North Korea Has Begun To Change – With Almost Alarming Speed

September 7th, 2012

As some of you might know, I have recently published a piece at the ‘Washington Post’ where I outlined what seems to be going on in and around North Korea. However, stylistic requirements and various conventions precluded me from being quite as blunt as I would be in person.Yesterday, when participating at an online discussion, I wrote a rather lengthy paper where the (essentially) same points were spelled out more bluntly. After some considerations I decided to send this letter to you, highly esteemed friend and colleagues.

– It seems almost certain that Kim Jong Un (and some people around him) really want to change things. There are too many signals, coming from too many directions to deny the fact that North Korea has begun to change, and as a matter of fact, with almost alarming speed. None of these signals in isolation are conclusive, but when taken together they little room for doubt.– The ideal destination for Kim Jong Un, Chang Song Taek and co. is of course a Chinese-style ‘developmental dictatorship’. They want to build a North Korea which will combine an authoritarian political structure (presided over by them, needless to say) with a market economy (where the commanding heights will belong largely to the scions of the elite).

– For the outside world and for the average North Korean, the emergence of such a regime is clearly a welcome development. It will keep its nuclear weapons, but will be less willing to engage in provocative behaviour – like proliferation. North Koreans will still live under a dictatorship. But this dictatorship will necessarily be less repressive, giving people more individual freedom. And last, but not least, such a regime will deliver a dramatic improvement of living standards for almost everyone in the country.

– Currently, the reforms are reversible. Kim Jong Un can change his mind or be overwhelmed by the conservatives. Nonetheless, I personally do not believe that backlash is very likely. The boy badly wants to make everybody happy.

– At the same, the above mentioned outcome – the emergence of a relatively stable, and economically successful developmental dictatorship in North Korea – is possible, and desirable, but not particularly likely to happen. As I have written countless times, Kim Jong Il did not council reforms because he always understood: in a divided country with such a huge economic divide between North and South, reforms are likely to become destabilizing. South Korea’s existence is the major reason why a developmental dictatorship in North Korea could not remain stable. These fears are seemingly not shared by Kim Jong Un and his advisors, but this does not mean these fears are unfounded.

– The probability of the success of reforms (‘success’ as defined as a stable and growing developmental dictatorship) appears even more problematic if we look at Kim Jong Un’s personality and his actions over the last few months. He does many things which are completely unnecessary and are potentially destabilizing. He should not endorse the American pop culture, and Micky ‘The Imperialist Rodent’ Mouse; he absolutely should not turn the front page of Rodong Shinmun into his wedding album (section on honey moon).- Therefore, we should be ready for trouble. A reforming North Korea will likely be very unstable and might collapse. Worse still, collapse is likely to come with little to no prior warning. Media reports about reform are likely to produce the false and dangerous idea that North Korea is solving itself as a problem. This may just be the case, but it is much more likely not to.- The coming crisis is likely to be violent and is fraught with many potential dangers. Among other things, it may provoke unnecessary confrontation between the US and China, it might also increase the possibility of proliferation. In short then, it is not going to be nice. Probably, the North Korean problem has never had a nice quick solution. The story was going to end badly anyway, however in light of recent changes, the ugly end seems to be closer than we expected…

Those are my politically incorrect and undiplomatic remarks.


Andrei Lankov

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About the Author

Andrei Lankov

Andrei Nikolaevich Lankov is a Russian scholar of Asia and a specialist in Korean studies. He completed his undergraduate and graduate studies at Leningrad State University in 1986 and 1989, respectively; He also attended Pyongyang's Kim Il-sung University in 1985. Following his graduate studies, he taught Korean history and language at his alma mater, and in 1992 went to South Korea for work; he moved to Australia in 1996 to take up a post at the Australian National University, and moved back to Seoul to teach at Kookmin University in 2004. Dr. Lankov has a DPRK-themed Livejournal blog in Russian with occasional English posts, where he documents aspects of life in North (and South) Korea, together with his musings and links to his publications. He also writes columns for the English-language daily The Korea Times.

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  • Fred Bauder

    Very insightful. Here’s an analogy that seems applicable:

    If you had an old car, here we lose the actual man, Kim Jong Un, who has never had an old car in his life or ever dealt with an overheated radiator or been scalded by the water spurting out and all getting lost, and it has an overheated radiator you would want to let it cool down before you took the radiator cap off. Following up, the stored up energy in the radiator, superheated water, is like the serious unresolved tensions in North Korean society: want to the point of famine, social repression to the point that a pornographic DVD is an efficient bribe, death camps where thousands have spent, and are spending, life at hard labor.

    If you open the border who knows how many thousands or millions would flood out. If you allow free internet and other media access a great flood of critical information, and crap, will flood in and impact a people innocent of elementary knowledge of the outside world.

    So what is the practical analogy to letting the radiator cool off? How could outside actors such as South Korea or the United States help?

    The end game of prosperous monarchy is preposterous but so is the British monarchy or the Chinese politburo. Mr. Toad in real life, “BEEP! BEEP!”

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  • CoJohnson

    very insightful, yes. But does anyone consider the notion that DPRK authorities monitor this kind of research as a guidebook for keeping their oppressive regime alive? Am I the only one concerned about this?

    • Fred Bauder

      No doubt, but consider the nature of the stinking corpse and the damage done, both to North Koreans and others if they don’t. If we get out of this with less than a million dead we’ll be doing good.

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