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     Nov 9, 2011

Why North Korea won't quit
By Yong Kwon

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 sovereignty.

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. [1] 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 ever before.

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 states.

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 suspicion.

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. [2] 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." [3]

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 principles.

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. [4]

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 economy.

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, 2011).

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 revolution." [5]

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 archive.
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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