The collapse of North Korea is a subject of immense international interest.
Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the overthrow of Eastern
European "people's democracies", numerous scholars and research institutes have
had their say about the fate of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea
(DPRK). Now, in the wake of a power transition in Pyongyang, observers and
followers of North Korea are again making predictions on the mortality of the
world's last Stalinist state.
Everyone appears to accept the assumption that alterations within North Korea's
ruling elite will lead to fundamental changes in its policy. What analysts
abroad must realize is that a succession crisis will not alter the path that
North Korea is already on; the
key driving force always was and always will be the state's ethos of national
In September, the Institute of World Economy and International Relations
(IMEMO) published "Strategic Global Outlook: 2030," in which Russia's foremost
analysts boldly forecasted the collapse of North Korea and its absorption by
South Korea in the next 20 years.
The report cites a succession crisis as the key source of internal instability
leading to the collapse of the entire state. The analysts at IMEMO are by no
means uninformed, past directors at the Moscow-based institute have included
former Russian foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov. However, in this assessment
of the Korean Peninsula the report repeats the typical assumption that the Kim
dynasty constitutes the entirety of the state entity.
Nicholas Eberstadt, the godfather of the North Korea collapse theory, provides
three very concrete reasons why presumptions on the DPRK are inherently
fallible; first, North Korea operates in a universe that is unfamiliar to
foreign observers; second, there is a significant data famine; third, Pyongyang
actively pursues strategic deception.  Given these basic problems with
analyzing the DPRK, it is reasonable to challenge the popular notion that a
change in leadership will lead to the discontinuation of North Korea's militant
pursuit of sovereignty.
The DPRK always appears to be at a breaking point. The ongoing "nutritional
crisis" threatens to severely impact its population, its leader is passing the
reins to an inexperienced, under-qualified and quasi-legitimate heir, the
number of defectors continues to grow and the ongoing anti-government movements
around the world. All these factors make Pyongyang seem more vulnerable than
But the current situation is substantially better than the last time a majority
of analysts believed North Korea was near finished. In 1994, Kim Il-sung died,
leaving a successor who everybody believed lacked the charisma and leadership
capabilities to rule a country, while Pyongyang's immediate allies in the
communist bloc disintegrated, the People's Republic of China abandoned the
one-Korea doctrine and a debilitating famine struck the DPRK.
Nearly two decades afterwards, both the regime and the state still stand. More
importantly, the DPRK's posture towards the United States and South Korea did
not fundamentally change even under these dire circumstances.
Too often analysts turn to other regimes around the world as models for North
Korea; however, the same factors that have led to to the collapse of
authoritarian regimes elsewhere cannot be directly applied to the DPRK because
its raison d'etre is radically different.
Comparative historians offer plenty of reasons why despite the shared
experience of post-war political division, East Germany and North Korea
developed into two very different socialist countries. It is only logical that
the same rationale should be extended to assess the end-game narrative for both
Having derived its political authority from the Soviet Union, East Germany
collapsed and was absorbed into the Federal Republic of Germany when the Red
Army left. The DPRK is quite different; its political order derives legitimacy
from its own coercive institutions and the tenant that without the state, the
entire country will be absorbed into South Korea, a country that North Korea
views as being at the mercy of the international powers.
The exaggerated fear of absorption by South Korea is spurred not only by
propaganda, but also by memory of recent history. North Korea was born from
what remained of a country economically exploited by both the Japanese and
Soviet occupations. Historians tend to ignore the degree of abuse committed by
the Red Army in North Korea in the immediate aftermath of World War II, but it
explains a significant amount about why the DPRK views other countries with
According to James Person at the North Korea International Documentation
Project in Washington DC, the North Koreans perceived the Red Army not as
liberators, but as occupiers who engaged in looting and other exploitative
behavior during its presence on the peninsula.  This is what they thought
about a communist world power.
As a result of these experiences, the North Korean state developed one
inviolable principle: sovereignty. This is evident in archival documents from
the Cold War where North Korea continuously refuses Soviet economic advice and
denounces any notion that its economic policies were modeled after other
socialist nations. In one instance, a Soviet observer notes that "the mistakes
made in the economic field [of the DPRK] also derive from [the exaggerated
national pride of the Korean people], for the Korean comrades are loath to
adopt the experiences of other countries. They do not ask for advice, and they
go their own way." 
Pyongyang's economic policies have swerved in different directions over the
past 60 years, but it never joined the Soviet Union's COMECON or any
economic-political union that would interfere with its policies, regardless of
the potential economic benefits. This stance shows consistency with the state
ideology of Juche, which is often mistranslated and simplified abroad as
self-reliance. In fact, Juche is a focus on state sovereignty in its political,
economic and military affairs. It exists as a direct reaction to Korea's
tumultuous history of foreign encroachment and occupation.
North Koreans do not on oppose economic cooperation on principle, but reject
what they view as predatory economic and political behavior from foreign
states. This was the rationale behind rejecting entry into COMECON during the
Cold War and also for disavowing the ongoing multilateral insistence on
abandoning its nuclear program.
Today, North Korea observers are witnessing transition; not just of leadership,
but also of state operations slowly moving away from self-sufficiency and
autarky. They should not be confused as signs of the state abandoning its
A focus on sovereignty is still evident in the DPRK's economic approach. Its
relationship with its largest trade partner, the People's Republic of China, is
facilitated by the fact that Beijing does not interfere with Pyongyang's
domestic policies. John Park at the United States Institute of Peace notes that
China firmly opposes interfering in Pyongyang's domestic policies and makes no
direct linkage between joint development projects and denuclearization, thus
making it an attractive and appropriate partner for the DPRK. 
While the DPRK exhibits dependency on the People's Republic of China, it also
displays no qualms about seeking alternative political and economic ties with
Russia or reducing exchange altogether (see article
Dear Leader plays it smart Asia Times Online, September 2, 2011).
At the same time, changes are clearly visible in the once staunchly communist
Close analysis of North Korea's food distribution system shows a transition
from state rationing to private marketing. A consequence of this shift is
evident in the nature of North Korea's current food crisis. Analysis derived
from onsite observation indicate that the food shortages in recent years may
not be the result of complete depletion of the food stock like in the
mid-1990s, but a consequence of rising costs of food stuffs in a new consumer
market, functioning parallel with the defunct rationing system (see article
Food before politics on North Korea Asia Times Online, October 6,
In addition to changes in how the domestic market operates, North Korea
underwent a significant evolution in the application of information technology.
To the surprise of an international community that has long seen North Korea as
a vestige of isolationism, research has revealed that North Korea maintains
"adequately trained human capital, a rather developed industrial and
technological base, and sufficient financial resources to pursue the digital
Although only 1 million North Koreans subscribe to cell-phone services, the
number of users is expected to grow rapidly in the near future. In addition,
considering the investment the state is making into computer science education,
North Korea will probably have an expanding presence online as well.
Of course these avenues and openings to greater individual choices are heavily
monitored by the central government, but the state and the regime are taking
steps to scale back the systematic opposition to what they once deemed
"ideological and cultural infiltration" of foreign influences. At the same
time, these policies aimed at adapting North Korea to the realities of the
modern world cannot be viewed as affirmative signs of North Korea abandoning
its traditional principles. If anything, they will most likely bolster North
Korea's cyber warfare capabilities.
So what does this mean for the regime? One cannot assess with complete
certainty, but there is no reason to believe that the policies pursued by North
Korea will change based on who is actually on top or limited liberalization of
the society. Pursuit of sovereignty was a response to outside stimuli, why
should it change as long as current political paradigm of the region remains as
it is? In fact, exploitation and capitalization of natural resources through
cooperative economic ventures with China will better finance the regime's
control over the country.
One thing is certain: as long as the North Korean state feels as though its
existence is tenuous or insecure, it will continue to maintain coercive
policies in one form or another. But this essentially delusional and paranoid
global outlook has such a hold over North Korea partly because the fear of
absorption is so often confirmed by foreign sources such as the report
published by the IMEMO.
Besides irritating North Koreans, which to be fair is not at all a challenge,
analysts should be wary of how their own leaders will read these reports.
Analysts should always plan for contingencies, but to presume the destruction
of a state based on such little grounds is simply a recipe for irresponsible
policymaking by politicians who believe the assessments to be inevitable.
1. Nicholas Eberstadt gave this caveat at the IFES–WWICS Washington Forum,
"Security and Development on the Korean Peninsula," on November 2, 2011.
2. Donga Ilbo interview with James Person on March 11, 2010.
3. Report, Embassy of Hungary in North Korea to the Hungarian Foreign Ministry
(16 December 1959), MOL, XIX-J-1-j Korea, 11. doboz, 24/b, 001660/1960.
Translated by BalazsSzalontai.NKIDP virtual
4. John Park emphasizes the Chinese policy of Xiaokang, the goal of moving the
majority of China's population in the middle class, as the key reason for
Beijing's close cooperation with the DPRK. The resources extracted from North
Korea help fuel the development of China's impoverished northeastern provinces.
China imported around 8 million tons of coal from North Korea between January
and September of this year. According to Park, the economic relationship
satisfies both nations' interests.
5. Alexandre Mansourov.
North Korea on the Cusp of Digital Transformation. Nautilus Institute
Special Report, October 20, 2011.
Yong Kwon is a Washington-based analyst of international affairs.
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