In what is remembered as one of the most concise, insightful and oft-quoted metaphors In modern history, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl described the Soviet Union “as Upper Volta with missiles.”
It underscores the paradox that lies at the heart of command-and-control economies, such as the old Soviet Union and present-day North Korea.
It often took a monumental effort to establish a long-distance connection between Moscow and Leningrad. Yet, the Soviet system developed an ICBM complex capable of reducing the West to ashes and a space program that conceivably could have beaten the Americans to the moon.
Fast forward to present-day North Korea: Most of this nation resembles present-day Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta), lacking even the most basic material amenities – sewage, adequate nutrition and healthcare in remote villages. Its people are among the smallest in the world – a reflection of its appalling deficiencies. Yet, this desperately impoverished nation has managed to develop a technocratic elite and other technical resources capable of threatening the very foundations of the West – Burkina Faso with geeks, in a manner of speaking.
This recent North Korean hack attack constitutes the most recent example of how this command-and-control system, this strange legacy of Joseph Stalin, continues to wreak havoc long after most thoughtful people consigned it to the dustbin of history.
Therein lies the paradox of North Korea and of command-and-control systems in general.