Doubting North Korea’s ‘collapsists’

Commentators on North Korea have predicted the immanent downfall of its dictatorial regieme since its inception, but even after the second transition of power to another member of the Kim family it is yet to show any signs of wavering. Perhaps it is time for the international community to consider a more long-term, inclusive foreign policy toward this isolated and secretive regime 

Alexander James
19 April 2012

The recent death of North Korea’s ‘Dear Leader’, Kim Jong-il, inevitably sparked debates on not only the future of North Korea, but also the future of the regime itself. For some, this is merely another chapter in North Korea’s protracted demise, a relic of the Cold War and a nation destined to history; whilst for others, visions of collapse are not torn from the past, but are instead, prophecies of the present, couched in Kim Jong-un’s unknown aptitude and North Korea’s ruinous economy. For these ‘collapsists’ who look to either the past or the present, both agree on one issue – that North Korea will be absent from their future.

North Korea’s continuing survival has long confounded many a Korea-watcher, proving that predicting its future can be a hazardous game. In the absence of hard facts, rumour has occasionally begat reality, and ‘known unknowns’ have too readily become ‘known knowns’, culminating in forecasts that have routinely favoured the overly sensationalist.

Whilst reliable information on North Korea is, admittedly, less than abundant, it is certainly not absent. For example, we know that recent redistributions of power amongst North Korea’s elite and the adornment of various titles upon Kim Jong-un – such as Supreme Commander and General Secretary of the Workers’ Party – have gone some way in consolidating his grip on the world’s fourth largest army and North Korea’s all-powerful political party. Furthermore, North Korea’s New Year’s call for the nation to “defend with our very lives the Party Central Committee headed by the dear respected Comrade Kim Jong Un!” was more than just hot-air – it was a fact backed up by its short-range missile launches just days later. Following a tried-and-tested blueprint for hereditary power-transition, North Korea is once again reverting to its indomitable type.

If one gathers the available evidence on North Korea together, an ‘anti-collapsist’ argument begins to present itself, with four important factors suggesting that it is us – the outside world – that will require a rethink on our policies of engagement, rather than North Korea, if engagement is to be in any way constructive.

A history of survival

Misplaced predictions of a North Korean collapse have become something of a pastime for many political scientists and policy analysts. Most famously of all, Nicholas Eberstadt – now a Senior Advisor to the U.S. National Bureau of Asian Research – published a widely read book in 1999 titled the ‘End of North Korea’, which was lauded by figures such as Paul Wolfowitz and then Chairman of the US House Policy Committee, Christopher Cox.

Portraying an image of a state in terminal economic decline, like many at the time, Eberstadt overlooked the political, historical and ideological safety pins that were holding North Korea together in favour of a doggedly western-centric politico-economic analysis. Unfortunately, this image of a teetering North Korea stuck throughout the Bush administration, and its adoption of a foreign policy that aimed to isolate North Korea in order to hasten its collapse backfired spectacularly in 2006 with Pyongyang’s successful nuclear test.

Slowly, the economic argument made by ‘anti-collapsists’ – who point to North Korea’s survival of the Soviet Union’s collapse, a famine that killed one million people, and reductions in aid and isolation by nearly the entire international community – for the need to engage, not isolate, North Korea has gained currency.

But where multilateral engagements – such as the Six Party Talks – made certain strides in diplomatic terms, bilateralism has so far proved more appealing to Pyongyang. Joint projects, such as the now defunct ‘Sunshine Policy’ with South Korea and the Kaesong Industrial Zone, showed the political advantages that less-conditional engagements can bring to diplomacy; all the while exposing North Korea and its citizens to the rewards of the outside world. 

South Korea’s position is likely to change

Ever since the conservative Grand National Party (recently renamed the Saenuri Party) came to power in 2008, South Korea’s foreign policy consciously sought to distance itself from the previous administration’s more liberal relationship with Pyongyang. Conciliatory inter-Korean projects, such as the aforementioned Sunshine Policy, were swapped for the hard-line alternatives of limited engagement and closer ties with Washington.

Yet, security is a relational concept, and the Lee administration came to realise that it could not simply disengage with Pyongyang to become more secure. Whilst this dawning for the Saenuri Party arrived too late for the residents of Yeonpyeong Island, promises of greater reengagement with North Korea are now likely to be heard in the campaigns for the upcoming 2012 parliamentary and presidential elections.

For its part, North Korea’s frustrations in negotiating with the current administration over the past four years suggest that is willing to wait for a new, more liberal South Korean government in late 2012. A gamble, maybe, but ‘progressive’ parties in South Korea have recently gained considerable ground (as the liberal Park Won-soon’s recent success in the Seoul mayoral elections evidenced) and historically have been far more willing to grant greater concessions to Pyongyang with fewer strings attached – so expect greater movement in inter-Korean relations in 2013.

China’s increasing relative power

Ominously for the US, South Korea and Japan, North Korea’s dependence on China is set to increase from here on out. Responsible for around 80% of North Korea’s imports – plus U.N. sanction-busting exportations of luxury goods to Pyongyang – China plays a dominant role in sustaining and supporting its eastern neighbour. Rather than being couched in any notions of a shared ideological or historical brotherhood, China’s concerns are far more practical.

Geopolitically, North Korea’s peculiarities have managed to insulate China remarkably well from the perceived excesses of South Korean capitalism and US military might. Acting as a physical barrier to ideological, economic and military competition from the East has secured Pyongyang’s worth in Beijing’s eyes – although, this is not to say that it either controls or condones North Korea’s style of international relations, far from it.

But as China’s power increases both regionally and internationally, the U.S. will have far less of a say in Northeast Asia – a point that Washington’s recently refocused Asia-Pacific policy belatedly aims to rectify. Nevertheless, China’s interests on the Korean peninsula are likely to ensure that North Korea receives the support that it needs to survive, and Beijing’s recent pledges of food aid, plus its role as North Korea’s chief export-market, mean that Beijing will increasingly hold the keys to Pyongyang.

No famine-induced collapse

Whilst inept governance, economic mismanagement and an unstable nuclear programme are just some of the chinks in North Korea’s armour, famine is frequently cited as its fatal flaw – and policymakers have historically agreed.

Notwithstanding US claims that humanitarian aid is separate from its foreign policy agenda, Washington – alongside many other governments – has historically restricted its aid to North Korea during Pyongyang’s episodic blustering and belligerence. But has this strategic policy really weakened North Korea’s leadership or undermined its stature in the eyes of its people?

There is an argument that famine, no matter how severe, will not lead to the collapse of a regime. For sure, this argument may not hold in the case of weak states, such as Somalia, but North Korea is no weak state. Boasting a formidable internal security apparatus, a strong military, and an ingrained and hugely powerful political structure, the regime maintains a total monopoly on power. In the case that a starving public could muster the energy to coordinate an overthrow, it would be nearly impossible to achieve. Instead, as in the case of Mao’s China, where from 1958 to 1962 famine contributed to the deaths of 45 million people, history serves as a chilling reminder that hunger can empower, rather than disempower, those in charge.

What next?

Do these four points suggest that North Korea’s new leadership will be unwilling to negotiate? Far from it, it is certain that they dearly want to return to the international table – but at a level that suits them. If we agree that engagement with North Korea is a safer bet than leaving it unchecked to develop its nuclear ambitions at will, we must now pick our negotiating points carefully. But calling for the full-scale dismantling of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme wastes valuable time, resources and patience – and these are all in short supply. Instead, positive inducements – such as joint economic ventures – should be encouraged, as it is these policies that have paved the way for the greatest diplomatic gains. Taking a principled stand in North Korea comes in many different guises, but it is clear that if we do not follow a new path of engagement, our achievements will continue to be as veiled as North Korea itself.

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