Nowadays, the majority agree that unification by absorption (admittedly, the only realistic scenario for Korean unification) is likely to deal a massive blow to the South Korean economy. It will also have serious social consequences for both Korean societies. This is the actual reason why many do not wish to talk about unification-by-absorption. This is also why those few who dare to talk about the need to consider such an eventuality are frequently accused of “courting disaster,” especially in South Korea.
Alas, what the Dutch describe as the “ostrich policy” is triumphant. It has become quite politically incorrect to seriously discuss the possible consequences and policy options should such cataclysmic events unfold. In South Korea, the fear of an honest discussion is almost irrational. In this regard, maybe it is worthwhile recalling that hunter-gathers often considered the names of the larger predators taboo: It was feared that calling tigers and bears by their real names could bring on a sudden attack.
With all due respect to our ancient ancestors, one would still presume that we live in a somewhat more rational world, where people should understand that, named or not, some problems might happen and it is better to be prepared for a probable contingency. After all, nobody accuses insurance companies and their clients of tempting fires, plane crashes and freak weather events.
Sadly, when it comes to Korea’s future individuals, including seemingly powerful individuals, have very little if any way to control or influence future developments. We (or rather, decision-makers at the helms of their respective states) can do something to make future events less painful, but they can hardly control or seriously influence the future of North Korea.
REFORM WITHOUT OPENING
Right now, the North Korean government has seemingly begun a policy of cautious economic reform, which one smart and successful North Korean businesswoman recently described to the present author as “reform without opening.” The strategic goal of Kim Jong Un seems to be clear: He wants to create a North Korean version of a “developmental dictatorship” in which the de facto private economy will be carefully controlled and, if necessary, directly managed by the state while the politics will remain almost unchanged (ideally for a generation or two). Whether he will succeed in such an endeavor remains an open question.
Unlike party secretaries and the secret police colonels in the former Communist Bloc, the North Korean elite have no escape option
On the one hand, there certainly are those inside and outside North Korea who want him to succeed. Among other things, Kim Jong Un, above all, domestically enjoys support of the current political elite. Unlike party secretaries and the secret police colonels in the former Communist Bloc, the North Korean elite have no escape option: Since regime collapse is likely to bring about unification, they cannot just discard the old ideology and retain control over the society, like their Soviet or Romanian peers did. So, naturally enough, they want the current government to stay in power because under any other possible government they would lose out.
The new nascent business elite, as Peter Ward has argued, also has an interest in maintaining the existing system, because it guarantees them social peace (a must for entrepreneurial activity) as well as preferred access to North Korea’s resources and fledgling consumer market. A successful black market trader potentially has a lot to lose (relatively, at least) should South Korean companies be let into the northern half of the Korean Peninsula. So, both the old elite party apparatchiks and the new elite of the smugglers and business owners would much prefer a “developmental dictatorship,” Kim Jong Un-style, to any other political arrangement, including unification.
Another factor that might help Kim Jong Un succeed is the near absence of outside pressure. None of North Korea’s neighbors or major great powers (with the possible exception of the United States), want the North Korean government to collapse. The outsiders are afraid of instability in the area, close to their borders and/or major centers of industry and commerce. Thus, in spite of their dislike of the Kim dynasty and its nuclear brinksmanship, the foreign governments tend to prefer the devil they know and, for better or worse, do not seek to encourage regime change in North Korea.
However, nobody can be sure that unusually high levels of elite cohesion and the general indifference of the outside world will necessarily suffice to keep Kim Jong Un in power. There are serious factors that work against long-term regime viability.
In a sense, the North Korean leadership is unlucky: They run a government that is reliant upon isolation in an age when access to information is easy – and getting easier every year. Gone are the days of samizdat, when heavy paper books had to be clandestinely moved across well-guarded borders. Now, we live in the days of digital media. Smuggled materials, largely TV shows from South Korea and other neighboring countries have already demonstrated to North Koreans that their country is not a paradise of prosperity envied across the world, but rather, a poor country with little freedom.
THE LURE OF REFORM
Even though party and security officials, as well as a significant majority of the new wealthy, have a lot to lose if the system falls apart, this is not the case with the vast majority of common North Koreans. As we have discussed before, unification – or, rather, its short- and medium-term consequences – will be a huge psychological shock them, but at the current time, the seduction of Seoul’s shining lights might prove irresistible to the common folks in North Korea.
Even the lower reaches of the North Korean elite might not share the fears of top officials and richer smugglers. Again, their expectations may soon be dashed, but this does not make such beliefs less powerful.
In other words, the North Korean government is walking a tight rope above flames. Attempts to reform the system will probably result in growth, but also make collapse more likely.
The bad news for us … is that a North Korean collapse is liable to come out of the blue with little or no warning
As mentioned above, outside forces can do little to control such developments. Theoretically, a massive propaganda campaign might change the situation and increase the probability of North Korean collapse (whether this is a good idea under current circumstances is an entirely different matter). However, there is little chance that interested parties would put such a campaign into effect – they prefer the devil they know, as we have said.
The bad news for us, the interested observers, is that a North Korean collapse is liable to come out of the blue with little or no warning. World history has shown us that revolutions have an unpleasant habit of happening suddenly. Even though it was usually understood that a particular regime might be vulnerable to revolutionary elements, the exact timing of the final cataclysm was impossible to predict. Revolution in the Russian empire appeared probable since the early days of the 20th century, but as late as January 1917, no less than Vladimir Lenin was prepared to go on record saying that revolution in Russia would possibly take decades to happen.
The same is applicable to North Korea. First, one should not forget that Kim Jong Un has some slim but real chance of surviving and succeeding in his endeavors. Second, if he and his government are doomed, endgame will be unpredictable.
Thus, going back to issues of preparation, maybe the best way to describe this situation is to compare North Korea’s geopolitical neighborhood to a large city where disastrous earthquakes are known to be possible. In such a city, all responsible authorities should remember that another quake is likely, so all necessary preparations have to be made and all necessary plans have to be drafted and systematically kept up to date. By planning for an earthquake, San Francisco’s government does not court disaster, it ensures it is as ready as it can be for one.
It would be a mistake, however, to assume that an earthquake will definitely happen. Even if it does, its timing remains unpredictable. One cannot possibly build houses in the Bay Area on the assumption that the San Andreas fault will destroy them in 11 years from now and thus certain elements of urban planning can just be ignored.
This seems like a good way to look at the issue. We should, on the one hand, assume that the North Korean government could be around for a long time, whether we like it or not. On the other hand, we must be mindful of the possibility of a geopolitical earthquake on the Korean Peninsula, being prepared and careful to mistake such preparations for measures that seriously increase the probability of such a cataclysm.
Nowadays, the majority agree that unification by absorption (admittedly, the only realistic scenario for Korean unification) is likely to deal a massive blow to the South Korean economy. It will also have serious social consequences for both Korean societies. This is the actual reason why many do not wish to talk about unification-by-absorption. This is also why those few who dare to talk about
Andrei Lankov is a Director at NK News and writes exclusively for the site as one of the world's leading authorities on North Korea. A graduate of Leningrad State University, he attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University from 1984-5 - an experience you can read about here. In addition to his writing, he is also a Professor at Kookmin University.