As a card carrying "collapsist" I still hope for peaceful unification and a soft landing and will be glad to have my warnings ridiculed as chicken little and the boy who cried wolf.. But I also believe we should plan and prepare for the worst case.
This is a dangerous combination indeed. This does not mean that North Korean collapse is imminent – with some luck the North Korean regime can hold on for a couple of decades (if not longer). Nonetheless, this might all mean that regime collapse from within is now more likely to happen than ever. So the long-discredited collapsist school might be proven right at last.
We should prepare for this likely eventuality and we should also ask if collapse from within is more likely to happen now more than ever, what should we be doing about that? There is a strategy and campaign plan to be written here somewhere.
When North Korea may collapse
Pyongyang's belated economic reforms make 'middle-run' scenarios more likely
When it comes to predicting North Korea’s future, a recurring theme is their impending collapse. The collapsist school of scholars, who have repeatedly predicted North Korea’s disintegration since the 1990s, were brought into being by the collapse of the Soviet Union – obviously, no one was talking about such things before 1989-90. The composition of this school has changed over time, but at any given period there are people to be found expressing such views.
Thus far such predictions have proven false: North Korea has survived against the odds, with little change in its ideology or political structure. Non-collapsist analysts might have admitted that in the long run North Korea’s collapse is a likely outcome, but emphasized that this “long run” might be very long indeed.
Being a believer in an imminent collapse now attracts some stigma, but the present author is willing to take the risk and say that recent developments make the chances of regime disintegration in the North far more likely in the mid-term. Of course, this does not mean that North Korea’s collapse is inevitable; rather it means that some changes in North Korea increase the possibility of this outcome and that we should therefore take it more seriously. It appears that the combination of three factors might become destabilizing for the regime. These factors are as follows.
“Recent developments make the chances of regime disintegration in the North far more likely in the mid-term”
First, attempted economic reforms. Second, an increasingly restive population (and especially the lower elite). Third, a growing sense of insecurity among members of the top elite.
CHANGING ECONOMY, SOCIETY
It appears that Kim Jong Un’s government is seriously considering social and economic reforms, somewhat similar to reforms undertaken by China in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Last year, a large scale (and obviously successful) experiment may have heralded the start of a switch to family-based agriculture, i.e. the crawling de-collectivization of agriculture. There have also been attempts to increase the independence of state-owned enterprises, as well as efforts to attract large numbers of foreign tourists.
“The decision to initiate reform-like changes is, in itself, very dangerous in a country like North Korea”
All such efforts are limited in their scope, but the decision to initiate reform-like changes is, in itself, very dangerous in a country like North Korea. Reforms will make people less dependent on the government and more exposed to new ideas, as well as more capable of organizing themselves. Last but not least, these changes will make North Koreans much more aware of life overseas, especially in South Korea. This is exactly why the late Kim Jong Il chose not to follow the Chinese reformist path. His son seemingly has chosen a different path. The risks associated with such a path might be calculated, but they are risks nonetheless.
Secondly, the North Korean people, and especially low-ranking officials and intellectuals, seem to be becoming more restive. The present author has dealt with North Korea for 30 years and it has always been a common-sense observation that North Koreans almost never express opinions on political subjects if such opinions are different from what was written in the Rodong Sinmun. In some rare cases, foreigners have managed to develop a level of trust that allowed their North Korean contacts to express mildly critical opinions about their government. However, such things were very rare, such relationships were difficult to develop and most North Koreans either bought the official line more or less wholesale, or at least did not dare express any doubt about the official line.
However, things have changed in the last few years. Such changes have been quite dramatic and noticeable. For obvious reasons one cannot be too specific on such issues, but a number of foreigners coming from different countries (including Russia and China) have begun to report on hitherto unthinkable encounters with North Koreans, including officials of various kinds. From such reports it seems that North Koreans are far more willing than ever to talk politics, and express their alienation or even open hostility to the regime. It is significant that we are not talking about a small number of defectors or aspiring defectors, but rather about normal North Koreans, who are not aiming to leave their country (or if on an officially sanctioned trip, have every intention of returning home). Reports about such encounters are too numerous to discard as mere isolated incidents.
“North Koreans are far more willing than ever to talk politics, and express their alienation or even open hostility to the regime”
Most critically minded people are not dissidents, and they are not willing to challenge the government yet. However, they talk about the country’s economic destitution, as well as the growing (and already yawning) gulf between North Korea and its neighbors. It is important to note that while in the past it was the American economic blockade that was blamed, it is now the government that is seen as responsible for the country’s economic misfortunes. Corruption and lawlessness are also criticized, even as it is the critics who engage in corruption themselves.
To the present author this picture is reminiscent of the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s. At the time, only a tiny fraction of the population were clear-cut dissenters, but pretty much everybody, including a majority of party apparatchiks, shared the feeling that things in the country were not going in the right direction.
(Continued at the link below)