As the preparations for the third dynastic succession in North Korea continue, there are all sorts of predictions about the future of the country post-Kim Jong Il. Many analysts believe that the system will struggle to continue without the current leader, and that his death would throw it into chaos.
I am well aware that one of our shortcomings as human beings is that we are unable to predict the future. It is quite within the realms of possibility that the North Korean elite will be unable to ensure a smooth transition to the heir, Kim Jong Eun. History too shows us that revolutions are prone to occurring without warning. Despite that, I believe that the chance of the North Korean system continuing more or less as it does now post-Kim Jong Il is greater than that of his death bringing uncertainty to the country.
Of course, if you take a long enough view of it, the North Korean system is bound to collapse sooner or later, for the country’s elite are trapped in a dilemma for which there is no good way out. On the one hand, being the isolated state that it is, Chinese style liberation and reform in North Korea would allow the public to see with their own eyes, rather than hear about, the prosperous lifestyles of their southern neighbors. That would no doubt destroy the regime’s governing mandate and internal stability, thus ensuring a demise more reminiscent of the East German system than the rapid growth seen under the Chinese model.
Simply, North Korean powerbrokers cannot afford to pursue liberation and reform, knowing that to do so would be political suicide. On the other hand, being unable to ditch the inefficient Stalinist economic model and adopt necessary modernizing reforms is seeing North Korea fall even further behind the economies of South Korea and China. To add to that, systematic corruption and organically developing public awareness of how more prosperous parts of the world live are gradually weakening the ideological foundations of the regime.
Sooner or later, public discontent with the economic ineptitude of leaders and their style of political authoritarianism will plunge the system into a life-threatening crisis. What we don’t know however, is when this crisis will manifest itself. For the time being at least, the regime seems relatively stable.
Those who believe that the dynastic succession will bring about a domestic crisis typically do not detail what such a crisis would entail, however it might be fair to say that the most likely causes would be internal division between the country’s backroom leaders, or a public uprising caused by such conflict. From where I stand, it is hard to see the elites turning on one another, and just as hard to imagine any form of civilian revolution occurring.
Revolutions are counter-intuitive from a certain aspect: they do not start because of inferior living conditions. A person who might keel over from starvation tomorrow is not concerned with fixing social ills; to them, finding enough food to get through the day is far more important. That is why historically speaking, there are not so many cases of revolutions happening in extremely poor countries.
All the evidence we need of this last point can be found in the recent revolutions of the Middle East. Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, was the country with the highest per capita income of any Middle Eastern country not awash with oil money. It is hardly a poor country; directly prior to the revolution, Tunisian GDP was $9,500 per person.
There are a number of factors that may cause a revolution but perhaps the most important of all is the perception of an ‘alternative’. To put it another way, people will only revolt if they can sense the existence of a potentially better way of life. Once people believe that their own way of life could be improved by adopting the system of another country, or perhaps the proposal of a better alternative social model, that is when they may go for the reins of power.
For example, the people of Eastern Europe who overturned their communist regimes in 1989 were well aware of better lifestyles led by the people of Western Europe, and found an attractive alternative in the adoption of a system based on the market economy and free democracy. Contrarily, the Islamic fundamentalists who rose to power in Iran in 1979 chose to substitute the system of the time for one based on idealized Islamic tradition. It does not matter whether the perceived ‘alternative’ is real or solely imagined in the minds of its proponents; for the purposes of a revolution, what matters is that it exists at all.
The second most important factor in a revolution is that no matter how authoritarian a regime may be said to be, it must acquiesce to the socio-political activities of its people to some degree. It is rare to find a regime that used a system of strict surveillance on their own people while brutally suppressing resistance and complaint getting overturned in a revolution. History shows that civilian revolutions are not typically responsible for bringing down the most barbaric dictatorships.
To illustrate this point, within four years of seizing power in 1976, the Cambodian Khmer Rouge managed to massacre around 20% of the entire country’s population. Despite that, it would be fair to say that there was little internal uprising against them.
Cambodian people chose not to speak up against the regime, knowing that to do so would risk immediate arrest, inhumane abuse and death, not just for oneself but one’s entire family. In the end, what brought this unprecedentedly murderous dictatorship down were not domestic civilian forces, but the military of communist neighbor Vietnam, which had elected to follow a more moderate course.
There are other similar examples in history. Those who have the will and the ways to massacre the necessary number of innocent civilians in order to maintain power do not tend to spend much time worrying about revolutions. See Stalin, Hitler, Mao Zedong and even Kim Il Sung.
Those who live under a system of absolute surveillance are unable to organize, and see rebellion as no different from suicide. Conversely, the only regimes that have ever been toppled by revolution have been ones that allowed their people a measure of social freedoms, overlooked the spread of alternative ideas and did not participate in ‘excessive’ brutality.
Thirdly, revolution is only possible when there is a network that allows the consideration of a better alternative to flourish. There needs to be an alternative elite, distant from the regime itself, made up of people who are able to quietly discuss politics and the like. Looking at the background of historical revolutions, labor unions and religious organizations, as well as intellectual and cultural organizations, have not just played a big role in the ideology of revolution, but have often been at the core of anti-regime actions; instigators in shaking the foundations of the system.
Many of those to have led successful revolutions in modern history have been from the intellectual classes that are overwhelmingly critical of ‘the regime’. Interestingly, communism is no exception to this pattern. Communist parties describe themselves as the non-propertied classes, but almost all senior communist leaders are from privileged backgrounds. Vladimir Lenin was the son of a senior public servant and Leon Trotsky’s father was for a time the wealthiest Jewish landowner in imperialist Russia.