like many of her PLP friends and comrades, she doesn't understand the nature of our party. Had things turned out differently and she was a proper contender, I would be seriously worried about the future of the party.

And Andy Burnham. What can you say? Ask me a year ago who I'd be supporting for Labour leader, and I would have said him. Now? Not on your Nelly. The time for examining what has gone so badly wrong for his campaign isn't now - especially when it's a subject this blog will be turning to in the future. But honestly, to have tacked right with his leadership declaration and then opportunistically zigged-zagged here, there, and every-bloody-where as the contest has worn on ... Andy is a nice bloke, can speak with genuine conviction, and does have some good policies to sell. Yet he's like a driver with a faulty SatNav on a cliff's edge - you never know whether he'll follow a dodgy prompt and dash the car on the rocks below, or ignore it convinced that the thin air in front of him is the right road to take. While not as dangerous to the party as a Liz leadership would be, it's well within his range to take Labour in a disastrous direction if he thinks the head winds are favourable.

That leaves Jeremy and Yvette. Yes, I do think Jeremy is less divisive and problematic than Andy and Liz, and that any "chaos" resulting from his winning is overstated. His campaign has not only proven slick and well-run, it has set the political tone for the entire contest. It's telling that the two candidates with roots in the wider party - Andy and Yvette - have moved leftwards to compensate while Camp Liz floats away in a Blairist bubble of their own making. For the first time in a long time, the left have made an appreciable - and I for one hope lasting - impact on mainstream politics.

You know there's a but coming, don't you? I do have some major reservations about Jeremy's candidacy - for all the good it has done - and I don't think these can be ignored as "ephemeral" or "inessential". We've visited the issue of dodgy associations before. Of course, it is absurd to suggest Jeremy in any way shares the politics of some of the unsavoury individuals he's rubbed shoulders with in the past, and so much of the muck-raking by the likes of Louise Mensch is just that. But time and again, it happens. More recently, for instance, Jeremy happily gave an interview to the Australian branch of the LaRouche cult. If you've never heard of them, look Lyndon LaRouche up - anti-semitism is but one of their appalling characteristics. This sort of carelessness is a problem for some on the left, and it worries me that Jeremy and/or his staff are seemingly incapable of Googling background information, or don't deem it to be relevant. If Jeremy wins, this one will come back and come back some more.

The second big issue I have is electoral strategy, namely the seeming indifference much of Jeremy's support has to winning over Tory voters and the emphasis he wishes to place on mobilising non-voters. This approach has been gamed on Ravi's blog under the present boundaries. His best estimate puts us behind the Tories - assuming present Labour and Tory support stays where it is - and he also notes that the 2020 election will be fought on boundaries less favourable to our party. The next election is going to be a tough slog, and I'm sorry, I have very little time for anyone agnostic about us winning. Over the next five years the Tories are going to shaft our funding base and throw obstacles in the way of trade unions. And do we have to talk about what they have in store for our people as well? Can you imagine what could happen again if they win in 2020? I've got a good job and have no reason to believe my health will deteriorate over the next 10 years, but that could easily change. There are, of course, many millions not as fortunate as I and will suffer unless we get back into power at the first available opportunity.

And there is the development and strength of the left itself. Few, if anyone expected a left insurgency of this magnitude. But one should not cheer lead uncritically, like much of the far left outside Labour are doing, but to try and understand it in order to shape it. As far as I'm concerned the new member/supporter wave is not a 'social movement' as such, as per Scotland, but more like a mass affiliation of many ones and twos. It is a tendency attracted by Jeremy's unorthodoxy and amplified by social media. Some of it are former Labour people, but the overwhelming bulk are new to politics - that's if the membership surge we've had in our neck of the woods is anything to go by. If you like it is unrooted, a variegated and individuated group of people in search of a social movement. As such, noting its rootlessness, it would be a huge mistake to take this as evidence of a much wider constituency waiting to gift us local election after European election after general election. The second related point here comes from an opportunity/risk analysis. A Jeremy leadership is likely to attract another wave of new recruits and strengthen the gravity of left politics generally. The problem is I cannot see how, in the absence of a catastrophe, that this will be enough to win an election. Even worse, an electoral defeat will be taken as a defeat for socialist ideas, just at the moment their revival is getting underway. There is, of course, never a right time for the left to make a play, and the opportunity Jeremy's candidacy represents is one that does not come along too often. Nevertheless, that is what I think - an early peak could see us stumble into an equally early trough.

Who was my alternative then? In the end, it came back to Yvette Cooper. It's only these last couple of weeks her campaign has cranked up. Just like Labour until a year before the general election, she's gone from having no policies to them appearing in abundance. Yes, her platform is pretty dull by the mould-breaking standards of Jeremy's, but interestingly she has moved from austerity lite to anti-austerity lite. There are a couple of things to get excited about, such as universal childcare, and boosting investment in and wages of those in the care industry and those who care for loved ones - Yvette is absolutely right to see this as an infrastructural issue. Yvette has found her voice attacking the government about the refugee crisis in the Med, on FE cuts, on their stupid assault on green industries. Yet I have to say my support doesn't come with much enthusiasm, hence why I'm merely stating my views rather than proselytising. But as the compromise candidate, Yvette has the best chance of keeping the party together and winning a general election in 2020.

Of course, if Jeremy wins politics becomes much more interesting. In that event I will carry on building the party and using this platform to dispense analysis, unsolicited advice, and support. It was a very difficult decision but, unfortunately, I just don't fancy our chances if we go to the country with him at the helm.

Wednesday 26 August 2015

Rad Racer for the Nintendo Entertainment System

I cannot tell a lie, I do like my racing games. However, while nearly every platform since the days of the humble Spectrum have been spoilt for automobile-related gaming treats, there is one notable omission: the mighty NES. Considering it was the best selling home system ever for a time, this is as baffling as it is disappointing. Off the top of my head and as far as UK/European releases go, there's RC Pro-Am, Turbo Racing, Galaxy 5000, Micro Machines, and that's - apart from the subject of this post - about it. A mystery to be sure, but technical limitations can't be the culprit, as Rad Racer demonstrates.

Rad Racer is an early title for the NES. Published by Square (of Final Fantasy fame) in 1987, it was the first racing game to be released for the system in Western markets and was for a while the only one. And as a first outing, it pretty much nailed it. You race against the clock over eight tracks based on geographical features and locations. Greece, for example, has multiple iterations of The Parthenon decorating the horizon. It's a simple into-the-screen affair of dodging incoming traffic and making it to the checkpoint before the time robs you of acceleration. If you make it you're whisked off to the next level to do much the same. Sounds dull? It's not. Some of the races are very challenging and other cars have the annoying tendency of bending your fender as they position themselves between you and the open road. On later levels they crop up in groups of two or three, and many times a contest has been thwarted as they effectively block the highway. Ramming into the back of them can cause you to crash and flip the motor, but more often than not they knock your speed down. Not so if you come into contact with the roadside furniture. Each crash might set you right back on your wheels (this is Nintendo Land, after all), but it comes with a potentially race-destroying time penalty.

As with games of this character, which became ten-a-penny in late 80s arcades and home systems, there isn't much in the way of variety or depth. So the typical ruses of the time were implemented, such as making the game very tough and supplying no continues. Fine if you're a kid in the 1980s who can only afford a handful of games a year, not if you're an occasional retro gamer with an overweening blogging habit. It also offers a couple of unique ephemeral gaming experiences. The first is the choice between two different cars. One is a Ferrari 328 Twin Turbo bearing a bit of a resemblance to the car in certain other famous game, and the other is a nondescript Formula One motor. The difference between the two is the latter is a touch faster and cars on the road are other kamikaze F1 beasties. There's no other difference, even the end sequence - depicting the Twin Turbo - remains the same. The other is a 3D mode enabled via select. It's probably not a good idea to play this without the glasses because the rapid flashing and blurring is like a bad trip. And, to be honest, the effect isn't that great anyway.

There are a couple of nice cosmetic touches too. One is the inclusion of an in-game radio. Tapping down on the d-pad allows you to cycle through three tunes and the bleepy whirring of the engine. Alas, the music is standard NES fare that doesn't stick in the memory. Another are different day/night or weather cycles in each race. None had no direct impact on gameplay but attempted to convey a sense that you were racing over a lengthy period of time, and not the three minutes(ish) each track took.

Overall, Rad Racer is a slick, well-programmed racer that showed the NES could manage rudimentary three-dimensional games. In fact, what it did manage better than its ilk on other 8-bit systems was a proper sense of speed - there are no lines sitting across the road and landscape simulating kph. And it also managed hills better, giving an approximate sense of undulating terrain - a trick that remained tricky well into the 16-bit era.

Received wisdom has it that Square published Rad Racer as a means of showing off their superlative 3D programming skills, and therefore grabbing some of the home market enraptured by Sega's clutch of mid-late 80s coin-ops (Super Hang-On, OutRun, Space Harrier, Afterburner, Galaxy Force, Power Drift). Others of a more cynical mind noted its similarity - that's one way of putting it - to OutRun. I mean, both feature Ferrari motors and the basic gameplay mechanic is identical. Though done differently, both games can choose between soundtracks, which, again, remained very rare up until the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation hit the shelves. Yes, there's truth here, but it was also a manifestation of a publishing culture that flourished when system exclusives were much more common than today. That is me-too-ism. As the Nintendo vs Sega battle got underway, none of the latter's cool coin-ops were going to get released for the NES and its successors (apart from a few sub-licensed to Atari's Tengen label), nor - thanks to the restrictive and long-since illegal licensing practices - would many third party Nintendo games grace Sega's machines. Hence if a game became popular, either Sega or Nintendo or one of their licensees would attempt to provide some kind of competitive response in the form of a cash-in duplicate. RC Pro-Am vs RC Gran Prix, Afterburner vs Top Gun, etc. Sometimes, companies would market nearly-identical games for the same platform.

This is exactly what Rad Racer is. It is pretty much the same game as OutRun for the Master System (though, in an interesting twist, Sega released a specially reprogrammed OutRun 3D for its glasses peripheral in 1988 - the copy becomes the cop-ee). And while it does not sell a lifestyle in the way Sega's premiere racer did, it does probably edge it as the better game. Well worth picking up.

Tuesday 25 August 2015

Can Jeremy Corbyn Manage the PLP?

Much has been made of Jeremy Corbyn's assumed incapacity to hold the Parliamentary Labour Party together in the event of his Labour leadership victory. His views are out of step with Labour MPs, only a tiny number backed Jeremy's nomination out of genuine conviction, and his hundreds of rebellions against the party whip place him in a weak position when endorsing party discipline. Will chaos necessarily reign?

All this has led Matthew D'Ancona to reflect upon the torrid time Iain Duncan Smith had as Tory leader by way of direct comparison. Unfortunately for Matthew, the comparison doesn't work. Whereas Jeremy is and IDS were serial rebels, there were entirely different dynamics in play. Whatever you think of Jez's politics, I'm sure most would agree that his breaking the party whip rests on deep-seated principles. The same might also have been noted about the execrable IDS under John Major. He might have ideas that belong in the Museum for Social Darwinism, but no one doubts the sincerity of his views, and especially that of his long-standing Europhobia that put the Quiet Man on the wrong side of his leader. But there's where the similarities end. Jeremy is many things, but an organiser/factionaliser he is not. Plots in austere kitchens over value beans on toast and used tea bags are not his thing. IDS on the other hand was one of Major's "bastards" who semi-openly engaged in skulduggery to thwart his government. Jeremy was rebellious. IDS treacherous. Therefore using IDS as a base comparator is, well, mistaken. Instead of looking to the past, as Matthew has done, we should try and understand the schisms and dynamics at work in the PLP afresh.

Some folk like Phil Wilson in Sedgefield have talked tough - "Jeremy Corbyn has shown no loyalty to any Labour’s leadership in all his years as a member of parliament, I don’t know why he should expect any loyalty now" - but can we really look forward to few Labour MPs turning up for Prime Minister's Questions? I don't think so.

Assuming Jeremy wins, he will have an unassailable democratic mandate enhanced by the ludicrous purge of the selectoral roll. Many MPs have been perturbed by the new numbers signing up not because they're "hard left", but because they're an unknown quantity entirely. In most cases, membership secretaries scrutinising the updated lists are finding few if any familiar names from the local activisty/movement scenes. Being reasonably well-versed with what passes as a hard left "scene" in Stoke, none showed up in my constituency membership. Yet really who knows where these new people are coming from unless we talk to them? Some of our newbies were attracted by the contest to vote for Jeremy, but a larger proportion were not. It was about the general election and doing something about the Tories. One told me he was inspired to join thanks to the shower who've taken over Stoke's City Council. However, regardless of their moves and motives, few are likely to be impressed if their MP - assuming they have a Labour member - starts playing silly buggers in the Commons. It's one thing to have principled opposition, quite another to pull an IDS. And MPs have to be very careful. Jeremy has ruled out mandatory reselections, but they're unnecessary anyway. Once the Tories complete their boundary review and fix the shapes and composition of constituencies to their advantage, many Labour MPs will face selection battles in their modified seats. The reward for open skulduggery is likely to be a P45, so they have an incentive to behave - a point not missed by Jez himself.

When it comes down to opportunities to rebel, well, there's not going to be that many. As the opposition, the whip's office is not going to command MPs to troupe through the lobbies in support of People's QE or Nato withdrawal. Already, Jeremy has signalled his intent to have MP working groups dedicated to certain subject areas formulating policy. Some could simply refuse to engage, but that runs the risk of offending the members as per above. When it does come to votes, in the main it will be against legislation. Is anyone really going to rebel over the scrapping of social security provisions when it returns to the house? The attacks on trade unions? More sell offs and privatisations? Of course, the government are looking to make hay by plotting vote traps. That could pose some difficulties, but by sticking a flashing neon sign over their intentions so far in advance they can be planned for and circumvented.

The second point is the impotence of open opposition anyway. This has already taken the form of some leading figures declaring they will not serve in a Jeremy-led shadow cabinet, and talk about establishing 'Labour for the Common Good', which is supposed to be a way of re-elaborating Third Way-ism (remember that?). Or making our values face the future, as a Liz Kendall soundbite might have it. On the latter first, while my ex-boss and Chuka Umunna have a point about their wing of the party lacking intellectual heft (which is surprising, considering their links to think tanks, and the voluminous output of Progress) it's not going to spark a fire under anyone's bushel. Partly because already, despite wanting to reach out to the rest of the right, the centre, and the soft left, I understand only Progress-associated MPs have been asked to join. And because if this leadership contest has demonstrated anything, it's this section of the party is actually very weak. Unlike the old Labour right who are deeply rooted in and whose views and sentiments are expressed by members at all levels of the organisation, Progress is very much an elite project - despite its open membership - that doesn't promote from the grassroots but feeds off the think tank'er/bag carrier/spad nexus. It produces MPs with little in the way of social roots, and privileges a dialogue among the cognoscenti. Little wonder then it was merely brush aside as an irrelevance as the Labour leadership battle was joined. As such, by walking away from the shadow cabinet they make their own position in the PLP much weaker. As they vacate the scene there are plenty of MPs who would never otherwise have had a chance of a front bench role to come forward and will relish it. Two, three years down the line, as politics has moved on and new faces become established, who's going to have any time for the bearers of the Blairist screed when they've marginalised themselves?

If Jeremy does win, it doesn't have to be popcorn time for Labour's enemies. He will be in a strong position vis a vis the PLP, and the pressures bearing down upon it are likely to curb most rebellious enthusiasms. At least for a time.

Monday 24 August 2015

Cllr Dave Conway's Signs of Idiocy

As the winds of change howl about the Labour Party, it's still politics-as-usual down Stoke-on-Trent's civic centre. It's the summer so not a lot is happening anyway. However, word reaches my ear of yet another example of the City Independents' well-established stupidity.

Long-time readers know that, to put it delicately, the alleged council leader Dave Conway isn't the most hands-on of politicians. In meetings with visitors he will simply up and leave the officers to carry on. If the bureaucracy requires a decision, they circumvent him and approach his deputy instead. Not for nothing is the head of the Tory group known as Acting Council Leader Abi Brown. And at all other times, officers simply get on with things in the absence of political oversight. To think Dave once had the cheek to attack his predecessors for presiding over an "officer-led authority".

Or perhaps I'm being unkind to Dave. It is my understanding there's a small project that has captivated all of his attention and has in fact become a top priority. What could it be? An impact assessment on the Tory cuts to the local government grant? A scheme designed to drum up more investment? How to cut SureStart centres without too many people noticing? Or even a feasibility study on one of the City Independents' manifesto promises, such as the Meir-Tunstall tramway? Something far weightier than that.

We're talking road signs.

As part of their six-town regeneration strategy, whatever that is, Dave wants to turn the clock back. If he gets his way, council workers shall issue forth from depots across the Potteries to replace otherwise perfectly healthy signage. So if you see one signposting 'City Centre' expect it to get torn down in favour of one that reads ... 'Hanley'.

That's right, £15,000 is set to be expended on what can only be described as a stupid indulgence. The fools comprising the City Indies might get a warm glow, thinking that a blow has been for the alleged special identities of each of Stoke's six towns, but not only is it a waste of money, it can cause considerable confusion for people visiting the city. In a very Stokieish defiance of logic, the town from which the city is named is not its commercial centre or key shopping district. Having been bamboozled by this when I first got off the train 20 years ago, I can tell you no end of people from elsewhere have and continue to be as well.

Once again, Dave Conway and his gang of wingbags, closet racists, opportunists, union-bashers, and bearers of unsavoury convictions prove themselves to be small-minded, befuddled incompetents. Unfortunately, there's still four more years of this idiocy to run.

Sunday 23 August 2015

Making Sense of North Korea

The Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea made one of its occasional forays into the international headlines this last week. There were reports of shelling and small arms fire across the demilitarised zone separating the two Koreas as tensions rose over a couple of disputed incidents. The South claims two of its soldiers were injured by a mine, allegedly planted surreptitiously by the North, while the North are loudly objecting to the resumption of propaganda broadcasts by the South. When you run a regime as brutal and brittle as the DPRK's Stalinist monarchy, news from outside its heavily fortified frontiers is far more dangerous to it than carpet bombing Kim Il-sung Square. However, time and again, lazy Western observers take the regime's blood-curdling rhetoric, its ludicrous pomp, and the Bond villain-esque disposal of previously trusted adjutants as signs of collective madness, of a nuclear capability nation prepared to sacrifice millions of Koreans because Kim Jong-un got out of the wrong side of bed.

In truth for all its totalitarian exoticism the DPRK is eminently knowable. It does not defy the sociological laws of gravity as fevered media reports pretend, and the basics can be understood with a bit of knowledge of modern Korean history and grasp of the dynamics of Stalinist - for want of a better word - regimes. Beginning with the latter, it's worth revisiting Trotsky's critique and defence of the Soviet Union in The Revolution Betrayed and In Defence of Marxism. His argument was that civil war exigencies, general backwardness, and the devastation wrought on Russia after the Bolshevik seizure of power subverted the world's first successful socialist revolution and turned it into its opposite. Increasingly, the party and the state merged and substituted itself for the classes on whose behalf power was taken. As all areas of social life became bureaucratised, so democracy, accountability, and freedom of criticism disappeared and a caste of office holders (promoted and led by Stalin) took over the running of the country. However, their power rested on their offices, and their offices were tied to the new forms of economic relationships the revolution ushered in. The crucial period, as far as I'm concerned, was the simultaneous launch of the first five year plan and the collectivisation of agriculture. This extended state direction of the economy and rooted out market relationships that were allowed under the post-civil war New Economic Plan. It was a brutal business as millions of peasants were forcibly stripped of their holdings and assets and herded into larger agricultural combines. Famines stalked the land, particularly in Ukraine, and anyone who resisted was dubbed a kulak - rich peasant - and were deported internally, imprisoned, or summarily shot. A tragedy that deserves better commemoration than cheap shot polemics against democratic movements.

Writing in the period of 'high Stalinism', Trotsky argued that while the bureaucracy was anything but socialist, the property relations it rested on were progressive. These were the "gains" of October and were the reason why the USSR needed to be defended by revolutionary leftists everywhere. While a position many Trotskyists still hold today, given how the dictatorial bureaucracy and detailed economic planning were intertwined its "progressiveness" vis a vis capitalism was, in my opinion, overstated. Nevertheless Trotsky was right in viewing Stalin's Russia as a post-capitalist society, and as this being the root of international hostility to it. As an substantial area of the globe sealed off to market penetration, it existed as unrealised opportunity and threat. Opportunity because of untapped markets and profits, which as we have seen since the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the opening of China were/are considerable; and threat as the presence of an alternative, and one closely aligned with - at least at the level of rhetoric - the subterranean contradictions of capitalist systems. The rulers of the USSR were aware of this also, and the various twists and turns of their foreign policy during the 1930s make perfect sense as means to prevent non-intervention in internal Soviet affairs, and only secondary as hegemon of the global communist movement.

After the Second World War, the Stalinist system was exported into Central Europe and the Far East. As part of Japan's articles of surrender, the Korean peninsula was split between Soviet and American-administered zones. In the North, the occupying authorities abolished landlordism and nationalised key economic sectors as per the home "model", while in the South peasant uprisings against the land owners and the US-led authority were sporadic but nonetheless popular. The North's invasion of the South in 1950 was partly based on the assumption that they were Korea's "legitimate" government (the South had languished under the US-backed anti-communist dictator, Syngman Rhee, since 1948) and would therefore be welcomed as liberators, and was quietly backed by the USSR. In practice it was about securing the last remaining corner of East Asia with a Soviet land border for a friendly regime.

After the devastating Korean War which saw no corner of the North untouched, the establishment of the Cold War frontier stabilised the regime. Like is Soviet forebear, setting up a command economy replete with dictatorial bureaucracy saw the country quickly recover from war devastation. Up until the mid-1970s, the North was ahead of the South on most economic indicators. The grotesqueries of Kim the Younger's personality cult were not present at this point under Kim the Elder. However, the basis for what it became was laid. Firstly, in the Sino-Soviet split Kim sided with Mao's China as opposed to Khruschev's USSR, and began pursuing a more independent foreign policy a la an excommunicated Yugoslavia. As a measure of Moscow's displeasure, Soviet military aid was scaled back and a Warsaw Pact-style guarantee of mutual protection rescinded. From North Korea's perspective, this meant plugging the gaps of their own Cold War frontier themselves - somehow their military had to stare unblinkingly across the border at a Southern army backed by Americans armed with nuclear weapons. The distorting dynamic of what the North now calls the military first policy was present back then, but the "modern" North came into being after Mao's death in 1976. Objecting to China's own attempt to seek detente with the US, the North split from them too. This is more or less the period from which the Juche idea - self-reliance - starts affecting all aspects of state propaganda, and not at all coincidentally the cult of personality takes off. After all, if you're thrown onto your own resources it makes sense from a totalitarian point of view to overemphasise the expansive talents of the leader.

Here then we have a regime determined to cling to power, believes its enemies are out to get it (remember George W Bush and the Axis of Evil?), and pursues policies it hopes will ward off an attack. For example, the pursuit of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile technology does not spring from Kim Jong-un's megalomania but are bargaining chips when it comes to negotiations with the South and the Americans. It's also cheaper and less distorting of one's economic development to have nuclear missiles than keep a huge army equipped and fed. Nevertheless, the existence of the frontier also suits its interests, to a degree. For Kim it's a clear and visible threat it can harangue its long-suffering citizens about, helping shore up patriotism and social solidarity while the country copes with market reforms, a consumer boom, and recurrent disasters.

This, however, is only the starting point. One should resist falling into a "poor little DPRK" trap. It may be under external pressure, but none of that excuses the criminal character of the Kim family's regime. Yet the slow marketisation of the North balanced with Kim's steady reforms is opening the country up. It's becoming complex and messy, and in the long-run - however long that may be, one cannot say - the huge state apparatus cannot keep a lid on the forces it's unleashing forever.