Collapse unlikely in the near term

Andre Lankov writes in the Korea Times:

Recently one cannot help but notice an important change in the mood of Pyongyang watchers ― well, some of them. Over last year one began to hear again talk which has not been heard for 15 years or so ― serious people, many of whom are potential or actual decision makers, once again are discussing the probability of North Korea’s collapse.

Back in the early 1990 such a collapse was widely ― almost universally ― expected. Indeed, the communist bloc was falling apart, so it seemed only logical that North Korea, arguably the least efficient of all communist states, would go the same way as East Germany or Rumania. To a large extent, in the early 1990s the U.S. policy towards North Korea was based on assumption that its days were numbered. However, the much anticipated collapse did not happen, and since then the idea of it was discredited, so among the experts talks of collapse came to be seen as a sign of non-professionalism. Only in recent years has this talk begun anew.

The reason seems to be clear: the botched 2009 currency reform produced a serious crisis. The irritated North Koreans began to express their dissatisfaction even when talking to foreigners ― an unprecedented development. For a while in February it seemed that the situation was getting out of control ― so, even the habitually cautious Chinese for a while privately expressed their concerns about North Korea’s future.

On one hand, this revival of collapse theory is good news. It seems that in the long run a regime collapse is indeed highly probable, almost unavoidable, and it is good that decisions makers at least discuss such a probability, since it will prompt them to do some useful contingency planning. However, the present author is afraid that these recent talks are, above all, another example of wishful thinking. An immediate collapse is not impossible, no doubt, but it does not look very likely.

There are seem to be two reasons which might trigger the regime’s sudden disintegration ― a popular uprising and an open power clash within the elite, and neither appears likely right now.

The North Korean elite understand perfectly well that unity is the major condition for their survival (“if we do not hang together, gentlemen, we would be hanged separately” seems to be their most favorite dictum). In the peculiar case of a divided Korea, a clash within the elite is likely to trigger the disintegration of the state. Of course, there must be powerful internal rivalries and feuds within the elite, but their shared fear of instability helps to keep these disagreements under control. It is possible that Kim Jong-il’s death will create a new situation, and some of the old feuds will surface, but as long as the “Dear Leader” remains in control, this is not likely.

An outbreak of a popular revolution is highly improbable, too. The North Koreans are poor, but people do not start revolutions simply because they are poor. Revolutions happen when people believe that there are better ways of living. Nowadays, thanks to the spread of information about the outside world, many North Koreans are beginning to suspect that life indeed might be better. However, the sheer dissatisfaction about the current system alone is not sufficient for a revolution. Two other conditions must be present in most cases: people should have some organization, even rudimentary, and they should believe that their efforts are not futile, that the resistance has at least some chance to succeed. Neither condition is met in North Korea so far.

To start with, the North Korean authorities are very good in breaking all horizontal connections between their subjects. Unlike other communist regimes, North Korea does not tolerate even the obviously non-political activities if such activities are not directly supervised by the authorities. So, people are isolated and very distrustful of one another.

The fear is great, too. People do not start rebellions if they are certain that their rebellion has no chance to succeed. But North Koreans still tend to believe that any resistance is futile, since the regime would crush it in no time. There are closet dissenters in North Korea, to be sure, but they have to keep their mouths shut, since any challenge to the regime means certain death.

Things are changing, no doubt. Kim Jong-il’s North Korea is more liberal and permissive than it was when Kim Il-sung ruled the place. The officials prefer to take bribes and are ready to overlook minor irregularities. The booming private markets create an environment where some interaction is possible and people began talking between themselves. However, it might take a long time before these changes will produce conditions suitable for a revolution. Talks of a coming collapse are not a complete fantasy but might be seriously premature.

Read the full story here:
Revival of ‘collapse’ theory
Korea Times
11/7/2010

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