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Like a thief in the night: the possibility of North Korean regime collapse and its implications for European security

Image credit: Roman Harak

Image credit: Roman Harak

Economists are frequently criticised for predicting three out of the last two recessions; meanwhile, most failed to forecast the recent global economic crisis. Is the same thing true of North Korea (DPRK) experts? Indeed most have at some point predicted imminent regime collapse: the end of the Cold War, dynastic transition to Kim Jong Il’s rule, the 1990’s famine, tightening sanctions, the failed 2009 currency reform, dynastic transition to Kim Jong Un. But will they fail to prognosticate the actual collapse, when it comes like a thief in the night? The question is important because a failed DPRK will radiate security consequences regionally and globally, including for Europe.

Let us first remember why DPRK collapse is the likely scenario on the Korean peninsula: the alternatives are implausible. Option (a) is forced unification following military victory of one side over the other. Due to massive escalation risk, this is a non-starter. Option (b) is gradual, peaceful transition of one country’s systems toward those of the other. This is actually the official position of both the DPRK and the ROK, but it is also a non-starter, as each government demands that the other adopt its system as the unification end state. Thus we have option (c), collapse of one side and attempted absorption by the other. Given the North’s feeble political legitimacy and horrendous economy, most scenarios envision abrupt collapse of the DPRK and its rapid absorption and unification on the South’s terms.

But does this schema not forget a possibility: inertia prevails and North Korea continues on its path of political repression and economic maldevelopment? Predicting DPRK regime collapse is a fool’s game, and indeed we have not seen mass elite defections or popular uprisings that typically signal regime change in authoritarian states. But in addition to the long-term trend of decreasing regime control (i.e., tolerated marketization and a failed public distribution system, loosened agricultural collectivization, increasing foreign media in the formerly hermetic country), there are reasons to think the current regime is particularly fragile.

  1. The head of the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces has been changed five times during Kim Jong Un’s forty months as supreme leader. The MPAF vice-minister has been promoted and demoted six times during that timeframe. In May 2015 MPAF minister Hyon Yong Chol was purged for insubordination and executed publicly (by anti-aircraft fire, in front of military elites) as a warning to other would-be rebels. One possibility is that the regime faces discipline problems at the general-officer level; this would endanger both regime/state security and crucial financial lifelines (the military handles many foreign currency earning activities). From a regime elite perspective, a scarier implication is that the Organization and Guidance Department (OGD)—which makes all senior-level civilian and military personnel appointments—is factionalized or leaderless. The most powerful institution in North Korea, many DPRK analysts believe OGD weakness would be a prelude to collapse.
  1. DPRK state media reported in mid-June 2015 that the country was facing the worst drought in a century. This is an exaggeration, but UN and ROK estimates of rice harvest decline range from 12%-20%, with barley and potato yields down even more. Such a poor harvest represents a major problem, as North Korea is an agrarian society and aspires to self-reliance in food production (although reality does not match ideological rhetoric).
  1. With no six-party talks and North Korea determined to never surrender its nuclear weapons, US de-nuclearization strategy for the peninsula has become co-terminous with regime change. No one seriously suggests fomenting revolution or war, but the US sees no hope in de-nuclearization through negotiations and its “strategic patience” policy is leading it to push the international community to continue tightening sanctions. The emphasis on coercion is not new, but previously its purpose was to force DPRK leaders to negotiate, whereas now the idea is to choke the regime until falls. That will probably happen eventually because North Korea only has two possible responses. The first is the current, failing strategy—“byungjin” (“dual path”)—to simultaneous nuclear weaponization and economic growth. The second approach is reliance on allied benefactors. But…
  1. The current regime in general, and Kim Jong Un in particular, has worsening relations with Russia and China. Kim angered Putin when on short notice he inexplicably cancelled a trip to Moscow in May 2015 for the 70th anniversary of victory in WWII. Then in June he rebuffed China’s invitation to similar celebrations in Beijing scheduled for September 2015. This follows a two-year period of historically frigid relations between the North and China. Russia and China have functioned as the DPRK’s lifelines, so breakdown in those relationships makes the regime more vulnerable to endogenous and exogenous shocks.
  1. Western officials working on DPRK issues privately say that Kim Jong Un is either disinterested in/distracted from or very bad at diplomacy (or both). Fragile leaders do not engage in the luxury of diplomatic travel if they are afraid of a coup d’état, and one notes that Kim has not left the DPRK since assuming power in 2011, not even to visit China. More importantly, Kim does not seem to grasp how the North’s distinctive, traditional coercive diplomacy works. Kim’s predecessors mastered the cycle of provocation ending in concessions from the international community, and this was crucial to regime survival. Kim does not seem to know how to follow their playbook.
  1. Kim’s poor health and massive weight gain recently are regime stability risk factors. A medical emergency or his unexpected death would leave a power vacuum.
  1. Kim has carried out a major series of purges. Since 2012, nearly seventy high-ranking military officers and party cadres have been executed. One could argue that the official reasons for the purges—insubordination, establishment of disloyal factions, sedition/treason—indicate high-level loyalty problems and thus cracks in the regime. This is likely the case for the military, which has been hard-hit by the purges, and seems to have been downgraded relative to the State Security apparatus and the OGD. Whatever the underlying power configuration, Kim is a leader who cannot lead, and this is dangerous in North Korea because its institutions breed so-called “lines.” “Lines” are patronage-driven factional lineages that support elite leaders. When elite leaders are purged, their “lines” are either purged also or have to find a new elite patron for protection. Unsurprisingly, purges also produce resentment and desire for revenge by disadvantaged “lines.” Kim Jong Un’s predecessors knew how to handle this, but even they faced multiple assassination plots. Will the new supreme leader be as skilled?

None of these factors mean that North Korea will fall apart imminently. But it does explain why the DPRK has a 94.3 rating on the Fragile States Index (on par with Mauritania and Liberia), why a recent Ilmin Institute survey of 135 DPRK experts estimated median regime lifetime at 10-20 years, and why (off-the-record) government officials in several countries with major DPRK risk exposure argue that it will fall sooner rather than later.

In an earlier European Geostrategy post, I discussed traditional and non-traditional security threats that would emerge from a failed DPRK, as well as areas in which European crisis-management assistance might be useful during a post-collapse environment. These areas range from humanitarian crises, to transitional justice issues, to preventing/countering weapons proliferation. These issues (and others) remain important. But what I want to focus on in my conclusion to this post are the geopolitical consequences of DPRK collapse and ensuing Korean unification efforts.

North Korean collapse and peninsular unification would transform the Northeast Asian region, and especially its alliance architecture. This transformation would largely disadvantage China, which would suddenly have borders contiguous to territory that would be part of the US-Korea-Japan constellation. Thus a distinct possibility is that China—defying both ROK and US desires—would work hard to undermine the North’s absorption. This would inherently destabilize a region in which the five major players (US, China, Korea, Japan, Russia) are all EU strategic partners and among its top eight trade partners.

If a putative Chinese strategy of undermining Korean unification were to fail, its fallback position would be adopting a more aggressive posture. Given a realigned region in which it were deprived of its buffer state ally, China could be expected to use leverage in other places to maintain its interests. For example, it would compensate by exerting more pressure on Taiwan, the South China Sea, and the Senkakus/Diayous. These potential actions would affect global commons—e.g., SLOCs, overflight rights—whose secure access is vital for Europe’s economy.

Yet another scenario is that the current US-ROK-Japan security alliance would not persist without the presence of North Korea. After all, the US-ROK alliance is primarily for DPRK deterrence, which would be unnecessary after unification. Notably a unified Korea could theoretically gravitate more to China on security cooperation (reflecting the weight of their economic relationship). This specific scenario is unlikely, but at the least a more independent, “balancer-role” Korea could emerge. The dynamics of formal alliance dissolution would be unpredictable, but history shows that a Korea-Japan relationship without the US to enforce cooperation is fraught with conflict. In any event, all of these possibilities should lead to re-examining how Europe prioritizes its East Asian strategic partnerships.

This is obviously not a comprehensive list of geopolitical challenges that might arise from a hypothetical DPRK collapse; nor can I provide solutions. But these issues are possible events that European policy-makers should consider when reflecting on the evolution of Northeast Asia. As one high-ranking foreign policy official with an extensive North Korea portfolio recently stated in a closed-door meeting, all states with interests in Northeast Asia, and particularly the Korean peninsula, are being negligent if they are not crafting strategy with collapse and unification in mind.

Vol. 7, No. 49 (2015)

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