Courtesy Reuters

North Korea's Choice: Collapse or Reform

Why Demise is the Most Likely Option

The death of Kim Jong Il came unexpectedly this past weekend. Although he has visually aged much in recent years and was clearly in poor health, the news of his demise was almost a complete surprise. Indeed, in recent months, Kim Jong Il appeared to have recovered somewhat; he travelled extensively, seeming to slow the pace of dynastic transition to his son. Obviously, he did so on the assumption that he had more time to groom his heir, Kim Jon Un, to become the new leader of North Korea.

With the transfer of power now at hand, Kim Jong Un finds himself in a challenging and dangerous position without much training. Success, above all, will mean survival -- political, and, perhaps, physical as well.

Kim Jong Un’s most immediate task is to prevent any challenge from members of the top leadership. In most dictatorships, the chief bureaucrats and generals would feel ashamed to recognize a 29-year-old as the Supreme Leader, but North Korean leaders understand that instability in their divided country is likely to bring a crisis which, in turn, could provoke a popular revolution and eventual unification with the South. In such a scenario, the current elite would have no future.

With that fear in mind, North Korea’s top brass is unlikely to threaten Kim Jong Un’s claim to power. Of course, some contenders might emerge, and reports may appear in the coming days and weeks of unexpected troop movements or disappearances of prominent generals and party leaders. But most of the leadership will likely stomach the rise of Kim Jong Un in return for maintaining internal stability, a necessary condition of their position.

Should Kim Jong Un succeed in establishing himself over the next few months, policymakers and analysts will express hope that he will usher in an era of reform. But as long as he wants to remain alive and in control of North Korea, he will have little choice but to continue his father’s policies. To survive, the North Korean state will have no choice but to remain what it is now -- an anachronistic, nuclear-armed dictatorship whose population lives in an abject poverty.

It has often been suggested that North Korea can cure its economic problems by implementing Chinese-style reforms and market openings. Although such changes worked well for China and Vietnam, both ostensibly communist states, neither country encountered the political difficulties that North Korea faces -- namely, that it remains part of a divided country. Indeed, the existence of a rich and free South Korea makes the situation in North Korea unique from that in China or Vietnam. The affluence and freedom of the South represent a dire threat to North Korea, whose rulers realize that the spread of knowledge in their country about the prosperity of the outside world, particularly of their fellow Koreans in the South, would deliver a heavy blow to the legitimacy of the regime. Chinese leaders, in contrast, do not have to contend with a similarly successful capitalist twin to its communist regime (Taiwan is too small to make a difference). Had nationalist forces retained control over the entire area south of the Yangtze River and fostered the living conditions of modern-day Taiwan, no Chinese Communist leader would dare to initiate reforms.

Of course, the Chinease are aware of the prosperity enjoyed by those in the United States or Japan. But this success is seen as politically irrelevant, given that those are two other countries. With regard to North Korea, the competing model comes from fellow Koreans. The per capita income in the South is at least 15 times higher than that in the North (some claim that it is actually 40 times higher). In comparison, the income ratio between West and East Germany during the Cold War was merely 1:3.

Given these disparities, North Korean leaders recognize that they must isolate their populace from the outside world (the country might be the last nation left to ban possession of a tunable radio set). And reform will make such isolation unsustainable. Any amount of liberalization is impossible without a considerable relaxation of the information blockade and daily surveillance of civilians throughout the country. A large number of North Koreans would then be exposed to dangerous knowledge of the outside world -- above all, South Korea. Should North Korea attempt economic reforms, it would most likely not lead to a Chinese-style boom but a total collapse of the ruling elite.

Kim Jong Il seemingly recognized the threat of reform. His son might be seduced by the dreams of emulating China, but given the dire consequences that such changes would pose to himself and to his regime, it seems more likely that Kim Jong Un will heed his father’s advisers and avoid them.

If that is the case, it is also likely that Kim Jong Un will follow the counsel of those advisers with regard to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. They are sure to instruct the new leader to maintain the country’s nuclear technology, both as an effective deterrent and diplomatic leverage. North Korean military leaders see their possession of nuclear weapons as the ultimate deterrent and believe that as long as they maintain it, foreign powers -- especially the United States -- are unlikely to attack Pyongyang. Fear of such a strike rose in the wake of U.S. interventions in Europe and the Middle East over the last two decades. After the war in Iraq, North Korean diplomats and politicians frequently told to their foreign counterparts that had Saddam Hussein truly had nuclear weapons, he likely would have stayed in power. Western intervention in Libya only further reinforced their suspicion, especially since Muammar al Qaddafi’s willingness to surrender his nuclear program did not spare him.

North Korea's ruling class also believes that it needs nuclear weapons for diplomatic purposes. Pyongyang does not want starve its population to death; Kim Jong Il probably would have preferred to see North Koreans alive and well, but he sacrificed the common people to maintain stability. And since modernization would undermine that stability, the regime cannot pursue it. The only way for North Korea’s elite to stay afloat is to squeeze aid from the outside world, and the nuclear program allows it to do so. With nuclear weapons as its blackmail, North Korea has managed to attract far more international attention and aid than countries of similar size and per capita GDP.

Under these circumstances, Kim Jong Un is likely to continue his father’s legacy. But that doesn’t mean that the current system will continue indefinitely. No country with a hyper-centralized, Stalinist economy has remained efficient for longer than two or three decades. It is difficult to see how or why North Korea could disprove this rule. The regime may maintain its centrally planned economy and political repression for now, but this will only prolong the country’s unsustainable stagnation. The longer North Korea's rulers holds on to power, the greater the gap between Pyongyang and its neighbors will be -- creating greater potential for future turmoil.

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