Coming Collapse of The North Korean Regime
Kim Young Hwan / Editorial
Board in The DailyNK
Experts on North Korea are perplexed about the recent happenings in
North Korea. Although it was somewhat expected that North Korean nuclear
crisis would hit a critical point, it is still astonishing to see
the South Korean government persistently and actively pursuing economic
cooperation with North Korea while unable to recognize seriousness
of the nuclear problem.
The South Korean government’s pursuance of economic cooperation
with North Korea have basis on the following logics.
One, as long as Kim Jong Il maintains control, collapse of the
North Korean regime or democratization in North Korea will not take
place. Two, even if the North Korean regime collapses, the kind
of political, military, and economic chaos it may cause will bring
tremendous sufferings to the North Korean people. Three, it is only
through liberalization and reformation that North Korea can fundamentally
solve its problems. Four, there is a high possibility of North Korean
liberalization and reformation. These reasonings may seem practical
and logical, yet they have critical errors.
Is the Present North Korean Regime Stable?
Many experts on North Korea predicted that North Korea will collapse
within few years after the Eastern European socialist countries
collapsed in 1989. Many others predicted the same for North Korea
after the death of Kim Il Sung. However, the North Korean regime
did not collapse and now only few people believe in the collapse
of the North Korean regime at an early stage.
Actually, when the Eastern European socialist countries collapsed
in 1989 in a chain reaction, the possibility of the regime collapse
in North Korea was very low. There were relatively less elements
for collapse inside North Korea compared to Eastern European countries.
North Korea was geographically and sentimentally too far away to
be directly influenced by those countries. Furthermore, North Korea
had been an extremely closed society that it unlikely to be impacted
by happenings occurring in Europe. Although the international communist
movement was long ago declining, by 1989, both China and North Korea
were already disinterested in the “international communist movement”
or “international alliance of the communists.” The collapse of the
communists in another continent far away from their territory was
not of their concern. Of course, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il as
the leaders of the nation, might have felt anxious. Especially the
miserable end of Rumanian regime under Nicolae Ceausescu, who learned
methods of dictatorship from Kim Il Sung, would have been a shock
for Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. However, the people, from the average
citizens to the Party cadres, did not know what kind of politics
or regime strategy Rumania had. There was no reason why it should
be affected by Rumania’s situation.
In 1994 when Kim Il Sung died, North Korea was already under the
control of Kim Jong Il, thus the possibility of sudden chaos in
North Korea was unlikely, despite the absence of Kim Il Sung. Those
who asserted that North Korean regime will soon collapse were only
unaware of such basic facts.
However, the food crisis was somewhat different. The food situation
in North Korea started to deteriorate in the late 1980s, worsened
entering the 1990s, and reached a critical point between 1995 and
1998. Millions of people died of starvation. Due to this horrendous
reality, most of the control system in North Korea started to collapse.
For decades, the people of North Korea did not enjoy freedom of
mobility (even within the nation) but during the food crisis, it
was impossible for the government to control all the people wandering
in search for food. Furthermore, the government also started to
have difficulties in controlling the border. Whereas before, the
few “border transgressors” were severely tortured or executed, now
that there were so many crossing the river between North Korea and
China, the border became no longer controllable. The number of people
who crossed over to China either in secret or by bribing, have reached
up to one million, but the government still fails to control the
Corruption is another one of the serious problems in North Korea.
Corruption used to be already widely prevailing in North Korea before,
but it was relatively better compared to other third world countries
with similar economic level. However, after the food crisis, the
belief of “money is all” spread among the people regardless of the
strata and from lowest class to the government officials, everyone
practiced corruption. Ways were created for the people to get away
from wrongdoings if they could bribe, and from small things such
as having travel permission issued to the big problems such as having
people released from prison, money could make all things possible.
Meanwhile, it quickly created a society where people could not do
much without money. Now North Korea has become one of the most corrupted
states in the world.
Furthermore, in the past, private businesses were strictly prohibited
but after the food crisis and collapse of the food distribution
system, the government had no control over the emergence of underground
or half-underground markets. Although law prohibited it, private
businesses openly emerged and prospered in many places.
Meanwhile, status of the government workers including police (security
officials), bureaucrats, government institutions of different levels
and the Party organs of different levels fell down to the bottom
for they started to receive criticisms for doing nothing but squeezing
money out of the people. Now there are people who openly criticize
police in North Korea, which was unimaginable in the past.
Furthermore, people from outside were astonished to see the North
Korean people outraged during the soccer match (of which North Korea
was very proud to organize and participate) on March 30, 2005 between
North Korea and Iran. We, the foreigners, were only familiar with
the North Korean people moving like machines under the government
orders at least in the public scenes. However, on that day we saw
North Korean people throwing things, even pulling out the seats
from benches and throwing them into the stadium. The outrage continued
despite the police restrained it. It was a truly surprising evidence
of the fact that the former North Korean system is collapsing in
Such changes in North Korea were not intentionally made by Kim
Jong Il, but emerged from the food crisis. Kim Jong Il’s passive
and defensive regime is incapable of controlling the current social
Changes in the control system of North Korea do not mean the collapse
of the regime. As Mao Zedong said - “Power comes from the gun” -
power has a close relationship with the military force. As long
as Kim Jong Il has control over the military, the collapse of the
regime will not take place easily. However, Kim Jong Il’s military
is not made of selected people; they were drafted from the mass
population (5% of the total population). Furthermore, the military
is involved in many areas of the society including construction,
farming, business, and policing, thus they naturally keep a close
contact with the civilians of whom they are affined to. With such
kin relationship between the people and military, the status of
military in the long run does not differ much from that of the civilians.
For this reason, it will be difficult to maintain a society that
has already turned anti-regime, with only the military force.
Kim Jong Il witnessed that during the collapse of the Eastern European
socialist countries, communist ideology or the communist party had
little power to help a government in trouble. Especially for the
case of Rumania, Kim Jong Il may have learned the importance of
the military control. He may have also learned that once people
are let loose, it becomes harder to control the society. Therefore
in many parts of the society, Kim Jong Il controlled and pressured
people more and further strengthened his military dictatorship.
The Worker’s Party became second to the military and the status
of the communist ideology or even the Juche ideology fell down lower
Although this kind of control strategy by Kim Jong Il was effective
for a significant period of time, it also faced the problem of which
if the system starts to collapse, it will not be able to stop this
process by relying on the Party structure or ideology.
There is more than little possibility that the collapse of the
North Korean regime occurs in non-political areas first, just like
the outrage at the soccer stadium. There is a possibility that Kim
Jong Il feels threatened by the popular movement and as he increases
the level of oppression, people respond with opposition to the regime.
On the other hand, there is also a possibility that he ignores the
people while the (negative) sentiment spreads among the people.
Because the North Korean people still have fear toward the political
sectors, the possibility of start (of people’s outrage) first in
non-political area is higher. On the other hand, a political incident
as an igniter for a popular outrage is still a possibility.
Furthermore, as many experts prospect, death of Kim Jong Il can
also bring a sudden change in North Korea. As mentioned before,
currently in North Korea, the entire system has been collapsing
thus the regime is maintained with fear and violence. The creation
of fear and violence is done entirely by the regime structured centering
Kim Jong Il, but if he disappears, the power structure is unlikely
to be sustained only with the Worker’s Party. Furthermore because
the military has asymmetrical power, there is no other organ that
could control the military, especially because there is no leader
that could replace Kim Jong Il, thus there is a high possibility
that his death brings an extreme chaos.
Anti-regime phenomenon is not widely spread in North Korea. The
North Korean society has very little possibility of overthrowing
the regime by a gradual spread of anti-regime movement. The collapse
of the North Korean regime is unlikely to occur very suddenly.
Those who think there is very little possibility for the collapse
of the North Korean regime, blindfold their eyes from seeing the
changes occurred inside North Korea for the past decade. They only
remember the failure of the experts’ prediction for its collapse
between 1989 and 1994. The people who predicted the regime collapse
between 1989 and 1994 made an error, by making a prediction out
of generalization without sufficiently studying in details the reality
of the internal situations of North Korea. Similarly, it is also
an error to believe that because the previous predictions failed,
it will fail again this time.
The following is an organized list of the important changes occurred
in North Korea in the past ten years.
One, the state is controlled centering the military, and became
a military dictatorship.
Two, power and status of the Worker’s Party weakened within the
nation compared to that of the military, thus its role is limited
for the regime maintenance. Kim Jong Il tends to command the military
personally rather than through the Party.
Three, blurred ideology. The role of the communist ideology for
the maintenance of the regime or the state is limited and the importance
of Juche ideology has also contracted.
Four, decrease of people’s allegiance to the Party and the national
leaders. These days, even the defectors who have recently defected
easily talk negatively about the Party, government and Kim Jong
Five, due to the widespread practice of corruption, most of the
government departments function abnormally and the people’s outcry
about the government officials’ corrupted activities is heightening.
Six, state control over the people’s economic activities; daily
and personal activities has significantly decreased.
Seven, outside information is flowing into the North Korean society
and is spreading throughout the country.
Evaluating the current situation, if a crack is made in any part
of the North Korean society, there is almost no safety net North
Korea can rely on to overcome the breakage. The only safety net
could be the military, but with the given characteristics of the
military, especially that soldiers are generally drafted in mass
number, the military is incapable of confronting the people for
a long time.
The North Korean regime is now taking its last breath. Although
it would be inappropriate to say that the North Korean regime will
collapse immediately since there is no evident movement that threatens
the regime, it is foreseen that there is a 50~60% possibility of
collapse within five years, and a 80~90% within ten years.
If North Korea is to last more than five years, its economy could
be better or worse than now, but its politics will be on the verge
Is Chinese Style Liberalization Possible for North Korea?
In fact, the question of whether the current regime can survive
or not comes down to whether or not Chinese style economic liberalization
and reformation could succeed in North Korea. Many people believed
that similar kind of economic development is possible in North Korea,
which has been shown in North Koreans’ efforts for realization of
price and wage, legalization of private business, family centered
farming, and construction of Kaesung Complex. However, it seems
that the reason why they believe Chinese style economic liberalization
and reformation is possible is because they do not see that there
is the big difference between present North Korea and China of the
First of all, let’s look into the liberalization and reformation
of China more in detail.
It has been 27 years since China actively pursued liberalization
and reformation. The three people who led the Chinese liberalization
and reformation in the first ten years or so were Deng Xiao Ping,
Hu Yanobang, and Zaozyang, who recently passed away.
China’s liberalization and reformation was a great shock for the
world. At the time, the communist movement was in trouble around
the world. Although Russia and Eastern European countries were officially
communist states, people were much disinterested in the communist
ideology. On the other hand, the percentile of the population eager
for communist ideology in China were relatively much higher compared
to Russia or Eastern European countries, in fact, China had 90%
of the total number of the communists in the world at the time.
Not only that, (although later it was proved that it was nothing
more than a mere power struggle), decision for economic liberalization
was only few years after the Cultural Revolution, which is well-known
to be very intense ideological struggle. It was shocking that such
a country was moving ahead for liberalization and reformation.
In fact, Chinese liberalization and reformation was an unprecedented
incident at the time and it required a very revolutionary contemplation.
At the time, Yugoslavia’s Josip Broz Tito tried something a little
different than communist practices but there was no attempt to fully
accept market economy (by communist countries). Not only was it
the first attempt, but it was a shocking idea that had its basis
on a very creative thought - coexistence of communist rule and market
economy. At the time, the core of the communism was perceived as
“communist dictatorship, planned economy, and nationalization.”
These three were seen as inseparable. However, under the condition
of maintaining the communist ruling, planned economy was to be changed
to market economy, and some fundamental changes were to be done
about nationalization, but this was something not to be easily accepted
in the logics at the time.
Actually, the outside world did not even understand what “liberalization
and reformation” really meant. In fact, some people understood it
as something similar to the plot that removed Khrushchev from office
in 1964 in Soviet Union.
It was in 1993, 15 years after China started liberalization and
reformation, that the world started to believe that such an idea
had some truth in it and that there was a high possibility for success.
There are many people who think Chinese liberalization and reformation
in a simple manner and believe any country can successfully open
up like China. However, this is a misunderstanding. From the end
of 1970s, there were about 50 to 60 communist or quasi-communist
countries (mostly African communist states), but only China and
Vietnam succeeded in liberalization and reformation. There are states
that collapsed in the process of or for denying liberalization,
some pursued liberalization for many years but failed to make any
progress, and others still tried to keep the regime closed. In any
case, if we look at the results only, Chinese style liberalization
and reformation is a very difficult task, which requires a healthy
political stability and a capable leadership for its success.
Chinese liberalization and reformation succeeded under the following
First, the condition that communism and international communist
dignity preside. In other words, the nation was in a condition where
it would less be affected by political and ideological influences.
Second was the high status of the Chinese Communists. Although
the Chinese communists experienced a great amount of difficulties
and defamation during the Cultural Revolution, it still held a significant
degree of dignity.
Third was the atmosphere which allowed things to be determined
and decided (and decisions to be respected once they were made)
by the Chinese Communist Party. Although the politics seemed to
be in confusion, there seemed to be a strong sentiment that if there
was any decision made by the Communist Party, it must be supported
and followed. If such sentiment had not existed, then it would have
been difficult to object and overrule the arguments of Premier of
the People’s Republic of China and chairman of the Communist Party
of China Hua Guofeng during the Party Congress of the Central Committee
of the Communist Party of China.
In fact, Hua Guofeng also contributed to Chinese liberalization
and reformation. After Mao Zedong died, he made a decision to agree
to get rid of the Gang of Four, thus he indirectly contributed to
the first step China was making towards its political development.
Furthermore, even the Party Congress of the Central Committee of
the Communist Party of China decided to take the path of liberalization
and reformation and after his line failed, Hua Guofeng did not make
any conspiracy as Mao Zedong or the Gang of Four did although he
could have. Instead, he admitted his defeat and accepted the power
shift of the nation and the Party. He was much younger than Deng
Xiao Ping and had relatively much less experience in politics. While
Deng Xiao Ping held important positions in the Communist Party since
his twenties and worked as one of the core members of the Party
for fifty years, it was only for a few years that Hua Guofeng enjoyed
the position as one of its core members. While Deng Xiao Ping had
an expansive basis (connections) among the Communist Party cadres,
Hua Guofeng had a rather weak basis. For this reason some people
say that Hua Guofeng’s failure was somewhat an expected result.
However, Hua Guofeng was the person who held the positions of Nation’s
President and Chief of the Party. Although he could have easily
justified an unfair competition by limiting the others’ words, or
by limiting the main middle status cadres on Deng Xiao Ping’s side
to win the decision in his favor, he did not use any of such vulgar
methods. Even after the decision of the Party Congress of the Central
Committee of the Communist Party of China was made, it was still
possible for him to make the decision an illegitimate one or make
those who opposed him to fall into difficult situations, but he
did not. Rather, he contributed stable management of the Communist
Party and the state in the difficult times, so ultimately he contributed
to China’s liberalization and reformation. This could be possible
thanks to Hua Guofeng’s noble character, but it was also a demonstration
of the general mood in China, that the Party’s decisions must be
followed and that one must be loyal to the Party.
Fourth, moral superiority of the leaders of the liberalization
and reformation. The biggest Achilles’ heel in the Chinese modern
history is the Cultural Revolution. As an indirect consequence of
the Cultural Revolution, as many people as thirty million died in
cruelty and a wide range of people especially political cadres,
economic cadres, and cultural cadres were persecuted so they could
not fulfill their roles. Most of the businesses did not function
properly and the entire national economy was in chaos, which caused
a huge economic digression. Schools of all levels closed down for
a long time and created a big intelligence gap. The biggest error
of the modern Chinese history and the Chinese Communist Party is
the Cultural Revolution. However, the leaders who led liberalization
and reformation, Deng Xiao Ping, Hu Yaobang, and Zaozyang, were
not responsible for the revolution, actually they were the ones
persecuted during the incident. This kind of moral superiority became
an important stimulant for the pursuance of the liberalization and
Fifth, international environment was favorable to China. At the
end of the 70s, as part of the intention to isolate the Soviet Union,
the US put much effort to bring China to the Western side and many
of the Western countries agreed to such American policy. Much of
the western press wrote positive aspects about China, while China
did not make hostile statements to the Western countries. The Western
countries incorporated China into the international foreign relations
with privileges. Meanwhile they did not pressure China to hasten
its liberalization process. It was eleven years later, after the
Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989 that the Western countries started
to pressure China.
Although there are still some differences, the process in Vietnam
was more or less the same. Vietnam’s liberalization had basis on
the victory of a long war, which also created a high sense of dignity
and power that drove liberalization and reformation, and this may
be principally different from the Chinese case, but the two cases
are fundamentally similar.
However, the case for present North Korea is completely different.
First of all, now, the international communist movement is completely
collapsed and the communist ideology is unwelcome everywhere in
the world. Even in China, the people interested in the communist
ideology do not constitute more than 1% of the population. There
is little possibility that North Korea could be sustained by the
communist ideology or the power and dignity of the international
Second of all, authority of the Worker’s Party diminished so significantly
that it is incapable to lead the liberalization and reformation
of North Korea. Kim Jong Il has long been working ignoring the Party
structure and the cadres had to be more concerned about the mood
of Kim Jong Il rather than about the decision made by the Party.
Such a practice has now become a habit and because the people blame
the Party for the food crisis, human rights abuses and corruption,
there is no justification for the Party to hold much authority.
Even if the Party tried to gain some authority back from the communist
ideology or the Juche ieology, this is also impossible because nobody
in North Korea is interested in ideologies. Therefore, even now,
the Party is incapable to play an important role, and for it to
replace Kim Jong Il, in case of his death, would be more difficult.
This is a big difference between North Korea and China, where in
China the Communist Party’s decision played definite role in leading
China to liberalization and reformation.
Third, Kim Jong Il has moral defects. Kim Jong Il does not have
anything to be proud of, but on the contrary he is mainly responsible
for severe economic crisis, human rights violations, and wide practice
of corruption. Yet, he is well known for his complex relationships
with women, and mass amount of seizure of national fund. Furthermore,
if the luxurious life of Kim Jong Il and his family is revealed,
North Korea’s political stability would no longer be possible. The
truth about Kim Jong Il’s personal life has been revealed by his
entourage including Lee Han Young (Kim Jong Il’s wife’s nephew),
Sung Hye Rang (Kim Jong Il’s sister in law), Fujimoto Kenji(Kim
Jong Il’s former cook), and Lee Young Kook, (Kim Jong Il’s former
bodyguard). Even from the North Korean society, that is so extremely
closed, information about Kim Jong Il flows out. If North Korea
attempts liberalization and reformation, information flow would
be fast and will spread expansively. As it was in China in the 1980s,
demand for information will be so high and expansive in North Korea
that stopping information flow merely by punishing people would
be extremely difficult. A lot of information which circulated underground
in China during the 1980s contained negative messages about Mao
Zedong but was favorable to the government of the time. This may
have been because negative statements about Mao Zedong were prohibited
and thus were controlled, so information circulation did not affect
political stability. However, underground information flow in North
Korea mainly consists of negative information about Kim Jong Il.
Even if Kim Jong Il realizes the seriousness of the problem and
tries to stop the liberalization process, the information flow will
not stop. Once information flow trespasses certain level, artificial
efforts to stop will not work. It will have its own driving force.
Especially in a country like North Korea where much of the government
structure has collapsed, controlling information flow will be almost
Fourth, the current international environment is not favorable
to North Korea. Most of the people in the world think North Korea
as one of the poorest under-developed countries, ruled by a tyranny
and where a lot of human rights violations occur. There is no reason
for the countries of the world to give advantages or privileges
to North Korea; on the contrary they have more reason to pressure
North Korea. From the North Korean perspective the only reliable
tools it has are the Chinese assistance and the nuclear but these
two can always become a boomerang. Although currently the international
society is easing on the North Korean nuclear problem, it could
always turn into a reason to pressure North Korea or even to attack
North Korea. China is currently supporting North Korea, but it feels
less and less responsible. If China believes North Korea must have
its regime changed, China could be the most dangerous enemy of the
Kim Jong Il regime.
Fifth, the biggest difference between China and North Korea is
the existence of South Korea. Although China has Taiwan, with only
1/58 of the population and 1/265 of its territory, Taiwan is incomparable
to the mainland China. Furthermore, since not many supported Kuomindang
before it escaped to Taiwan, the existence of Taiwan is not a threat
to the mainland China. This is an entirely different problem from
how people think about communism or the communist party. Even if
people hated communism or the communist party, they do not think
Taiwan or Kuomindang as their alternative. Actually, for Taiwan,
mainland China is a threat. However, for North Korea, the situation
is very different. South Korean territory is insignificantly smaller
but possesses the double of North Korean population. Furthermore,
although the figure may differ depending on how the GDP is calculated,
South Korea has a 30 times to 100 times bigger economy than North
Korea. Furthermore, in the human rights aspect, South Korea is in
much superior position than North Korea. Although people say gap
between the people of the North and the South grew larger, because
Koreans altogether have high desire for unification, North Korea
will be greatly affected by the influence of South Korea. Once the
people start to think of South Korea as an alternative, as more
and more the South and the North are compared, dissatisfaction among
the North Korean people could be developed into a major political
As I have explained so far, even if liberalization and reformation
in China was successful, it does not mean that following the same
footsteps could lead all the other nations to the same success,
and it would be especially difficult for North Korea. Since Kim
Jong Il holds all authority and power in his hand, deciding to pursue
liberalization and reformation would not be a difficult step. Hawkish
wing, conservative wing, liberal wing, and progressive wing are
mere words without any significance. Anything could be done with
one word from Kim Jong Il’s mouth and there is nobody to oppose
him. Therefore making a decision to open up could be easier than
in any other country. However the possibility for success is extremely
low. Actually, it would be more correct say to that success is impossible.
After pursuing liberalization and reformation for a few years, the
percentage of working factories will be more than 20% of its previous
record and as factories normalize and China and South Korea assist
North Korea, the economic situation in North Korea will be improved.
However, as the political instability amounts, whether it chooses
to stop liberalization process or continue to proceed, the North
Korean regime is destined to collapse.
Will Collapse of the Regime Only Mean Sufferings to the North Korean
Collapse of the North Korean regime could lead to a civil war.
The main force that withholds the North Korean regime - the military
- could be broken apart in the process of power struggle or it could
be divided into the military that support the old powers and the
military that desire revolution, so different kinds of civil war
are possible. Furthermore, the small territory, unfortunately, has
concentrated number of trained military and excess amount of weapons.
In such a condition, if the nation is driven by a messy civil war,
the situation can quickly get out of control and cause death of
a huge number of military and civilians in a very short period of
If a civil war does not take place, then because serious human
rights took place and every level of the society was tightly controlled
for such a long time, every village, every factory would have its
own grudge. In this kind of situation, if the political situation
does not recover quickly, revenge and repulsion will be repeated
over and over in an evil cycle, and cause numerous casualties.
Furthermore, during a few years of political chaos, it could also
have difficult economic situation.
However, this is almost inevitable. Considering the current North
Korean situation, whether the international society wants it or
not, there is more possibility for its early landing than delayed
Some people argue nuclear pressure, pressure for human rights,
democratization movement, and missionary activities are preventing
North Korea’s late landing, but this is nonsense. The reason why
late landing is difficult for North Korea is due to the weakening
of the Kim Jong Il regime, not the outside pressure.
What the outside world can do once the North Korean regime collapses
is assisting it to quickly recover, so it will not create further
casualties. It could recover its economy by investing and sending
economic aid. Under the current North Korean regime, sending economic
assistance is possible but it only extends the life of the Kim Jong
Il regime, which is ultimately adding on the sufferings of the North
Korean people. Due to the corruption in the system, the effect of
the amount will be less than half of the half the amount of the
aid sent. Therefore, under the current regime, humanitarian aid
apart from food aid such as economic aid could have more negative
effect than positive effect in North Korea.
Collapse of the North Korean regime will happen even if we ignored
it and simply waited, but ignoring the neighbor’s extreme suffering
would be betrayal of our moral obligation. Rightful political practice
made the modern human history mentally prosperous and it became
the important mental basis of the developments followed. At the
end of the Japanese colonial period, there were less than 100 million
Koreans all around the world and they did little for the surrender
of Japan. However, their existence became an important mental nutrition
for the future development. It is the same thing with North Korea.
If we watch the North Korean people going through horrendous sufferings
but ignoring the Kim Jong Il dictatorship, and simply wait the regime
to collapse naturally without doing anything, we will later suffer
for decades to come out of guilt and sense of lack of morality.
Even if it is only few hundred people, if we devote ourselves for
the liberation of North Korea, this effort will become an important
mental and political asset for all of us.