Is the Present North Korean Regime Stable?

Experts on North Korea are perplexed about the recent happenings with regards to North Korea. Although it was somewhat expected that North Korean nuclear crisis will be taken to an extreme point, but it is astonishing to see the South Korean government still actively pursuing the economic cooperation with North Korea and the nuclear problem still incapable of recognizing the seriousness of the problem.

The reasons behind the South Korean government’s pursuance of economic cooperation with North Korea despite the seriousness of the North Korean problem have basis on the following logics.
One, as long as Kim Jong Il maintains control, North Korea’s regime collapse or democratization in North Korea is difficult. Two, even if the North Korean regime collapses, the kind of political, military, and economic chaos it will cause will bring tremendous suffering to the North Korean people. Three, it is only through liberalization and reformation North Korea can fundamentally solve its problems. Four, there is a high possibility of North Korean liberalization and reformation. These reasoning may seem practical and logical. However, these presumptions have critical errors.

Is the Present North Korean Regime Stable?

Many experts on North Korea experts predicted that North Korea will also collapse in few years when the Eastern European socialist countries collapsed in 1998. Many predicted the same after the death of Kim Il Sung. However, the North Korean regime did not collapse. Now only few believe in the collapse of the regime in North Korea at an early stage.

When the Eastern European socialist countries collapsed in chain reaction in 1989, the possibility of regime collapse in North Korea was very low. There were relatively less elements for collapse inside North Korea in compare to Eastern Europe countries. North Korea was geographically and sentimentally far away from those countries to be influenced. Furthermore, North Korea was an extremely closed society, which was unlikely to be influenced by happenings occurring in Europe. Although 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 international communists.” The collapse of 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 nothing to 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 low, despite the absence of Kim Il Sung. Those of who asserted that North Korean regime will soon collapse were only that they were 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 North Korea’s control system started to collapse. For decades the people of North Korea did not enjoy freedom of mobility (within the nation) but because there were so many people wandering in search for food, there was not way to control all of them. Furthermore, the government also started to have difficulties in border control. Whereas before, the few “border transgressors” were severely tortured or executed, now that there were so many crossing the river, the border became no longer controllable. The number of people who crossed over to China either in secret or by bribing, reach up to one million, but the government is still failing to control the border.

Corruption is another serious problem in North Korea. Corruption was already widely prevailing in North Korea before, but it was relatively better compare to other third world countries with similar economy. However after the food crisis, the belief “money is all” spread among the people regardless of their strata (class) and from lowest class to government officials, everyone practiced corrupted activities. The ways were created for 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, private businesses were strictly prohibited but after the food crisis and collapse of the food distribution system, the government had no control over emergence of underground markets or half-underground markets. Although law prohibited it, private businesses emerged and prospered openly in many places.
Meanwhile the 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 ground for they started to receive criticisms that they do not do anything but they only squeeze money from the people. Now there are people who openly criticize police here and there in North Korea, which was imaginable in the past.

Furthermore, people outside were astonished to see the North Korean people outraged during the soccer match that took place in March 30th between North Korean and Iran, which North Korea is so proud of. We, the foreigners, were only familiar with the North Korean people moving like machines under the government orders at least in the public. However, on that day we saw the North Korean people throwing things into the stadium and even pulling out the seats from benches and throwing them. The outrage continued despite the police restrained them. It is a truly surprising fact that the former North Korean system is collapsing in mass scale.

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.

Changes in North Korea’s control system do not mean the collapse of the regime. As Mao Zedong said – “Power comes from the gun” – power has a close relationship with 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 have close contact with the civilians and they also have family relations with civilians. 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, which has already turned anti-regime, with only the military force.

Kim Jong Il witnessed that for the collapse of the Eastern European socialist countries, communist ideology or the communist party does not have much power when a government is in trouble. Especially for the case of Rumania, Kim Jong Il may have learned the importance of 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 and lower.

Although this kind of control strategy by Kim Jong Il’ was effective for a significant period of time. Yet at the same time, it faced the problem, which if the system starts to collapse, it will not be able to stop the process 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 as 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 and 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 igniter is still a possibility.

Furthermore, as many experts prospect, death of Kim Jong Il can also bring a sudden change to North Korea. As mentioned before, currently in North Korea, the entire system is already collapsing thus the regime is maintained with fear and violence. The creation of fear and violence is done entirely by the regime that is 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 a 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 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 internal situation of North Korea. Similarly, it is also an error to believe that because the previous prediction 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.

First, 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 compare 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 Il.
Five, due to the widespread practice of corruption, most of the government departments function abnormally and the people’s outcry about the government official’s 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 hole is made in any part of the North Korean society, there is almost no safety net of which North Korea can rely on to overcome the breakage. The only safety net could be the military, but due to the characteristic of the military, 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, but it is foreseen that there is 50~60% of possibility of collapse within five years, and 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 of death.

Kim Young Hwan

– Editor Board, Zeitgeist
– President, Green People (1996-1997)
– Member of Committee for the Unification of Korea, National Democratic Alliance (Jun-Min-Ryun), (1989)
– Central commissioner of National Salvation Student Coalition at Seoul National University (1986)