16.10.2013 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Should we expect a collapse of North Korea?

xin_522060616063759347608Having started the “Arab Spring” and having destabilized the situation in most countries in the Middle East after it, the “strategists” in Washington have recently turned their attention to North Korea. In autumn of 2013, we witnessed a wave of prophecies in the form of the document prepared by the RAND Corporation under the characteristic title “Preparing for the collapse of North Korea”. The experts of this American organization say that “North Korea is an unstable state. The power regime may collapse suddenly in the coming months or years, which will result in a humanitarian disaster or other more serious consequences”.

Much of the discussion of the report was devoted to the proposal of the Americans to agree with China in advance on the joint actions of Beijing and Washington in the event of the collapse of the North Korean regime (Read: if anything happens, to prevent North Korea from definitely getting into the sphere of influence of Beijing, and to enable America to get some benefit from the changed situation).

The “imminent and inevitable collapse” has been predicted for North Korea long before. For example, in 1994, when Kim Il Sung died, 90% of Western experts were convinced that the “incompetent playboy” Kim Jong-il would ruin the country, and Korea would be united less than in three years. Similar predictions were made against the background of the natural disasters in 1995-1997, a new upsurge of the nuclear crisis, the “Arab Spring” in the Middle East and the death of Kim Jong-il.

In my opinion, the report of “RAND” is a kind of attempt to sell the bear’s skin before one has caught the bear, prompted by the non-obvious premise that the “bear” is about to die. Is this true? How much is the situation in North Korea such that it makes sense for analysts from other countries to prepare materials on the subject quickly and urgently.

An internal collapse or a change of the regime can happen there because of three main reasons: either the country will be overtaken by new disasters which will result in a sharp decline in living standards, or there will be an analogue of the “Arab Spring” (massive demonstrations of the people that sweep away an illegitimate authority) in the country, or Kim Jong-un will lose his power as a result of a palace coup or a lost war, when the tyrannical regime attacks South Korea and suffers a logical defeat. 

Let us start with the first. Of course, nature cannot be forced, but if we take an impartial look at the state of the North Korean economy, we will see that the country is gradually getting out of the pit into which it was plunged by the disaster of 1995-1997. It is true that the lack of food self-sufficiency remains a problem, but we should keep in mind that the food problem is the result of the energy crisis, and the number of tons of grain and other food necessary to close the gap are gradually decreasing. Moreover, the economy is focused on overcoming a possible recurrence of such disasters, and although the floods of 2012 and this year were quite devastating, and Western experts once again talked about the fact that the country was on the verge of starvation, in general, North Korea coped with the situation by itself. 

We have discussed the probability of an armed conflict of the North and the South many times. So, I do not want to tell the same things over and over again – against the background of the spring flare-up of inter-Korean relations in 2013, I have repeatedly said and written about the fact that the initiation of a conflict is suicidal for Pyongyang under the current balance of power and the general political situation, and the outcome of the war will not be changed even with the use of nuclear weapons by North Korea.

The most commonly considered version of the collapse of North Korea is the version of the “Korean Spring”. We may recall how much it was expected in the West and in Republic of Korea when the Middle East was on fire. It was expected so much that South Korean newspaper, the Chosun Ilbo turned an ordinary skirmish in a market in the border town of Sinuiju into a “massive conflict between authorities and the people that lasted one week”. Unfortunately, this option is not possible due to a range of reasons.

Ironically, the first factor preventing the development of events in North Korea on the Libyan model is the demographic one. The driving force of the revolutions in the Arab East was unemployed youth, which makes up to 40% of the total population of the country in Libya. These are people who, on the one hand, have a lot of free time and, on the other hand, their age and attitude raise protest moods.

The demographic structure of North Korea is quite different. The youth of this country is “busier”, fitted into the “system”. It makes up a smaller part of the population and, therefore, it is “busier”. The long military service, the constant use of the youth in subbotniks (voluntary unpaid work) do not contribute to the availability of free time, which is an important prerequisite for a “fat rebellion”.

The second factor relates to the “prerequisites for a revolutionary situation”. According to A. de Tocqueville, people start to rebel not when their lives are very bad, but when they think their current situation to be worse than is possible; and when they believe that they could have a better life, but the authorities do nothing to achieve this or prevent them from achieving it. So let us analyse the image of the future and the ideas in the environment in the Arab East and in North Korea.

Egyptian and Libyan youth had fairly high living standards and quite clear ideas about life abroad. In other words, they had the opportunity to compare their lives with life abroad. In addition, the active use of the Internet and the freedom of communication there pander to the desire to extend these rules onto life outside the Net. The Internet also contributes to the creation of horizontal links, which cannot be prohibited or eliminated by the state power. In addition, during a revolution itself, the Internet is used for the rapid exchange of information and coordination of activities.

In this sense, even South Korean experts have to note that the “Twitter Revolution” in the form in which it happened in the Middle East is not possible in North Korea – if only because there is no Internet there.

However, it is not just the fact that the protests of the Arab type require that every home has access to the World Wide Web. The population of North Korea, despite the harsh conditions and the changed attitude to the authorities, does not see the government at the main reason for their troubles. They primarily blame natural disasters or the changed international situation, which, in fact, was the cause of the fundamental energy crisis that lay at the root of the recent troubles in North Korea.

Moreover, it is people who are aware of the situation outside the country who understand that democratic reforms will cause the union with the South, where the North Koreans will be second-class citizens.

We know about an extensive network of brokers who are engaged in smuggling people out of North Korea to the Republic of Korea. However, we should remember that this channel allows for a two-way exchange of information, and a significant number of North Koreans learn not only about the material well-being in the South, but also about the social and psychological problems that defectors from the North face. “New North Koreans” do not want to be second-class South Koreans at all, because the more they learn about the world, the more they realize that nobody is expecting them in the South, and, all the more, nobody is expecting them as equals.

The third factor is related to the driving forces of the revolution. In order to organize acts more serious than spontaneous protests, it is necessary to have certain infrastructure, or at least a layer of people who can become such infrastructure in a critical situation.

As we know from the experience in the Middle East, this is not necessarily a democratic opposition. It can be religious as well. However, there is no such a layer in North Korea. There is no such numerous and well-organized movement as Libyan Islamists or Egyptian “Muslim Brothers”, whose adherents formed the bulk of the anti-government forces. We must remember that this movement is widespread, it has international forces and means that can create an infrastructure of assistance and support in case of certain events, and even initiate these events, and also it has a certain reputation. In addition, its ideas are quite simple and fit well the psychology of the unsophisticated crowd.

In North Korea, there is no ideology that would satisfy this requirement and which could serve as a medium for mass actions. The fantasies of Seoul propagandists on the popularity of the “Catacomb Church” remain to be just fantasies. There is a certain number of secret Protestants in the country, but even if you take the information coming from biased Protestant sources, the secret church in the north is exposed to persecution and does not try to do anything more than to suffer pathetically. We do not know of attempts to “hang crosses or Christmas slogans” even from the words of the “Voice of Martyrs”.

North Korea does not have even a dissident movement of the Soviet type – so numerous that its representatives could influence the society outside their social group. In North Korea, that part of the “intellectual sub-elite”, which was the main source of personnel for the Soviet dissident movement, is either a part of the bureaucratic establishment, working in the defence industry and being under strict control, or is concerned with their own survival. All the more, these “dissidents” have no opportunity to utter their point of view officially, which dissidents had in the Soviet Union in the time of Gorbachev. Therefore, even Madeleine Albright concluded in her memoirs that the North Koreans “are so concerned with primary survival that they couldn’t care less about the correctness of the current order, which they believe they cannot change anyway”.

The supposed opposition has no leaders either. None of those defectors who tried to present themselves as an analogue of Eastern European dissidents had such a propaganda effect on the international community (not to mention the minds inside the country) as Sakharov or Solzhenitsyn had. The absence of alternative centres of power have been noted not only by Western experts, but also by Russian-speaking authors, according to which the criticism and nagging are directed to individual officials rather than the Kim family and the whole system, resembling the “kitchen debate” in the Soviet Union of the 1960s.

The fourth factor involves a certain range of problems that have accumulated within the ruling elite that have not had any serious challenges for a long time, and that exist on inertia to a large extent. Revolution is not only the “lower classes cannot”, but also the “leaders do not want”, and the “Arab Spring” has shown the reluctance of the authorities to take really tough measures, as well as a numerous layers of security officials who defected to the opposition.

In this sense, North Korea, of course, is not a perfect command-administrative system. The level of corruption is quite high there and this is related to the “parallel economy”. However, in North Korea “the corruption of power” is acceptable only up to a certain limit dictated by the external pressure, or rather by an external threat. As the confrontation is rather real, and not just the current treatment of the population and in the imagination of the ideologues, there is a certain level of readiness and efficiency of the administrative system, which may not be sunk below.

The specific status of Korea as a divided country also creates a significant endemic of the situation, as in the South Korean point of view, North Korea is still its territory, temporarily torn away by the rebels. The government has kept and keeps special auxiliary staff of officials (the so-called Office of the Five Provinces), which, in case of force majeure in North Korea, will have to take positions starting from governors of provinces of North Korea and below, and this fact significantly changes the situation for potential traitors. According to Russian expert A. Lankov, “It is clear for an Egyptian midlevel bureaucrat or, for example, an army major: with or without Mubarak, with Islamists or the Democrats – that he will stay in his department or will command his battalion. Their North Korean colleagues are sure of this a lot less. In the event of a crisis, they can lose everything (perhaps, even their lives) – and they are well aware of this fact.

In other words, those members of the North Korean bureaucratic establishment, which could otherwise think of leading a wave of protest, becoming the new leaders of the country and getting the power from the West in exchange for a more democratic politics, understand that they will be replaced with Southern managers in a democratic Korea, and that they will be lustrated according to the National Security Law.

In talks with South Korean experts, I often joke that the most effective step to stir up the anti-regime activity among North Korean bureaucratic establishment would be the abolition of the National Security Law and the dissolution of Office of the Five Provinces. After that, the potential “revolutionaries” in North Korea will at least hope that the Republic of Korea will cease to regard them as members of an “anti-state organization” to be replaced and lustrated subsequently, regardless of what they did in their positions. In the meantime, there are no preconditions in North Korea for the emergence of a large-scale fifth column today: it does not make sense to take power, and then to barter with the South for some privileges after unification, because all profitable positions will be occupied by reliable South Korean officials.

The “new businessmen” also see their non-competitiveness compared to the Southerners: the more a person knows about South Korea, the more he realizes not only how well they live there, but also the fact that there is no place for him in that paradise.

Finally, there is a foreign-policy factor. Those regimes, where the anti-government actions were given a chance to develop into something more, were, like Egypt or Tunisia, oriented to the West that refused to support them, or like Libya or Yemen, were “nobody’s friends”, i.e. independent states that are one step from the status of “rogue nations”, but who did not have an external cover. Meanwhile, in Bahrain, the anti-government forces were quickly suppressed and did not cause particular stir in the global community, despite the comparable levels of toughness and the participation of troops from Saudi Arabia, and Syria is “holding” largely due to the position of Russia and China.

In this sense, North Korea has a cover represented by China and Russia, which will at least prevent attempts at pouring oil on the fire from the outside. China, of course, will be more active in this sense, but the statements like “this is an internal affair of the country, no one should interfere” will be naturally expected even from the Kremlin.

The reasons for this are also very clear. Any destabilization of the situation in the North has a negative effect on Chinese and Russian interests even if from the point of view of the geopolitics. I have discussed the details of this several times in other materials, so I will not dwell on them.

In brief, it is clear that North Korea is not very stable today. However, this construction still cannot collapse on its own without force majeure, no matter how unpleasant it is to its hostile opponents.

The probability of a “Middle East Scenario” in North Korea is small – a “counter-culture” has had no opportunity to emerge, the protest movement has no opportunity for self-organizing, there is an understanding of the fact that the union will not improve the situation. Even if any protests start there for some reason, there will be other driving forces behind them, and they will be acting on a different scenario.

Of course, North Korea’s neighbours must be prepared for any turn of events, and in this sense, the instructions on “What to do if the North Korean regime collapses suddenly” are no less important than similar development devoted, for example, to an attack on Japan by a gigantic reptilian monster. The main thing is to look at the root and to understand how great the probability of an event is, without succumbing to the alarmist tone of partisan experts. Remind yourself that in such case, North Korea would have disappeared from the world map 20 years ago.

Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, senior research fellow at the Centre for Korean Studies, Institute of the Far East of RAS, exclusively for the online magazine New Eastern Outlook.


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