When North Korea may collapse

Pyongyang's belated economic reforms make 'middle-run' scenarios more likely
March 4th, 2014
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When it comes to predicting North Korea’s future, a recurring theme is their impending collapse. The collapsist school of scholars, who have repeatedly predicted North Korea’s disintegration since the 1990s, were brought into being by the collapse of the Soviet Union – obviously, no one was talking about such things before 1989-90. The composition of this school has changed over time, but at any given period there are people to be found expressing such views.

Thus far such predictions have proven false: North Korea has survived against the odds, with little change in its ideology or political structure. Non-collapsist analysts might have admitted that in the long run North Korea’s collapse is a likely outcome, but emphasized that this “long run” might be very long indeed.

Being a believer in an imminent collapse now attracts some stigma, but the present author is willing to take the risk and say that recent developments make the chances of regime disintegration in the North far more likely in the mid-term. Of course, this does not mean that North Korea’s collapse is inevitable; rather it means that some changes in North Korea increase the possibility of this outcome and that we should therefore take it more seriously. It appears that the combination of three factors might become destabilizing for the regime. These factors are as follows.

“Recent developments make the chances of regime disintegration in the North far more likely in the mid-term”

First, attempted economic reforms. Second, an increasingly restive population (and especially the lower elite). Third, a growing sense of insecurity among members of the top elite.

CHANGING ECONOMY, SOCIETY

It appears that Kim Jong Un’s government is seriously considering social and economic reforms, somewhat similar to reforms undertaken by China in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Last year, a large scale (and obviously successful) experiment may have heralded the start of a switch to family-based agriculture, i.e. the crawling de-collectivization of agriculture. There have also been attempts to increase the independence of state-owned enterprises, as well as efforts to attract large numbers of foreign tourists.

“The decision to initiate reform-like changes is, in itself, very dangerous in a country like North Korea”

All such efforts are limited in their scope, but the decision to initiate reform-like changes is, in itself, very dangerous in a country like North Korea. Reforms will make people less dependent on the government and more exposed to new ideas, as well as more capable of organizing themselves. Last but not least, these changes will make North Koreans much more aware of life overseas, especially in South Korea. This is exactly why the late Kim Jong Il chose not to follow the Chinese reformist path. His son seemingly has chosen a different path. The risks associated with such a path might be calculated, but they are risks nonetheless.

Secondly, the North Korean people, and especially low-ranking officials and intellectuals, seem to be becoming more restive. The present author has dealt with North Korea for 30 years and it has always been a common-sense observation that North Koreans almost never express opinions on political subjects if such opinions are different from what was written in the Rodong Sinmun. In some rare cases, foreigners have managed to develop a level of trust that allowed their North Korean contacts to express mildly critical opinions about their government. However, such things were very rare, such relationships were difficult to develop and most North Koreans either bought the official line more or less wholesale, or at least did not dare express any doubt about the official line.

However, things have changed in the last few years. Such changes have been quite dramatic and noticeable. For obvious reasons one cannot be too specific on such issues, but a number of foreigners coming from different countries (including Russia and China) have begun to report on hitherto unthinkable encounters with North Koreans, including officials of various kinds. From such reports it seems that North Koreans are far more willing than ever to talk politics, and express their alienation or even open hostility to the regime. It is significant that we are not talking about a small number of defectors or aspiring defectors, but rather about normal North Koreans, who are not aiming to leave their country (or if on an officially sanctioned trip, have every intention of returning home). Reports about such encounters are too numerous to discard as mere isolated incidents.

“North Koreans are far more willing than ever to talk politics, and express their alienation or even open hostility to the regime”

Most critically minded people are not dissidents, and they are not willing to challenge the government yet. However, they talk about the country’s economic destitution, as well as the growing (and already yawning) gulf between North Korea and its neighbors. It is important to note that while in the past it was the American economic blockade that was blamed, it is now the government that is seen as responsible for the country’s economic misfortunes. Corruption and lawlessness are also criticized, even as it is the critics who engage in corruption themselves.

ELITE DISSATISFACTION

To the present author this picture is reminiscent of the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s. At the time, only a tiny fraction of the population were clear-cut dissenters, but pretty much everybody, including a majority of party apparatchiks, shared the feeling that things in the country were not going in the right direction.

In the case of the former Soviet Union, such dangerous talk became common in the late 1950s. It was to take another 20-odd years for this displeasure to be transformed into meaningful political change. In North Korea, however, things may well move faster, largely due to the existence of the very rich and highly attractive South. It has often been stated that a spontaneous revolution is not a very common occurrence. In most cases indeed, revolutions do not begin as uprisings of the downtrodden masses, but rather as a revolt of a dissatisfied part of the elite. Such a revolt becomes a trigger that unleashes the revolutionary potential of the entire society, including the proverbial downtrodden masses.

Until recently, the North Korean elite has remained remarkably cohesive, showing little sign of internal division. This is understandable since the North Korean elite sees itself as cornered (with good reason: it is indeed cornered). They understand that instability and infighting at the top might trigger a regime collapse followed by South Korean-led unification – in essence, a repetition of the East German scenario, but with much more violence and bloodshed. Such a crisis would dispossess or probably even kill all members of the elite, regardless of their attitude to the current regime. They have therefore thus far followed Benjamin Franklin’s famous dictum: “If we don’t hang together, by Heavens we shall hang separately.

WHAT JANG’S EXECUTION MEANS

In all this, it helped that officials until recently felt quite secure in their positions. Of course, there were purges, but at least they usually were not fatal: officials would be sent into internal exile to go through brief stints of labour/menial clerical work in the countryside. While it is too early to say with any certainty, it seems that the recent purge of Jang Song Taek (and his family) indicate that the rules of the game in Pyongyang have changed.

“The recent purge of Jang Song Taek (and his family) indicate that the rules of the game in Pyongyang have changed”

High-level officials are not secure anymore, and a fall from grace might now prove fatal far more often than in the past. If Jang’s execution does not remain an isolated incident but rather heralds the arrival of a new form of “elite management” in Pyongyang, this may make many people in high positions seriously reconsider their future. No one was happy about being purged in the past, but back then a purge was an ordeal to be endured. Now, the elite might decide that the new policy is unacceptable because it jeopardizes their very survival. This increases the risk of a conspiracy or coup by officials who see themselves – rightly or wrongly – as threatened by a purge.

So, it seems that we now face a new and potentially dangerous situation in North Korea. Reforms, however partial and cautious, are creating opportunities for independent networking and make people less dependent on the government and more informed about the outside world (especially South Korea). The decline of political faith, combined with a decline in fear, makes North Koreans less loyal to the regime and more willing to question the hitherto unquestionable dogmas of the official ideology. Finally, insecurity at the top makes top officials more inclined to consider conspiracies, coups or perhaps defection as ways to avoid the abyss.

This is a dangerous combination indeed. This does not mean that North Korean collapse is imminent – with some luck the North Korean regime can hold on for a couple of decades (if not longer). Nonetheless, this might all mean that regime collapse from within is now more likely to happen than ever. So the long-discredited collapsist school might be proven right at last.

Picture: Eric Lafforgue 

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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.

Join the discussion

  • saveourmoney

    I’m curious if Dr. Lankov is of the opinion that the current behavior of the regime (less bombast, more interest in limited engagement) indicates they’re looking for more of a transition than an outright collapse?

    There are a great many serious North Korean scholars on this page with impeccable academic and practical credentials. Would they consider a panel discussion wherein they discuss the potential paths forward for the DPRK? Collapse, transition, stasis and how the rest of the world might manage or react to these potential outcomes would make for a fascinating podcast.