North Korea On The Verge Of Collapse? Don’t Count On It
Predicting the end of the DPRK is a fool's errand.
Over at RealClearDefense, Christopher Lee sees signs that the regime in Pyongyang may not be long for this world:
Kim Jong Un is defined by many as an egotistical fanatic whose recklessness led to dreadful mistakes during his two year tenure. First, instead of implementing a sound plan to alleviate the mass hunger and poverty in his nation where the average annual income is $1,800, he continues to conduct costly missile research, development, and test launches. To support his weapons programs, Kim spends approximately $10 billion – about 25 percent of total GDP – on his military. The $3.2 billion spent on nuclear weapons and missile development over the years is equivalent to three years’ supply of food for North Korea’s citizens.
Second, on April 8, 2013, Kim broke his partnership with South Korea regarding their joint venture in the Kaesong Industrial Park. This action further severed ties between North and South Korea and cost North Korea 53,000 jobs and wage losses amounting to $245.7 million. South Korea paid workers’ salaries directly to the North Korean government, so this loss of revenue further bankrupted North Korea.
Third, and above all, Kim’s most flawed and dangerous decision was the recent purge and public pillory of Jang Song Thaek. This action not only destroyed the image of unity in his regime, but also inadvertently acknowledged the dissension and instability within the state-run government. It strained his nation’s alliance with its closest ally, China, who was working closely with Jang in an effort to convince a determinedly opposed Kim to adopt to a China-style economic reform.
Combined, these instances demonstrate a realistic probability that this authoritarian regime may potentially crumble in the near future.
A Korea specialist and renowned history professor at the University of Chicago, Bruce Cumings, has said Kim’s recent actions, in particular the purging of his uncle, undermined his legitimacy and stature as a global leader. Cumings outlined that “Kim Jong Un has managed to tarnish his own image, look like a modern Caligula and give the lie to 90 percent of the bombast emanating from Pyongyang.” While leaders in Pyongyang continue to insist that all is well domestically, “from the stand point of the top leadership [purging Jang] was a politically stupid, self-defeating move,” Cumings added. In short, the DPRK openly admitted that someone tried to take out the “Great Successor.” And not just anyone, but the man closest to the Kim family regime.
All of these are good observation, but people have been predicting the collapse of North Korea for some time now and the Kim’s have managed to hold on with power notwithstanding that they have a nation that is barely economically viable. In no small part this seems to be due to the fact that, for 70 years now, North Koreans have been propagandized, terrorized, and punished to the point where the idea of a popular uprising against the Kim regime seems nearly unthinkable. As far as we know, for example, the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire from 1989-1991 sparked no protests of any kind among the North Korean people even though it seemed at the time as though it had lit an unquenchable fire. Additionally, the Kims have been very effective at creating absolutely loyalty among the military and the political elite. While Lee points to last year’s execution of Jang Song Thaek as a sign of weakness, for example, it’s just as easy to see it as another sign that crossing the leader, whomever it happens to be at a given time, is a fatal mistake. We may never know exactly what it was that Thaek did or did or did not do that warranted his execution — as I posited at the time it may have been nothing more than Kim deciding he didn’t need his uncle’s “protection” any more and that eliminating a potential threat was in his interests — but assuming that it is a sign that the end of the Kim regime is near seem to me to be quite mistaken.
What’s striking about Lee’s piece, though, isn’t so much what it does say as what it doesn’t. He makes almost no mention of the role that China plays in the future of the Kim regime and the Korean Peninsula. At this point, the only reason that the DPRK survives in its current form is because the Chinese wish it to for their own interests. These interests include their reluctance to see a united Korea allied with the West on their borders, the disruption that a swarm of refuges would cause, and the potential inspiration that a popular uprising in North Korea would be to reticent movements for greater freedom in China itself. When China decides that it is no longer in their interests to prop up the Kim regime, then that will be the end. Until that point, there’s always the possibility that internal events could lead to a chaotic collapse in Pyongyang, which itself could cause problems for both China and South Korea, but if that happens it will likely be something that nobody saw coming.
H/T: Stephen Green