international analysis and commentary

No more dealing with the North Korean regime – and preparing for what’s next


The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has often been described as isolated, secretive and opaque. So little was known about the hermit kingdom that US presidential candidate Walter Mondale was right in 1984 when he famously quipped that people who claim to understand North Korea must be idiots, liars, or both. Today, however, a growing group of defectors, including some high-ranking ones, is speaking out about the way their country is being mishandled and how the North Koreans are being brutalized. They publish memoirs, give interviews, appear in documentaries and cooperate with news websites devoted to North Korea. Recently, a group of seven high-ranking defectors even appeared at a conference at Leiden University in the Netherlands to speak about the inner workings of the North Korean state apparatus.

The stories they tell are very similar, and do not fundamentally undermine the dominant narrative about North Korea. They depict the DPRK as an extremely militarized and centralized state where the slightest sign of disobedience is enough to send people to labor camps or even execute them. Given this rigidity, it should come as no surprise that economic reform is out of the question. Liberalizing the economy would only make people act independently, something the DPRK’s elite rightly believes might well spell the end of the country as we know it. As for its goals and ambitions, the North Korean leadership has long abandoned any interest in socialism or even the unification of the Koreas. The only thing that keeps it going is regime survival. As is well known, and has been confirmed by several defectors, the party elite lives in obscene luxury and will go to great lengths to maintain its position.

Against this background, any international efforts to finally restore a semblance of normalcy on the Korean peninsula by dealing with the North Korean regime are doomed to fail. With recent suspicions that North Korea may have reactivated a nuclear reactor and may be developing submarine-launched ballistic missile capabilities, a new series of provocations is likely. However there is nothing to suggest that North Korea’s leadership even wants to reach a permanent solution. In fact, as regime survival is its only goal, the regime has a vested interest in maintaining the crisis atmosphere, as that may allow it to win new concessions on food aid and various kinds of material assistance from the US in return for token steps to end the nuclear weapons program. Also, the threat of war – real or perceived – helps the regime maintain the sense of embattlement that has always been the cornerstone of North Korean propaganda.

But even though engaging North Korea is pointless, that does not mean that there’s nothing that external stakeholders can or should do. Rather than spend their time trying to get the DPRK to behave the way they want to, the countries involved in the attempts to reign in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions (primarily China, the US, Russia, Japan and South Korea) would do wise to prepare for what is becoming unavoidable: the end of the North Korean regime, whose absolute control over its citizens is slowly crumbling.

Structurally underpaid and unable to live on the food rations handed out by the regime, many North Koreans are looking for alternative means of subsistence, which means that they are neglecting their official jobs to double as fishermen or to engage in some form of illegal trade. This development has led to the emergence of an underground economy and a flourishing black market that functions largely outside of the control of the government. Moreover, as North Korea’s new entrepreneurs are turning to illegally acquired cell phones to gain access to information about market opportunities, they are increasingly able to organize themselves independently from the party organizations that used to absorb and dominate all forms of social activity. With the genie out of the bottle, it is up to the ultra-conservative and economically illiterate leaders in Pyongyang to find a way to keep the regime afloat. Given their record of responding to any problem with repression and propaganda, it is doubtful whether they will be able to adapt to the changing situation.

It is, of course, true that the collapse of the North Korean regime has been predicted many times before. It was widely believed, for instance, that the DPRK would not survive the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994, yet Kim Jong-il managed to keep things the way they were, even during the devastating famine in the late 1990s. But while another miraculous escape cannot be entirely ruled out, we should also recognize that the odds are heavily stacked against the North Korean regime, especially now that it is nominally led by a deeply undistinguished novice who is clearly unsuited to keep a crisis-ridden state from falling apart. Kim Jong-un is barely in his thirties and had no experience in politics or administration before he assumed his father’s leadership position. Moreover, unlike his father, Kim Jong-un appears to have no network of trusted allies to speak of. Consequently, he wields none of the absolute authority has father did, and is in no position to settle the dispute between the various factions that insiders say are already jockeying for position. In other words, North Korea is facing severe internal problems with, for the first time in its history, no one around to keep the leadership together.

While few will deplore the end of the North Korean dictatorship, there are serious issues that will need to be addressed when its days are numbered. First of all, how are things going to end? Will it be an all-out collapse, or rather a transition to something altogether more manageable? Also, how will the population respond? Will they take the opportunity to flee to China and South Korea in great numbers? And what will happen to North Korea’s nuclear weapons, if they have any? The fall of the Kim dynasty will be a momentous challenge, so diplomatic efforts should be directed at making sure that at least the US, China and South Korea, all of which appear to have post-DPRK contingency plans, are on the same page regarding what to do when the time comes. Given the DPRK’s ultimately self-destructive intransigence, forward thinking is more useful than hoping that recycling the same old diplomatic tactics will magically bring the DPRK into line.