Are North Koreans heading for the exit?

A decision by the Chinese government to withdraw support would be a game changer for North Korea.  Although Pyongyang appears to be stable now, such stability is like nuclear deterrence: it works right up to the day when it does not.

Since North Korea’s deputy ambassador in London defected to South Korea in the middle of August, the international media have renewed their speculation that North Korea is beginning to collapse.  News of North Korea’s fifth nuclear weapons test on September 9 has eclipsed the defection in the news cycle, but the test may have increased the chance of a North Korean collapse.  After both events, my phone started ringing, and once again I needed to consider where North Korea lies on the collapse-survival scale.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un gives field guidance to the Kosan Combined Fruit Farm in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang September 18, 2016.KCNA via REUTERS

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un gives field guidance to the Kosan Combined Fruit Farm in this undated photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency in Pyongyang September 18. KCNA via REUTERS

This is a question that has dogged North Korea ever since European communist governments collapsed in the early 1990s—to the obvious discomfort of a Kim regime that continues to misrule the country.  Has anything materially changed in North Korea’s survival calculus in recent years?  For a start, I reviewed a report I wrote in 2007 titled “How Stable Is North Korea,” and then looked at my 1999 article, “North Korea between Collapse and Reform.”

Reasons to stay

For what it’s worth, in 2007 I predicted that “The most likely future is a continuation of the Kim regime, perhaps under one of Kim’s sons, with a gradual Chinese-style marketization of the economy, but with relatively more government control over foreign investment [than is the case in China], and the continuation of party rule.”

That prediction has held up well over the last nine years.  The son is the present ruler Kim Jong-un, the economy has undergone marketization, although not as official government policy, and Kim’s party remains in firm control.  Only my prediction about foreign investment has been amiss, insofar as investment has largely failed to materialize.

Today, what information about North Korea is relevant to the question of its survival?  In a country of 25 million, 2 to 3 million of the elites seem to have a vested interest in the regime’s survival.  They have reasonably good jobs, live much better than they did even ten years ago, and have only to worry about the possibility that they may be purged at the whim of their leader.  This is the group to which Tae Yong-ho, lately of London, belonged.  The other 22 million North Koreans have learned how to make ends meet and keep their heads down to escape the attention of the country’s unpredictable and corrupt law enforcement organizations.

If I were asked to list the most important explanations of this stability, I would give pride of place to the simple concept of inertia.  Most people, individually and collectively, live their lives one ordinary day after another.  Even when they are dissatisfied or downright unhappy, they are so adapted to their condition that they don’t change.  This is especially the case when change carries with it a risk of failure or punishment, as it does for anyone in North Korea who tries to be different or fight the system.

Given the options of doing nothing, fighting the system, or escaping from it, most North Koreans have paid lip service to the regime while quietly altering their economic lives by participating in the technically illegal market economy.  As far as outsiders know, anyone who chooses the second option of fighting the system is instantly neutralized.  Finally, almost 30,000 people have escaped to South Korea, and thousands more live as illegal aliens in China.  These defectors have risked punishment for themselves and for the loved ones they’ve left behind.

Reasons to leave

 And yet, there are forces for change in North Korea that bear watching.  The current leader is young, brash, and inexperienced.  His ongoing purges of top military and civilian officials have spread ill will.  During the five years of his reign, between 100 and 130 top officials and officers have lost their jobs, and sometimes their freedom and even their lives.

Another threat to the country’s stability is the regime’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction at all costs.  For example, the most recent nuclear test was conducted while the country was suffering from major flood damage.  The fact that Kim cares more about his weapons than about his people bodes ill for the country’s stability, although similar decisions by his father and grandfather did not prevent them from holding on to their jobs.

North Korea’s position in the region has deteriorated in the last 15 years.  Rapprochement with South Korea is a distant dream.  Relations with Japan are frozen.  The United States, with its robust presence in Northeast Asia, supports stronger sanctions on the Kim regime.  North Korea’s only important economic relations are with its neighbor China on whom it is increasingly dependent.  Politically, the Kim regime is isolated.  Kim Jong-un has never traveled outside the country, even to China.  If China’s patience should ever give out, the North Korean economy’s days are numbered, and if the economy collapses, the people could be difficult to govern.

The Kim regime has always tried to keep its people ignorant about the outside world—especially about the far more prosperous life that South Koreans enjoy.  However, this isolation has been seriously breached by information that surreptitiously reaches the country through cell phones, thumb drives, radio broadcasts, and word-of-mouth from travelers.  Most North Koreans, even those living in the countryside, have some knowledge about the outside world.  So far, most of this information is for entertainment purposes and has not prompted North Koreans to question their political system.  But any uncensored information has the potential for breeding discontent, as the Kim regime is well aware.

An interesting question is what impact pervasive corruption in North Korea has on its stability.  On the one hand, the only way people can survive is by engaging in illegal activities such as bribery.  On the other hand, they have lost all respect for their government and its laws.  Occasionally an official, on orders from his superiors, will institute an anti-corruption drive that catches a few people, but rather than reassuring citizens, these campaigns teach them that the law is applied haphazardly.

The problem of prediction

Predicting stability is not as easy as constructing a balance sheet of stabilizing and destabilizing factors.  Sometimes multiple factors coincide that tip the scales toward collapse.  Other times a single factor, such as a leader’s demise, can prove to be a decisive factor.  In North Korea’s case, a decision by the Chinese government to withdraw support would be a game changer.  For now, even though North Korea appears to be stable, we might think of its stability somewhat like people think of nuclear deterrence: it works right up to the day when it doesn’t.

Dr. Kongdan Oh is a senior Asia specialist at the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA). Her most recent book is Hidden People of North Korea: Everyday Life in the Hermit Kingdom, second edition.

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