Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own and do not represent the views of NK News.
As we enter the new year, there is, presumably, yet another “dramatic” episode of the seemingly endless North Korean nuclear and missile soap opera just around the corner. However, there is good reason to believe that the coming confrontation will fail to result in anything much, no matter how noisy the rhetoric becomes.
It’s highly likely that the UN Security Council sanctions will remain in place for the foreseeable future, in spite of all of North Korea’s efforts to have them removed.
This will probably be welcomed by a significant number of American decision-makers. They tend to believe that the consistent implementation of a tough sanctions regime will eventually push North Korea towards making what in Washington is seen as the “right decision” — that is, the decision to abandon its nuclear and missile program.
Unfortunately (not only for the U.S. but perhaps also for the majority of earthlings) this assumption is wrong.
Economic sanctions are usually designed with political goals in mind. It’s often implied that they will make daily life uncomfortable for either the sanctioned country’s elite or the general population (or both).
Then, in some cases, the disgruntled elite seriously considers a change of their political line or, perhaps, even the replacement — by force, if necessary — of the particular leadership whose policy brought the sanctions on in the first place.
Alternatively, the external economic pressure could provoke some riots, rallies or other expressions of discontent from the common populace that develop into a full-scale revolution. The government would bow to the mounting domestic pressure and make the necessary political concessions. Or they could be overthrown.
However, such models are not going to work in North Korea.
In a nutshell, North Korea has two peculiar features which distinguish it from the majority of other countries that have found themselves under international sanctions: firstly, the North Korean elite is remarkably united, and secondly, the North Korean people are under strict control and deprived of any kind of independent organization.
Let’s begin with the remarkably high level of unity among the elite. This unity is not driven by any kind of “irrational” adoration of the Leader or an exceptional commitment to some ideology.
If anything, North Korean decision-makers are hard-nosed pragmatists who are remarkably immune to any kind of ideology, with the sole possible exception of North Korean (not pan-Korean!) state-centered nationalism.
Their commitment to the existent system is driven by purely pragmatic and, unfortunately, highly rational considerations. These people understand that any kind of disturbance in their country would probably lead not only to the change of a particular political regime, but also to the absorption of North Korea by their far richer and more powerful Southern neighbor.
In essence, the North Korean elite understand they are in a situation that was quite common centuries ago but is quite rare nowadays: that they are under threat of being conquered and absorbed by a powerful neighbor.
Actually, to make things worse, in medieval times the victorious conquerors nearly always wanted to cooperate with the elite of their new territory. Even if the king and his court were slaughtered, imprisoned, or driven into exile, most of the nobles would retain their property (well, part of it) and a significant part of their power. This was why barons did not necessarily fight for a doomed king until the bitter end.
This is not the case with North Korea, where the political elite expect that a regime collapse would result in their wholesale replacement with Southerners.
This unique situation means that the North Korean elite see themselves as riders of the same small boat in a stormy sea. They are not going to start fighting internally because there are high chances that this would result in the boat being capsized, with all its passengers, including both the winners and losers of such a fight, drowning.
North Korean decision-makers are hard-nosed pragmatists who are remarkably immune to any kind of ideology
Now to the high level of and seemingly highly efficient domestic political control over the North Korean populace.
From the 1960s, the level of daily surveillance in North Korea was seen as verging on bizarre even by diplomats from the Soviet Union — a country not known for its commitment to democratic values and political freedoms.
Indeed, since the late 1950s, the North Korean authorities have been exceptionally harsh on dissenters.
While the total amount of bloodshed was probably modest if compared with such extreme cases as, say, Pol Pot’s Kampuchea, this pervasive surveillance has existed for an exceptionally long period, essentially spanning a lifetime or three generations.
Throughout this time, the average North Korean had virtually no chance to express any kind of political opinion– unless this opinion completely and unconditionally coincided with what was said recently in the official media.
Unlike the Soviet Union, let alone other Eastern European countries, North Korea has also never tolerated any kind of ostensibly non-political, semi-spontaneous self-organization. Attitudes to the expression of political discontent in private were equally harsh.
This is very different with, say, Moscow or Warsaw, where from the 1960s a significant number of intellectuals were in thinly veiled opposition to the government almost by default, and never tried to hide their actual attitude to Pravda editorials when speaking amongst themselves.
The North Korean government has been remarkably persistent in its attempts to prevent the populace from forming any kind of unofficial horizontal connections as well.
Essentially, the two pillars of North Korean domestic policy are to maintain the country’s isolation from the outside world as much as possible, and to keep North Koreans fearful and suspicious about the formation of connections amongst themselves, unless these connections are organized and supervised by the authorities.
There is one exception to this rule: the emergence of the private economy, which would have been impossible without consistent coordination between its major actors.
However, these commercial networks, now tacitly tolerated by the government, are essentially non-political. As Brian Myers once noted, from around 2000 the North Korean government began to accept its citizens’ freedom to make money, but this remains, essentially, the only type of individual freedom that is seen as acceptable.
Things are presumably made worse by recent advancements in technology. Thanks to Chinese efforts, surveillance technology in recent years has developed in leaps and bounds. Facial recognition software as well as CCTV cameras are increasingly available at low prices.
It’s also possible and indeed likely that the Chinese government, which cares a lot about the status quo in North Korea, will provide the North Korean authorities with highly advanced Chinese surveillance systems. If this happens, the already very low chances of spontaneous discontent in North Korea will decrease even more.
All this means that even if the international sanctions “succeed” in bringing a massive economic disaster — like, say, another famine — average North Koreans would likely remain too disorganized and too fearful of the authorities to show any sign of resistance or discontent.
In other words, it is highly probable that they will do what they, or rather, their elder siblings and parents did in the late 1990s: die quietly in the privacy of their homes without creating any problems for those in power.
The North Korean elite see themselves as riders of the same small boat in a stormy sea
This does not mean that North Korean decision-makers are not interested in the UN-imposed sanctions being lifted. Being a non-democratic state run by the hereditary elite, North Korea has both the ability and the need for long term planning.
They also most likely understand that, while they’re probably safe in the short run, they need to think about the future, around let’s say the 2040s and 2050s. To get there while remaining in power they need economic growth, and the removal of sanctions is a necessary precondition for this.
However, Pyongyang is not under great pressure to have the sanctions removed immediately. It can survive under sanctions for five or ten years and suffer little political damage.
One should therefore not entertain unrealistic expectations about how much ground North Korean negotiators are willing to give up under pressure.
They’re not happy about the sanctions and would like to have them removed, but it is not a life or death matter for them. Both the elite and the common people are neutralized by fear, even though the elites’ fear is very different in nature from that of the average North Korean.
Edited by James Fretwell
Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own and do not represent the views of NK News.As we enter the new year, there is, presumably, yet another "dramatic" episode of the seemingly endless North Korean nuclear and missile soap opera just around the corner. However, there is good reason to believe that the coming confrontation will fail to result in anything much, no
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.