Predicting North Korea’s collapse has for decades been a popular topic among pundits and specialists worldwide – albeit normally one of subsequent embarrassment when things don’t go quite as thought.
Milestone events like the death of Kim Il Sung in 1994 and Kim Jong Il in 2011 led many observers to believe a collapse was imminent, but North Korea’s rugged persistence continues to show just how little the outside world really knows.
Was the stunning execution of Jang Song Thaek in December last year really the game-changing event some suggested, or is the dawn of another decade of continuity in Pyongyang?
To get a better understanding and mark the start of a special NK News refugee insight interview series, we asked a group of eleven North Korean defectors how much longer they thought the current leadership would last.
With responses ranging from anywhere between two to ten years more, common factors explaining a future collapse included the side-effects of increased market activity, the formation of major differences of opinion among the elite, and increasing access of foreign information.
Question 1. How much longer will the current North Korean leadership last?
The North Korean regime was able to maintain its power for so long as the people were always highly loyal towards it – but with time, this loyalty is decreasing. And although people previously relied on government supplies to get by, to survive they’re now increasingly left to their own devices. So while no one knows how long the current North Korean regime will survive, it is undoubtedly true that it is getting weaker and weaker with time.
Today even government officials are not as loyal as they once were. In fact, some of these officials now think that the North Korean regime has no future, meaning they care more about increasing their income over caring for their country. Yet, they do not dare to try and change the regime because of the still heavy government surveillance.
North Korea does not allow any outside information to be distributed within the country, instead preserving the exclusive right of promoting only official ideology over the people. Because it introduced a system to control every aspect of people’s lives, in the current environment it is therefore impossible to imagine any civil movement or revolution emerging. As such, we can only expect a military coup caused by instability among the top elites to create a major change.
“We can only expect a military coup caused by instability among the top elites to create a major change”
Following the execution of Jang Song Thaek, it is apparent that there was a power struggle within the top elite. And this struggle was caused primarily by economic factors. In addition, it seems that people have doubts about Kim Jong Un’s abilities as a leader: I’m personally doubtful if he possesses the characteristics needed to lead such a poor and difficult country. Above all,I actually don’t think he’s clever enough.
Of course, no one of course knows when a military coup will take place. It is something that will only happen by chance. But because of this, I believe that a collapse can take place.
It seems like North Korea will undergo changes within the next five years. But when I say change, I am talking about gradual changes – including reformation and an open door policy – not the collapse of the North Korean regime.
The reason why these changes will occur is due to the current political, economic and international situation that North Korea faces.
The DPRK is currently suffering from severe economic problems and if Kim Jong Un wants to stay in power, he must try and solve these significant economic problems afflicting the country.
Because of the weak base of his political power, we can therefore expect some level of economic reform in future.
Previous ideas like the Rason Special Economic Zone will never be enough to revitalize the North Korean economy, so it seems like sweeping economic reforms will have to be implemented.
These kind of changes will result in the weakening of North Korea’s dictatorship and require political reform. As a result, we will witness the regime change.
“It seems like North Korea will undergo changes within the next five years. But when I say change, I am talking about gradual changes”
Also, it’s important to remember that the international situation is evolving rapidly against the North Korean regime. The DPRK is no longer able to receive economic aid from the U.S. and South Korea through its brinkmanship strategy of nuclear tests and missiles. And recently, even North Korea’s long-time ally China has shown signs of changes in its policy towards Pyongyang.
As a result, North Korea’s international isolation will be intensified. So in order to resolve this, some attempts towards economic reform will be inevitable in North Korea.
I believe it will last for at least five more years. Above all, it is difficult to imagine a coup d’etat occurring in North Korea and it’s clear that neighboring countries like South Korea do not wish a collapse to happen. As such, I believe the North Korean regime will only collapse when Kim Jong Un dies – but I can’t see any factors threatening his life in the foreseeable future.
But what could cause a collapse of Kim Jong Un’s regime? For me, only an assassination – or the central government losing control due to a rapid expansion of market activity.
However, considering some experts said the unification of Germany would have been a lot more difficult to achieve than that of the Koreas, you can see how difficult it is to predict history. After all, who could have predicted the timing of the collapse of the Soviet Union?
” I don’t think it is wise to try and estimate how many years North Korea will exist. Anything can happen at any moment”
Personally, I don’t think it is wise to try and estimate how many years North Korea will exist. Anything can happen at any moment.
Although the current regime is under UN sanctions for last year’s nuclear weapons and missile tests, it is still receiving economic aid from China – especially with the opening up of Rajin and Sonbong. Also, the DPRK continues to receive aid from South Korea through the Kaesong Industrial Complex. I therefore believe that as long as the outside world continues to provide it with aid, the regime will not collapse.
North Korea is like no other country in the world. It has 1 million soldiers out of a 25 million population. Most of the industrial facilities in North Korea are military factories, while the factories and businesses that could have improved the lives of the people have all shut down. Under these circumstances, the collapse of North Korea will be difficult: the regime will preserve total power unless there are major disagreements within the government itself, or a rebellion that sees the people overthrow the regime.
“The regime will preserve total power unless there are major disagreements within the government itself, or a rebellion that sees the people overthrow the regime”
In the case of Eastern Europe and Germany, it was the will of the people that led to regime change – not major disagreements within the various regimes. But things are different on the Korean peninsula: South Korea has always discussed unification on a political level and supplied North Korea with ample resources at leadership summits held during the 2000s. The Sunshine Policy is just one example of the aid North Korea received from the South, aid which allowed a crumbling regime to continue to stand. These days, China seems to provide much support to the North Korean regime. Therefore, unless the North Korean people and the voices of the world come together to fight, the regime will not likely to fall.
It is hard to answer this question. What kind of change do we mean? A major change in government as in Egypt or Iraq, with the leadership being brought down as a result of popular resistance – or changes similar to those in China, Russia or much of Eastern European? I don’t know what form of change will take place in North Korea, but I somehow hope the country won’t go the same way as China or Cuba.
Today it is clear that the North Korean system is not only being propped up by a crawling bureaucracy, but because – better than anybody else – the leaders in Pyongyang very well know the vulnerabilities of their system. However, the people have not come to realize this yet – and despite an urge to see their government reform, they don’t yet have the strength to oppose the system.
Jang Seong Thaek was the only person who would have been able to simultaneously push through reforms in North Korea while also unifying the regime’s bureaucracy. And now, while it’s said that there are still those in the government who would like to see the country reform, if they can’t unite with each other, they can’t show their great strength? This is a shameful point.
“Jang Seong Thaek was the only person who would have been able to simultaneously push through reforms in North Korea while also unifying the regime’s bureaucracy”
Recently I met a friend who crossed the border. That friend predicted after Jang Song Thaek’s execution, the bureaucracy under Kim Jong Un would become cautious and quiet. I’m now afraid this situation will continue for at least the next three years.
Well…there have been many people who tried to predict the future of North Korea and most of them were wrong. This proves that the regime’s iron fist is still strong and that the extent of brainwashing in North Korea is beyond anyone’s imagination. Reflecting on the current situation in North Korea I frankly believe that there may be some big changes within the next 5 to 10 years, although I would be delighted if the regime collapsed before that.
Let me go on to tell you why I came to think this way.
The current economic situation in North Korea is extremely bad. Things weren’t going so well in the days of Kim Jong Il, but the level of discontent among the people then was quite different. And importantly, the level of foreign influence was also very different. Two big issues will contribute towards change.
Issue number one: South Korean and foreign culture is currently all the rage in North Korea – so much that there are even now instructors that teach K-Pop dance moves in the DPRK. South Korean dramas and foreign music were popular when I was there in 2005, but at that time they were enjoyed in a culture of oppression and pressure. However, these days the younger generations pursue and lead the cultural wave. Younger people want foreign culture as they are dissatisfied with the current leader.
Issue number two: North Korea has always been concerned with the idolization of the Kim family, but the idolization the regime needs is reducing – and quickly. It was always said that North Korea could only become better with the Kims ruling the country, but the reality is that things became the exact opposite. While Kim Il Sung had grand credentials, Kim Jong Il ended up wrecking the economy, with many people starving to death under his rule. So when people today look at Kim Jong Un they no longer believe in the government’s propaganda. And following the execution of Jang Song Thaek and diplomatic conflicts with China, all they see is a brutal but inexperienced and half-baked leader.
I believe North Korea’s future will be decided by a power struggle between the reactionaries – intent on maintaining their vested interests – versus a growing but still insignificant progressive faction. It will be these reformists who will have legitimacy and the people’s support in their corner.
“I believe North Korea’s future will be decided by a power struggle between the reactionaries – intent on maintaining their vested interests – versus a growing but still insignificant progressive faction”
Given what I have explained, I believe that North Korea will undergo a great wave of change in the next five to ten years. The North Korean people are becoming more and more aware of their situation and the reformists are becoming more and more aware of this awareness. Together, they will be able to create change within North Korea.
On top of all the above, nuclear tests or limited provocations toward the South may be another factor that contributes to the regime’s fall. China’s close relations with South Korea and its estrangement with the North may also be a huge factor.
It will be essential for the fall of North Korea to occur, and I believe it won’t take long either.
It is premature to predict the collapse of the North Korean regime – because China continues to play a huge role in propping it up.
A principal reason why the North Korean regime survived so long was because of the socialist states that once existed and supported it. But although most socialist states have now collapsed, China still backs up North Korea.
This support is critical. When North Korea experienced the Great Famine – caused by natural disasters and isolation from the international community following the death of Kim Il Sung – the North Korean regime managed to survive thanks to the humanitarian aid offered from China. I wonder if the regime would have been able to survive at all if all that food and clothing aid had not come from China during the famine? As such, I believe that as long as China doesn’t give up on North Korea, the regime will continue to survive.
“As long as China doesn’t give up on North Korea, the regime will continue to survive”
Another important point to remember is that North Korea has been very successful at controlling the media, preventing outside information from entering that could defy the Kim family.
As you probably know, the North Korean people are subject to brainwashing to worship official ideology and they are only exposed to a manipulated media of their government. There’s an absence of an opposition party in North Korea and so the ruling party gets worshipped in every aspect by the media. The North Korean regime can therefore resist opening up to the outside world and keep blocking its people from taking any interest in politics. Together, I believe this is the main reason why the North Korean regime hasn’t collapsed yet.
Kim Jong Il was able to rule the country for 40 years from the 1970’s until 2011 due to the fact he was seen as a divine successor, the son of Kim Il Sung. However, Kim Jong Il lost the trust of ordinary people during his time in power. There were many assassination attempts (the Ryongchong bombing), a coup (the 6th Brigade Incident) and [to me it seemed that] approximately 70-80% of people were simply waiting for him to die.
Kim Jong Un therefore rose to power following strong public frustration with Kim Jong Il.
“I believe Kim Jong Un will be assassinated within the next three years due to a power struggle and this will lead to the collapse and end of North Korean regime”
To make things worse, Kim Jong Un is lacking a strong platform and is seen as a naive, young and inexperienced brat by the majority of people in North Korea. Things will be worse for him now that Jang Song Thaek has disappeared.
I therefore believe Kim Jong Un will be assassinated within the next three years due to a power struggle and this will lead to the collapse and end of North Korean regime.
When I left North Korea, it seemed that the Kim Jong Il regime was likely to collapse at any moment. But when I came to South Korea I learned about how it was able to survive so long. Nevertheless, after I witnessed the third stage of the Kim family succession I returned to thinking that the North Korean regime would collapse any-time soon.
Unlike his father, Kim Jong Un is naive and inexperienced. There’s no consistency in his policies – which is very obvious. His only goal of life is to retain his power as the Supreme Leader. He tries to create fear in order to suppress the top elites. While this strategy may seem successful at first, it won’t last long.
“It is my strong conviction that the Kim Jong Un regime won’t last long and it will collapse in the coming years”
Since Kim Jong Un is very young, he’s likely to purge many of the older, experienced government officials from the Kim Jong Il era, to replace them with younger officials. However, this could become a trap for him in the near future. Therefore it is my strong conviction that the Kim Jong Un regime won’t last long and it will collapse in the coming years.
It depends on what the international community and South Korea does.
While North Korean society has become quite corrupt, the elites are so firm that it is difficult to imagine the masses making any attempt to break the status quo. In other words, those who have power rule the masses by keeping them held under a reign of constant terror. And although they’re well aware of the corruption that’s become prevalent in North Korea, they do not make any effort to make a change. That is because they are the ones that benefit from this corrupt society – so in this environment North Korean society as we know it will continue to survive.
But the North Korean regime has a shaky, unstable future when the international community continually calls for the disarmament of its nuclear weapons while shedding lights on the ongoing humanitarian crisis.
“To answer the question, the future really depends on the efforts of international community”
As such, South Korea needs to work on more sophisticated diplomatic tactics in dealing with North Korea. And China needs to stay as distant from the North Korean regime as possible.
So to answer the question, the future really depends on the efforts of international community. If the international community accomplishes all of the above mentioned, the North Korean regime will collapse in 2-5 years.
Back in the 1980’s the basic idea of buying and selling was limited mainly to older women who went out to the market area. During the 1990’s there were a few smart people involved in the market, but their presence was not much welcomed by North Korean society. However, during the Arduous March (the economic crisis in North Korea from 1994 to 1998) people were forced to look for their own means of production. Today, it is clear that commerce has become the principal income for smart people. This means that more than ever before, North Koreans are prioritizing their own wealth over national duty.
Why is this happening? The reason is simple; the market economy rewards people according to the amount of the effort they put in. This tells us that North Korean government’s socially planned economy is already on thin ice, and already many things are rapidly changing in North.
Below are the four chronological steps I can see that show how North Korea’s economic system has changed over the years. This is important, because of the increasing rapidity of changes we can observe:
- 1953-1983: For 30 years, North Korea wasted most of its national resources, which were once abundant
- 1983-1993: It took ten years for North Korean society to feel a need for working harder than competitors to get a better outcome
- 1993-1998: During this five year period, people started to learn the importance and necessity of free markets in their life
- 1998-1999: In less than a year, North Koreans started to use the means of production to produce more than the others
As you can see, it took almost 46 years for North Korean society to progress from a socialist economy to a market economy. But we can see through this sequence of change that things are developing faster and faster than before. If North took more than 40 years to come this far, it is sure that further changes will happen far more rapidly.
If North took more than 40 years to come this far, it is sure that further changes will happen far more rapidly
From 2000 onwards – and starting at the center of Pyongyang – North Korea’s markets started to compete with one another, aiming to develop better capabilities. We can say that since that time, North Korean society took its first steps in understanding the concept of commercial competition.
There are now three different types of merchants in North Korea:
- Those with connection to foreign nations are the most competitive merchants.
- Merchants who have connections with North Korean border cities (Hyesan, Musan, Sinuiju) are the second most competitive.
- Last are merchants who have access to North’s national trading companies.
These different classes of merchants emerged from 2000 to 2003. Their existence shows that North Korea’s society is no longer based on a socialist economy, but on the foreign countries the merchants have access to. Back in 2003, there were so many different types of products it was hard to tell if I was in North Korea or a free market country. North Koreans were astonished at the changes. A common phrase during that time was “Except for a kitty’s horn, the markets have got everything!”
Importantly, this wind of change was not only limited to North Korea’s economic system, but it also blew in cultural terms.
Widespread use of text messages among North Korean youth is creating and spreading new culture. South Korea’s propaganda broadcasting and TV soap operas were good enough to agitate North Koreans and make them favor – and even believe in a capitalist way of life.
If it took about 40 years for North Koreans to learn why a free market was necessary, it only took ten years for them to admire and even believe in a capitalist way of life. But there is a slight problem, North Koreans think these new changes are related to an improved form of socialism. That is precisely why Kim Jong Un’s regime can continue to survive so long.
“Although North Koreans may not yet understand the full concept of capitalism, they know how it works according to their daily way of life. And most of all, they know that Kim Jong Un is the ultimate obstacle to a true free market”
But North Koreans are starting to think differently about socialism these days and there are a few who even say that the country should publicly reform its economic system.
Although North Koreans may not yet understand the full concept of capitalism, they know how it works according to their daily way of life. And most of all, they know that Kim Jong Un is the ultimate obstacle to a true free market.
My assumption is that in next five years, people will start to feel the need to change their government, and three years after that, Kim Jong Un’s regime will collapse. North Korean society is changing towards a free market economy and many are already living that way of life. So as far as the new leader does not oppresses the market economy, it won’t really matter who becomes the leader after the fall of Kim Jong Un.
NK News would like to thank Seung-hee Nah, Eunkyoung Kwon, Elizabeth Jae, JH Ahn, Ye Seul Byeon and Catherine Salkeld for their assistance in producing this series.