North Korea stands apart from the rest of East Asia. In a region known for robust economic growth, integration, and long-term planning, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)—North Korea’s formal name—is the only country in East Asia that is poor, isolated, and appears to have little grasp for thinking in terms of the longue durée. North Korea’s leadership is focused exclusively on the tactical challenges of short-term regime survival. In this way, the Pyongyang elite constitute a throwback to the most morbid tyrannies of antiquity, akin to the fantastic descriptions of ceremonial politics and intrigues that we find in the annals of the Old Testament, Herodotus, and Gibbon.
Contrast this with the rest of the region. In the past fifty years, Northeast Asia has risen from a backwater devastated by war to become the economic, political, and military center of the early twenty-first century. Its dominant powers—China, Japan, South Korea, and, because of its presence and interests in the area, the United States—lead the world in economic growth, technological innovation, and military strength. But they are all quietly thinking about North Korea’s longue durée. They all recognize that North Korea could collapse, and are maneuvering themselves to prepare for such a contingency. Yet they are also aware that Pyongyang could survive its current challenges but evolve into something new and different, and each of these countries has an idea of what it would prefer North Korea to become. The stage is set, therefore, for some of the twenty-first century’s great powers to compete, cooperate, or potentially enter into conflict over this, one of the last vestiges of the Cold War.
Whatever the future may hold for the DPRK, the present is certainly weird and horrific. Recently, at the first conclave of the Korean Workers’ Party since 1980—when the current ruler, Kim Jong-il, was introduced to the world—Kim’s son, Kim Jong-un, the next in line to lead the hermetic regime, was similarly unveiled. Kim Jong-un, in his mid- or late-twenties, was made a four-star general, though he has no military experience. Hailed as the “brilliant comrade” by the regime’s propaganda machine, Kim Jong-un was also appointed vice chairman of the Workers’ Party Central Military Commission. He is rumored to have undergone plastic surgery, in order to more closely resemble his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, who founded the North Korean state in 1948 and continues in death to hold the title of president.
North Korea’s entire raison d’etre is now the preservation of the Paektusan bloodline, a reference to the sacred volcanic mountain where Kim Jong-il was supposedly born. (In reality, he was born in the Soviet Union.) Because the twenty-something Kim Jong-un is obviously inexperienced and lacks a military and party network to support his claims to power, regents have been appointed. Kim Jong-il’s sister, Kim Kyonghui, has also been named a four-star general, raising her to the status of Imperial Aunt. Her husband, Jang Song-taek, has been promoted to vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, which controls the military and other domestic security forces. Generational cohorts in the military have been promoted, in order to keep the armed forces content with the regime, even as other officers and civilians—presumably malcontents—have disappeared in purges thinly disguised as mysterious car accidents.
As brutal and opaque as regime politics in North Korea may be today, comparisons with purge-ridden Eastern European Communist systems in the late 1940s and early 1950s prior to de-Stalinization don’t quite capture the unreal ambience of the DPRK. The Kim family regime is actually more evocative of early- and mid-twentieth-century Japanese militarism with its focus on ethnic purity and the centrality of the state and military power, as well as of Romanian Communism in the 1970s and 1980s under Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, whose very promotion of Romanian peasant culture and emphasis on the ruling family also contained fascistic elements. Because one cannot overestimate the salience of human intrigue, greed, loyalty, and passion that play out behind closed doors of such secretive environments, regime politics in Pyongyang are more than Herodotean; they are, in fact, deeply Shakespearean.
The arabesques of dynastic politics aside, North Korea is in shambles. It has little economy or infrastructure to speak of, and too many of its people are rumored to be surviving on little more than grass. Pyongyang understands this very well and knows that its economic policies are at the heart of the country’s weakness and poverty, yet has not made any move to reverse its fortunes. The elite around the Kim family have simply made the calculation that economic liberalization would bring downstream changes that would so threaten the regime’s legitimacy that they are off the table.
So far, expectations that extreme poverty would translate into regime instability have underestimated the government’s resourcefulness and endurance. Throughout the 1990s, the North Korean regime was under a “prolonged death watch” due to the loss of its principal patron, the Soviet Union, in 1991 and the death of its founder, Kim Il-sung, in 1994. With the loss of cheap fuel oil from the USSR, the economy collapsed. Outside experts calculate that as many as one million people (out of a total population of twenty-two million) died in the subsequent famine. Yet the regime proved resilient. Kim Jong-il consolidated power before and after his father’s death and cannily manipulated the Chinese, the Americans, and the South Koreans into subsidizing him throughout the decade.
Given its resilient history, it is highly possible that the Kim family regime could maintain control over North Korea for the next twenty years, if not longer. The regime has allowed for a moderately better lifestyle for the common people, and there are reportedly a greater degree of consumer goods available at local markets. Asked if the recent uprisings seen in the Middle East could spread to North Korea, a non-American expert on North Korea said, “It would be more likely for uprisings in the Middle East to spread to the next galaxy than that they would spread to North Korea.”
Nevertheless, the Kim family regime today faces challenges that are, in a way, more vexing than those they faced in the 1990s. While living standards remain moribund, for instance, the government’s information monopoly has been “substantially weakened,” says a media expert on North Korea. In addition to 24/7 broadcasts of Voice of America and Radio Free Asia in the Korean language, there is Free North Korea radio and other subversive stations and journalistic stringer networks operated by NGOs. Armed with easy-to-hide pinhole cameras and flash drives, North Korean freelancers are smuggling videos, photographs, and written information about daily life out of the country via the Chinese border. There are hundreds of thousands of mobile phone users now in the country, along with black-market DVDs (pornography and South Korean soap operas, which reveal a great deal about living standards in the outside world, also circulate widely in North Korea). The possession of short-wave radios has skyrocketed, while punishment for having them has lessened. It was an NGO-operated radio station that broke the story of the recently botched currency reform, which by destroying people’s life savings, also destroyed a nascent semi-private class and stoked rare public protests.
With these new parallel information sources, North Korea could be in a “late regime phase,” similar to some governments in Eastern Europe in the last part of the Cold War, according to one expert. Another famine could signal the death knell for the regime, since unlike during the famine in the mid-1990s, this time the population is much better connected and aware of the outside world.
The famine and drought in the mid-1990s precipitated rampant deforestation, land erosion, air pollution, and the contamination of water supplies, which all still negatively affect the DPRK today. The country’s mountainous topography makes its farmers dependent on fertilizers, which has led to the acidification of arable land, resulting in lower crop yields that could otherwise help to feed a starving population. Since the country relies on coal as the main source of energy, the air quality in North Korea, particularly in cities such as Pyongyang and Ch’ongjin, is toxic. Although North Korea has a wealth of water resources, such as rivers and underground aquifers, contamination and water-borne diseases are still rampant; during the drought and famine in the mid-1990s, they were responsible for annual deaths ranging from 300,000 to 800,000 people.
The degree to which North Korea is a brittle polity waiting to disintegrate is brought out poignantly in Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. In the process of chronicling the daily existences of a half dozen ordinary North Koreans who defected, the author depicts a land of typhoid with no running water, of pellagra and wasting due to malnutrition, of kindergartens where the children slowly die off because of starvation, and where sanitation involves every twelve families sharing an outhouse. She describes a hospital system where there is no heat, where anesthesia is in short supply, where the equipment is obsolete, and beer bottles are used for intravenous solutions. North Korea in Demick’s dissection is a place where “everybody needed a scam to survive.” Hence, hatred of the regime (at least among those who later defected) is so great that the regime could not endure for long without total repression.
Given what Demick calls the “ever-deepening brutalization” of daily life since the famine, combined with the increasing awareness that North Koreans have of the outside world and the desperation behind this latest leadership transition, the survival of the regime simply cannot be taken for granted. For in such a secretive and paranoid system, Kim Jong-il’s own sudden illness and impending death, which has necessitated rushing his son to power, may eventually undermine the regime.
The tremendous human and strategic consequences of a North Korean collapse are significant enough to force the other dominant powers of Northeast Asia to consider the possibility, despite the current regime’s long record of tenacious resiliency.
We have seen states collapse before, particularly as the endgame of the Cold War played out. But North Korea is very different from Eastern Europe as Communism crumbled in 1989—both more extreme in what it is prepared to do to survive and far more geographically isolated, so that such action would in effect take place in the dark.
Yet there is one lesson from Eastern Europe’s example that does shed a chilling light on North Korea: the more repressive and artificially maintained the regime is, the more sudden and precipitous the collapse. Poland and Hungary, the most liberally administered Communist satellite states, with reformist factions tolerated inside the party apparatuses, had soft, velvet collapses that played out gradually over many months, beginning in 1988, a year before the Berlin Wall actually fell. But Albania and Romania, whose Stalinist regimes were heavily dependent on extreme cults of personality, unraveled at once and without warning. In the case of Romania, it took only ten days for a small demonstration about minority rights in the western city of Timisoara to mushroom into a nationwide uprising that culminated in the grim executions of tyrants Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu. Nobody should consider the future of North Korea without keeping in mind the Romanian example. It is not a coincidence that Nicolae Ceausescu was a close friend of Kim Il-sung, and considered North Korea a model for Communist Romania.
Another lesson from past regime collapses is that the worse the level of oppression, often the more profound the nightmare upon liberation. We saw in Iraq, for example, how the horrific abuses of Saddam Hussein crippled the Iraqi people’s ability to build peace after his removal.
And there is another fact to consider. In the second half of the twentieth century, states divided in two by political and military conflict—Vietnam, Germany, Yemen—all experienced sudden and tumultuous collapses and reunifications, leaving the equities of key stakeholders ignored or unaddressed. The innumerable white papers written and seminars conducted about the future of those countries counted for very little when the event actually unfolded. Asked about the US response to a similar unraveling in North Korea, a top American policymaker answered: “We can be unprepared, or we can be really unprepared. Let’s hope it’s the former.”
When considering responses to a potential collapse, it must be stipulated that no one will have perfect information, and that indications of the unraveling may be difficult to identify. What would collapse look like? For example, the Kim family regime could lose its hold on power without North Korean army corps and brigades losing theirs. (And the military, it should be said, is already the bulwark of order and commerce in the country.) In other words, collapse may be a slow-motion event filled with enough ambiguity to immobilize outside powers from taking action that might prevent an eventual disaster involving weapons of mass destruction; or, in another scenario, might prevent a humanitarian nightmare.
It is worth noting that Romania, whose regime was the most North Korean–like in the Warsaw Pact, was saved from chaos in its collapse primarily by a military that remained united. North Korea’s might not. The military is organized around regional commands, and because the regions themselves, thanks to a mountainous topography and underdevelopment, have distinct characters, the commands may have forged identities all their own. Owing to regime founder Kim Il-sung’s background as an anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter, special operations forces play a large role in the North Korean military, and this might only enhance factionalism. Making contact with North Korean commanders would be a key goal of any intervention scenario: if not absorbed into the structure of an international occupation force, such regional commanders might form the basis for insurgencies that would turn the collapse into war.
There is also a possibility that in the course of a regime meltdown, some commands and military leadership networks may turn toward China, and others toward South Korea, increasing the danger of anarchy and civil war. A North Korean military still coherent despite the collapse of central authority might fight to the last for fear of how it would be treated by the South Koreans.
In the face of a fighting, factionalized North Korean military, who would control nuclear facilities, biological weapons sites, missile production facilities, dual-use chemical production sites, chemical storage facilities, and weapons research centers? All of these various sites tied to weapons of mass destruction are spread throughout the country—a sprawling and rugged mountain landscape that features bad roads and no electric lighting. When we asked how the United States military would negotiate North Korea’s geography if the need arose to secure weapons sites, a US government expert cynically muttered, “Good luck,” implying that the US military still had too little intelligence regarding the logistical details.
Then there is the whole area of civilian disaster relief to consider. North Korea has the potential to constitute the mother of all humanitarian interventions. Think of an operation larger than the one conducted in the aftermath of the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, but rendered far more complex because the helpless population would in most cases not be conveniently located near a coastline where a carrier strike group could approach. For even a humanitarian disaster in remote areas could occur concomitantly with a battle for territory, according to US defense officials. With the collapse of central authority, massive population movements might ensue, toward either the capital or the Chinese border, where food stocks would likely be more plentiful. And with large internal refugee movements, there would likely be pandemics of disease.
North Korea’s population of twenty-two million, a substantial percentage of which is badly malnourished, is today the responsibility of the North Korean leadership. But in the event of a regime collapse, they would instantly become the responsibility of the so-called international community: which would mean, in operational terms, the responsibility of the US and South Korean military, and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. The interests of at least two of these militaries could easily collide. For example, what the US military might consider a stabilizing action, such as securing WMD facilities, China’s military might consider destabilizing, as it might want control over the areas where they are situated.
It is important, therefore, for post-collapse scenarios to factor in China’s immediate interests. After all, China shares the longest land border with North Korea, and is North Korea’s best and, in a sense, only real ally, responsible for shoring up the regime with fuel and food aid. China, without question, is unrivaled in its intimate knowledge of the country.
Bruce W. Bennett of the RAND Corporation notes that roughly one half of North Korea’s population lives in the northern two-fifths of the country, adjacent to China, where much of the nation’s natural resources, including coal, oil, lead, tungsten, and so forth are also located. Consequently, this area is also where many of the country’s factories exist. John S. Park of the US Institute for Peace writes that Chinese firms have used their “detailed knowledge” of North Korean companies to form “strategic joint ventures” that involve a vast personal network of important figures capable of forming a new leadership circle. “We can’t penetrate North Korean society; the Chinese can,” said one US government official. “China knows many North Korean generals; we know zero.”
Given these factors, it would appear that the most important thing the US can do now is hold bilateral military talks with China about how to cooperate in the event of a Pyongyang regime collapse. But it also appears that the prospect of such secret talks is nil. The Chinese know that “we leak like sieves,” as one US government official put it, and Beijing knows that to protect its tense and complex relationship with Pyongyang, it cannot be seen to be contemplating its ally’s demise.
But even without talks, we can assume that the core Chinese interest in the event of a regime collapse is to prevent millions of North Korean refugees from moving north across the Yalu and Tumen rivers into Chinese Manchuria. Thus, in an emergency the Chinese People’s Liberation Army may have to cross the Yalu and Tumen and occupy a buffer zone inside North Korea itself, setting up barriers and refugee camps to keep the population in place; in the process, the Chinese army may also occupy factories and WMD facilities. This may occur as fighting rages in Pyongyang and elsewhere. Indeed, the definition of a collapse may be when Beijing signals that it is more concerned with instability on its riverine borderlands than with the survival of the Pyongyang regime itself. We emphasize that all of this is speculative. But as we interviewed one expert after another in the course of our research, it became apparent that each had little more than speculations about a future crisis that they all agreed could be cataclysmic—and yet also remains in the distinct realm of possibility.
South Korea, or the Republic of Korea (ROK), would also seek to stabilize the North in the event of a collapse. Achieving the goal of a reunified Korea under Seoul’s control, according to Bruce Bennett of RAND, would entail the defeat of North Korean forces, their eventual and successful integration into civilian society, control over WMD facilities, the stabilization of the North under non-Communist leadership, and the provision of humanitarian aid, particularly in the northern two-thirds of the country. In short, South Korea would have to accomplish all the objectives that the US failed to achieve in Iraq, and more; and some of these objectives might conflict with those of China.
Because of the daunting nature of the facts that would be on the ground in a North Korean collapse, cooperation between South Korea, the United States, China, Russia, and Japan should commence in some form to plan for these contingencies. It is not completely outside the realm of possibility that the United Nations could provide an umbrella, or act as an intermediary, for such quiet exchanges, which would in effect be five-party talks. Key to the success of these talks would be the involvement of the International Liaison Department of the Chinese Communist Party, which seems to have taken the lead on China’s North Korea policy. Unfortunately, it now appears that the internal situation in North Korea would have to demonstrably worsen before such talks could seriously be contemplated, and by then, given the opaqueness of the Pyongyang regime, it might be too late.
Also militating against immediate diplomacy to deal with a possible collapse is that fact that for the moment, at least, China is generally satisfied with the status quo, which provides China with a Communist buffer state between China and democratic South Korea. But China would eventually prefer an authoritarian, quasi-capitalist state in place of the current Stalinist regime, which would still play the role of a buffer, and would be a smaller model of China itself. Such a North Korea would help China’s gradual economic takeover of the Tumen River region, where China, North Korea, and Russia intersect, and which has good port facilities across from Japan on the Pacific Ocean.
Due to its geographical proximity, coupled with its enormous economic weight, China benefits no matter what kind of regime emerges in the northern half of the Korean peninsula—as long as Korea itself remains divided and stable. But China naturally prefers the status quo because it is rightly nervous about the tumult that might ensue in any transition and potentially spread into China itself.
For now this means propping up the DPRK, forgiving or overlooking its many sins, and preventing the United States and the rest of the world from using either military force or economic sanctions to topple the regime. Thus China remained silent as North Korea killed fifty South Koreans when it sunk an ROK warship in March 2010 and shelled a South Korean island in November, yet is vociferous in criticizing responsive military exercises held by the United States and South Korea. Chinese leaders have also emphasized the history of Chinese-DPRK relations, with the Chinese vice president (and presumptive future president) Xi Jinping commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the Korean War by publicly describing Chinese-DPRK relations as a “friendship sealed in blood.”
China’s long-term vision for North Korea is very much informed by China’s own historical experiences. In many ways, China sees a lot of its former self in the DPRK: poor, isolated, and controlled by a highly damaging, ideological, violent, and eccentric regime—just as China was during the Cultural Revolution under Mao Zedong. After Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping made China turn the corner with his “reform and opening” policies, which have since made China the prosperous and powerful nation it is today.
For years, China has advertised itself to North Korea’s leaders as the only path to economic development and long-term political survival. Kim Jong-il has several times visited China’s highly developed and entrepreneurial south, where “reform and opening” was born and first took hold. The message from Beijing to Pyongyang has been clear: this is the way ahead for you. But to date, North Korea’s answer has been equally clear: we’re not interested.
Yet there are some perhaps dubious reasons for China to hold out hope. Kim Jong-un, son of the Dear Leader and future ruler, has been quoted as wanting to “focus on economic development.” This statement is actually a quotation from his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, and has been roundly interpreted in Washington as a signal of his desire to return to the “good old days” of the 1960s and ’70s.
Still, some Chinese strategists and academics, though a minority, argue that China’s future is with the United States and the rest of the world, and that China should quietly jettison North Korea. They argue that Communist allegiances are outdated in a world where China’s market economy is the world’s second largest, and that globalization and modern weaponry have made the concept of “buffer states” obsolete. Chinese strategists of this mindset even argue that China could still hold sway over a united and democratic Greater Korea, given that China is already South Korea’s biggest trading partner and that a reunified Korea would likely be focused internally and would seek a stable and positive relationship with China.
If the Pyongyang-Beijing relationship is byzantine, the relationship between North Korea and its democratic neighbors is more straight-forward. Both Japan and South Korea loathe the regime for its belligerence, its nuclear proliferation, and its human rights abuses.
Officially, South Korea seeks unification with the North. Yet the South Korean people rightly fear regime collapse and the economic demands it would bring on their own society, which would be far greater than, say, the cost of German reunification. (East Germany was the most developed state in Eastern Europe, and while East Germany had only twenty-seven percent of West Germany’s population, North Korea’s population is forty-six percent of South Korea’s, and the economic disparity between the two Koreas is four times that of the two Germanys, as Barbara Demick reports.) It is also true that South Korea is a society in which consumerism is two generations old and has been raised to the status of an ideology, leading to the fear that reunification—either via collapse, conflict, or confederation—would endanger such a lifestyle and take generations to overcome.
For its part, Japan fears that a united Greater Korea could exacerbate a historically based anti-Japanese nationalism that exists in both the North and South. Indeed, Japan could be a big loser if Korea were to reunify. It is the prospect of a united Korean peninsula, as much as the growing might of China, which could lead to a strengthened and normalized Japanese military.
Separated by distance and culture, the United States has the ability to take a more calculated and dispassionate look at North Korea’s future. Most Americans look at North Korea as the “land of lousy options.” Given Pyongyang’s record of aggression and belligerence, of terrorism and proliferation, and of terrible abuses to its own people, Americans tend to point to the regime itself as the central problem. Yet such an analysis drives policymakers toward regime change, which could unleash a drama of destruction and human misery that no one could control and all would seek to avoid. Thus, Americans are left trying to manage the North Korea problem by engaging in dialogue when possible, sanctioning when appropriate, and maintaining a military capability to respond to all contingencies.
Yet this management strategy is showing signs of fraying. Revelations about North Korean involvement in nuclear programs in Syria, Burma, and Iran strongly suggest that past efforts to contain North Korean proliferation activities have been unsuccessful. Further, international sanctions have been largely mitigated by China, whose trade with the North has skyrocketed since the DPRK’s first nuclear test in October 2007. And even though the United States and its South Korean ally posses an overwhelming military advantage against their potential North Korean adversary, the DPRK maintains the ability to use long-range artillery to devastate Seoul in a matter of minutes—and there is little the US or South Korean militaries could do about it other than to retaliate.
Today the United States is continuing its long-standing “two-track” strategy of engagement and talks combined with sanctions and military preparations in the hope that North Korea will come to the negotiating table and follow through with its pledge to denuclearize. Yet Washington and its allies should prepare for a world in which North Korea survives and its agreement to denuclearize is not fully realized. This should not mean accepting North Korea as a nuclear power, but rather adjusting military and political strategies to account for strategic realities.
The greatest challenge to stability in the Korean peninsula today is North Korea’s ability to successfully conduct limited strikes—such as the sinking of a South Korean warship and the shelling of a South Korean island—without fear of significant retaliation. North Korea recognizes that its will to ratchet up tensions is greater than that of South Korea; indeed, there is a common saying that North Korea is willing to cut off its leg to get what it wants, while South Korea is not willing to cut off its toe. Civilian casualties are of little concern to Pyongyang, and it seems to feel comfortable relying on its nuclear arsenal and political divisions in South Korea to keep tensions from escalating out of hand. Yet North Korea is still vulnerable, and the US and South Korea should examine asymmetric responses that could stress or undermine these vulnerabilities, and use them to re-establish deterrence over limited strikes.
Are we to hope for the more likely scenario of a continuation of Stalinist- and fascist-style rule in North Korea? Or the less-likely scenario of collapse, with its attendant human and economic devastation?
The starkness of these alternatives dramatizes how preferable a third way would be—a soft landing involving a gradual liberalization of the North Korean economy along with the creation of some personal freedoms until it peacefully reunifies with the South. While the path to such an outcome is for the moment unclear, special industrial zones such as that currently operating in Kaesong may be replicated to improve cross-
peninsular economic integration. This seems highly unlikely, yet it remains a goal that South Korea and China might actually share, and which the US would learn to live with.
Yet one way or another, we have to assume that the status quo will not last forever, and regime change will alter the power arrangements in Northeast Asia, where there has been peace and prosperity despite the tensions caused by the presence of a weapons-hungry Stalinist regime brutalizing its people. But this Cold War–style stand-off, peaceful as it has largely been, cannot last indefinitely. When it ruptures, someone is going to lose. And given that the region’s players—the US, China, Japan, and South Korea—wield some of the world’s largest economies and militaries, the stakes of collapse or conflict could not be higher.
Robert D. Kaplan is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a national correspondent for the Atlantic, a member of the Defense Policy Board, and the author of Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power. Abraham M. Denmark is a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, where he directs the Asia-Pacific Security Program.