When Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s founding ruler, died in 1994, many outside observers predicted that his state would die with him. That never happened, of course, and his son Kim Jong Il managed to keep the regime alive until his own death, in 2011. When his son Kim Jong Un took the reins that year, numerous Korea watchers again predicted a collapse. Once again, they were proved wrong. Despite its extreme poverty, North Korea is still very much alive and a major threat to its southern neighbor.
But cracks are appearing. Last December, Kim Jong Un took the unprecedented step of publicly executing his uncle Jang Song Thaek, the second most powerful official in the regime. Although Jang’s removal may help strengthen Kim’s rule in the short run, it could have the opposite effect in the long run, convincing North Korean elites that the 31-year-old heir to the throne is too hotheaded to be trusted. The regime’s patrons in China, meanwhile, were undoubtedly unsettled by the execution of Jang, who was Pyongyang’s chief envoy to Beijing and a proponent of Chinese-style reforms.
But Beijing is unlikely to start putting more pressure on Pyongyang, at least not anytime soon. China’s leaders may not like the current regime, but they like the alternative far less. North Korea’s collapse would likely flood China with refugees and precipitate a military intervention that would bring South Korean and U.S. forces to China’s border. So Beijing sees supporting Kim as its least bad option.
Seoul, for its part, has also traditionally avoided doing anything to destabilize Pyongyang, and for similar reasons. For South Korea’s leaders, living with the North’s occasional pinprick attacks and the ever-present threat of another war is preferable to bearing the crippling social and financial burdens that would accompany reunification.
Even the United States and Japan, which have much less to fear from North Korea’s demise, have quietly decided to live with the