Daily NK: You have said that the North Korean regime is not going to collapse, and have given many reasons why. Yet other people see the regime as “approaching its end.” What are we to make of this contradiction?
SH: I think we have to ask ourselves questions like, “What do we mean by collapse?” and “What do we mean by ‘the end’?” There is a change 'of' the regime, and there is a change 'in' the regime. Those are two very different things.
I can reiterate why I think it is likely to be stable in the intermediate run, but that does not mean that the system might not be subject to pressures for change from within. So, for example, if Kim Jong Eun consolidates power, which I think is a possibility, even a high probability, then he could nevertheless take steps to alter the direction in which North Korea is going.
I think it is actually incumbent upon people who believe that collapse is coming to explain how it is going to occur. I don’t think I have ever heard a clear argument about where the challenge is going to come from that is going to produce the division that is going to break the thing apart. It doesn’t seem to be coming from below; our surveys suggest that people are very atomized, that it is very difficult to undertake collective action. So that means it would have to come from the top, but then the question is where would you get a division that is so substantial that people would fight, because that is what we mean by collapse, that somewhere there is a conflict that is so serious that there is fighting, real fighting, not an internal power struggle, actual fighting. Because that is what I think people mean when they say collapse; that the regime breaks down, and cannot provide order. However, I don’t think there has been much clear thinking about what the steps are through which this outcome occurs. This is a regime that survived abandonment by the Soviet Union, a cutoff in aid, a famine that killed 600,000 to a million people, complete international isolation, the first nuclear crisis… you have to be careful about underestimating this place.
DP: I agree, for the most part. We have to look at the conditions or variables that might drive change. A lot of people look at the economic distress, and of course these types of systems are most vulnerable during a power transition. It’s a very delicate process, how a new leader comes to power. It’s not just a leader, either, it is a whole new generation of leaders. People talk about one man leading the country, but no one many can lead a country by himself or herself; it takes a minimum coalition of support. Passing power along is not easy because you cannot alienate the old generation, and when North Korea is suffering such economic difficulties; I guess that when the pie is shrinking, there are less spoils there to divide.
So it’s difficult, but then the barriers to collective action are also difficult to overcome. There are incentives to coalesce around the leader, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this goes off very well.
Daily NK: Zeitgeist researcher Kim Young Hwan has put the chances of the Kim Jong Eun regime succeeding at around 10%. What are your views?
SH: So much of the debate is conducted without defining what we mean by success. I mean, is North Korea going to become rich or a market economy or a democracy? Well, no. Do we mean the people will not suffer? Well, no. But if we mean that the regime is capable of staying in power, then yes. I’m just not sure what the model is that would lead to collapse.
Collapse is typically used in comparitive politics when you have a loss of central authority, when the regime is incapable of asserting control over territory or providing basic services and basic order. Such cases are typically very low income countries with very weak central governments. When we use the term ‘collapse’ we are talking about places like Somalia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, places divided by warring parties where the central government doesn’t have adequate force to control territory.
Therefore, I don’t think that is what people mean, because obviously North Korea has a very highly developed security apparatus, there is a state structure, it is an institutionalized country. So I assume collapse doesn’t mean that.
Therefore, it has to mean one of two things, either that there is a challenge from below which forces the leadership to make concessions to the opposition, like in East Germany, or The Phillippines, or Korea, such as in 1987, with people on the streets of Myeongdong. Then the leadership gives an order to the military to shoot, but they don’t shoot. Well, then you have a transition because you cannot impose order. But it doesn’t seem to me that there is a basis for that kind of collective action in North Korea.
That then means that the only collapse scenario that I can see or imagine is one in which some faction from within the government challenges the succession openly. How could that happen? Well, it could happen through a process that is internal to the regime, where a group of supporters is capable of demonstrating to Kim Jong Eun that he cannot rule by himself, or that he cannot rule at all, and therefore they seize power, which would be more like a coup d’etat, or, and I place a very low possibility on this, the two sides cannot see who is going to win, and so they fight. Because you only fight if you cannot figure out who is going to win, right?
Here’s one for the Korean audience. Look at what happened in the fall of 1979. You had an assassination; you had strong pressures from below, riots in Masan, incidents in Seoul etc. And yet the regime didn’t collapse, there was a transfer of power from Park Chung Hee to Chun Doo Hwan. And how did he do it? He did it by seizing power within the military, and then the government in May.
So it is down to people who think collapse is coming to tell me the scenario, and then I’ll respond.
Daily NK: OK. Well there are some things mentioned by those who believe in it; they talk about cell phones, they talk about markets. There are some who would claim that the regime does not provide basic order in some cases, and it certainly fails to provide basic services in a lot of cases. So, can we say that these could create momentum for change as time goes by?
SH: Let’s widen the time horizon over five to seven years, since Dan and I have been talking in terms of one to two years.
So, I’m a North Korean, and I have a choice to both organize and act politically or to survive. Obviously incomes are very low, so there are no NGOs supported by advertizers or contributions, or people willing to work, because the regime deprives people and so people have to act to take care of themselves. That’s exactly what they do! They force people into non-political activities.
But that creates problems for the regime, too, because people are moving out of the state sector; there are companies, work units and offices, but people are drifting into the market. That’s been a long term process of people exiting. Now let’s take a longer timeframe and ask; what is happening in that sector? What are the possibilities?
We know from our surveys that people are communicating, that they are not happy, they have bad attitudes towards the government, they think it is bad. We have evidence of that. So then the question is, can the market become a basis for collective action? Because there are no unions, as in Poland, no church like in the Philippines, you don’t have NGOs like you did in Korea, nor do you have parties. But we do have this group of people who are operating in the market, and it seems that there is some evidence of collective action around efforts to control the market, like in Hamheung, where market women protested against the government. But you have to be careful in terms of political change, because the government can also relax restrictions to prevent that.
However, another path of change is that as the market process grows it becomes more and more costly for the government not to reform, so then the question becomes, “Can they make marginal changes to keep themselves in power which push them in a ‘China’ direction?” They don’t want to, but are forced to, and then you have a change not ‘of’ the regime, but ‘in’ the regime. The Communist Party is still in control of China, but it’s a completely different country, right? That path of change is highly possible.
How is it possible for a collapse in the intermediate run? It goes something like this. More and more people are involved in the market and have resources, people have money, Party officials are involved in corrupt activities that the government doesn’t control, and then there really is a struggle over resources with the regime, since the military is insisting on taking everything and substantial parts of the economy are saying, “No, we don’t want to give any more to the military, and we want to be left alone.” Then you get the basis for collective action that really would force a transition scenario like in Romania or East Germany. But, to use a Marxist term, the conditions don’t seem ripe for that yet.
Daily NK: That sounds like a budgetary conflict in some respects. On which point, recent video from ASIAPRESS shows that the military is not getting the food it needs. Does that mean that this conflict is building more quickly than you just suggested?
It’s possible. It depends on what the outside world does. I think the current administration (in South Korea) and critics of engagement say we should force this process and that food delivery will just prolong it. And then humanitarians like me say you have to make decisions about humanitarian assistance based on need, not on some unknown probability that the regime will collapse, because then you are sacrificing those in between. We know the regime doesn’t care about these people, we know it is willing to let them go hungry.
And then you get to China. What is China willing to do to avoid “heightening the contradictions,” as they say? We have tons of evidence that the Chinese are thoroughly disgusted with the North Koreans, we know that, but are they disgusted enough to pull the plug? I think everyone agrees that the answer is, no. So it means that the regime has a cushion that is going to prevent them from facing these choices to the extent that we would like.
DP: Here is the good and bad of the dilemma the regime faces. On the one hand, the policy mix is so bad that you don’t have to be a Nobel Prize winner in economics to put together a better economic policy package for them. So, with some very minor adjustments, they could get big improvements in the economy, they could improve efficiencies tremendously.
But the problem is that if they liberalize and relax some of the controls, allow the type of governance and property rights and so forth that lets market actors increases productivity, then of course they could take the credit and get an uptick in economic performance in the short run. But, as those actors then become less dependent on the state, they will have divergent interests based on their market activities. And then, they can use communication tools to express their preferences, and then they can take collective action. But I see this taking quite a long time, since there is no civil society or anything else. So, yes, in the medium term we might see these pressures, but not quickly or immediately.
SH: One more thing; political geography is really important in preventing collective action. Regimes are challenged from the capital, like Myeongdong in 1987. But look at how money is going into Pyongyang and reform is being kept out; Daily NK coverage of this is really good. They are pouring in resources for housing, cell phones, stores, distribution… but keeping a lot of the household action out. For example, the biggest wholesale markets are in Pyongsung, not in Pyongyang. Reforms are being pushed to the borders of the country. They are moving that stuff away from the city, and then protecting Pyongyang, making sure it is protected from those kinds of forces.
Why is there not an export processing zone in Pyongyang? It is the logical place to have an industrial park. But, no way! Rasun, Kaesong. That stuff is moved out, away from the city. So opportunities for collective action would be in the capital, but the regime is insulating it from those kinds of forces. Pyongyang has the security, and it has the goodies that are being passed out. The regime is very strategic about protecting against disaffection at the center. They know what they are doing.
Daily NK: That makes for a potent mix at the borders, doesn't it?
Yes, sure, I think so. Look at China. Some of the areas of China with the deepest reform and deepest marketization were areas where the Great Leap Forward famine was at its most severe. In a reformed North Korea, Hamkyung is going to be a dynamic area; the borders are going to be dynamic areas. These women in the markets, they are entrepreneurs; they are going to be making money. If the lid is lifted, that area is going to take off.
Another thing is that there are Chinese-Koreans in North Korea, and defectors say that a lot of the business is being done by them. They got left over in the ‘50s, and are exploiting their cross-border connections.
So, yes, Hamkyung etc, the areas far from Pyongyang, are the dynamic areas which can bring bigger possibilities for protest and collective action. So I think they are important areas to cover, and that is why people like Daily NK and Good Friends cover them; not just because the information is available, but because that is where the action is.
DP: They are also the places with limits to control. In Pyongyang there is a clear presence, oversight and monitoring, but I went to Kaesong on a city tour and was struck by the limited amount of propaganda surrounding the Kim family; it was there, but nothing like in Pyongyang. Also, people’s attitudes; in Pyongyang people seemed very confident, very loyal to their government, whereas in Kaesong people had confidence in a sense because they were removed from Pyongyang.
The propaganda was much, much less than I had expected. The people there talked about Koryo, when Kaesong was the capital, about old heroes. Different traditions. So it is more difficult to monitor these people and everything that is going on. These people have a longer leash and are taking the initiative.
SH: But, but, but, but… is the initiative in the form of collective action or is it about the market and making money?
DP: It is probably about the market and making money first, but at some point will it spill over into the political activities? I don’t know.
SH: Well, if you look at the long view, then that is the thing. Although you always have to ask yourself the question, can the regime adjust to that? The Chinese adjusted to that, the Communist Party said, “OK, we can surf that wave. We can let the market go and we can ride it.” However, if I have a source of optimism in terms of collapse, it is that they cannot do that. That is where the hope is. If you are talking about the thing breaking, it is because they cannot do the reforms that will keep them in power.
Let me reiterate; Daily NK, Dan and everyone wants regime change in North Korea, and that includes me. But wishing for regime change is not a policy.
Daily NK: The existence of Kim Jong Il is the problem, the system is not the problem. As long as the system works to protect the people, it doesn’t matter who is doing it, the Workers’ Party or someone else. So, how far down do we have to pluck out the roots of the regime before we can be comfortable with what remains?
Both Dan and I have watched 'Debaathification', and have talked about this. Lustration is the process by which you decide who from the old regime is to be rehabilitated. Should you try twenty people, or fifty people, or arrest a hundred people, or a thousand people, or ten thousand people or fifty thousand? If you have fundamental regime change you have to decide how many people you arrest, and how many you execute.
If I am wrong and there really is a collapse, who goes to prison? You cannot send the whole Workers’ Party to prison, you have to allow them to re-enter society. So that is an issue; how does transitional justice take place? How do you keep the military and provide them with some means of livelihood? When the US destroyed the Iraqi army, they became insurgents.
It’s not about getting rid of people; it is about making sure they are willing to live in the new order, peacefully. Every major conflict has to take a terrorist and turn him into a citizen. Look at Northern Ireland; people had to say, “Ten years ago, you killed my policeman, two years ago, I killed your kid, but now that is over; I won’t try you, and you won’t try me, we’ll try to forget about it.”
DP: It’s a very delicate balance, it is impossible to get it totally right, but it is best to be prepared and to do the best you can.
SH: Right. Now I don’t think international humanitarian law is perfect, but I would have no problem trying Kim Jong Il in the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, I think you could probably make a case, though it is more complicated than it looks. You have to look at the Rome Statute and see if you could make a case. I think it would be fabulous if we could do it; but if we are seeking his cooperation, then bringing him before the ICC is probably not the best way to get it.
Daily NK: Chinese attempts to develop North Korea. Can they be helpful, can they be effective?
SH: First, the numbers we are hearing are fairy tale numbers. The North Koreans are not going to get 500 million dollars of investment on these islands (Hwangeumpyeong)! Remember the Taepyung Group. What was the number? Ten billion dollars?
So, my headline point is that China is doing sunshine. That is basically their strategy; deep sunshine. It’s basically like saying, “We’re not going to change this place politically, we are not going to get them to do reform, we are just going to keep engaging in commercial trade, doing investment, keep using the trade zones to our advantage, and some time in the future it will gradually have an effect and North Korea will integrate into our orbit.”
But, here is one interesting finding from our survey of Chinese firms doing business; the Chinese government does not support these firms doing business in North Korea. They tell them it is commercial business: you guys either make money or don’t make money. The enterprises don’t believe they can count on China to support or subsidize their activities, and, interestingly, most of them don’t believe that the Chinese will even help them settle disputes. It’s done on a market basis, and I think that is what China wants. They want to shift from a pattern of aid to a pattern of socializing the North Koreans into operating in a more market friendly way.
Daily NK: So it is not merely a case of China making it profitable for Chinese firms to do business in North Korea, as you said about South Korea yesterday?
SH: That’s the irony. South Korea, the capitalist country, is the one trying to make it profitable for South Korean firms to do business in North Korea, while the Chinese are saying, “You guys are on your own!"
I think this is part of the problem; why Kaesong gets taken hostage, why Geumgang gets taken hostage. South Korea thinks it has leverage over North Korea with Kaesong and Geumgang, but it turns out that North Korea has leverage over South Korea because South Korea is worried about these firms, whether they are going to go out of business, and who is going to pay.
DP: It is unclear whether the Chinese posture is helpful or not, because the type of business that North Korea is interested in now is for a very limited number of firms empowered by the government, so it is not a full liberalization.
If you look at the types of external transactions North Korea makes, there is no competition, while access rights, protection and everything else is determined by political connections, and the things Pyongyang will authorize are things where Pyongyang controls the rents, things like mining rights. They are not empowering North Korean firms or engaging in the kind of things that would create economic efficiencies and be helpful to North Korea as a whole.
So, is that helpful or not? Is it a sub-optimal first step, or does this become an entrenched position that just empowers these monopolies in Pyongyang so they are able to limp along longer and longer and longer? Or would another approach lead to rapid, full liberalization? We don’t know, and it is impossible to predict with certainty.
Daily NK: Is commercial engagement as mentioned in ‘Witness to Transformation’ effective and doable when the Kim regime prevents international society from connecting with the ordinary North Korean people?
SH: I think we need to think more about how to make the underground economy work, and maybe NGOs are not a bad idea. Not these MoU’s and inter-Korean cooperation agreements, just tell them; “If you want to go, go. It’s up to you.” Let them do what they want, because some of what they are doing may support this kind of activity. I’m not saying I support it, but we have to think about it hard.
Can NGO’s start talking, start infiltrating; can they help this process? It need consideration. Same for commercial firms; is it so bad if a South Korean firm is doing business? He has a partner, and he is teaching that partner, drinking with him...
DP: The more ties that come at the expense of ties to the Party, the better. It is just fundamentally beneficial. If you can change the relationship between the Party and the people, and how the Party just controls every aspect of everyone’s life, then you weaken that tie and I think it is more likely that you will begin to see change.
SH: The people that you are interacting with will see things differently. I think we really have to think hard about what kind of engagement is likely to be effective. You always have to be asking about what can weaken that control. I don’t think we have a sophisticated enough conception. It’s not a case of yes or no, we have to be clever.
DP: As was mentioned earlier, the state does a very poor job of providing basic services, so in those cases there are things like providing malaria medication that would help. So, people might begin to question, “What has the Party done for me, lately?”