North Korea's Challenge of Regime Survival: Internal Problems and Implications for the Future.

The fall of the Soviet Union, German reunification, and China's embrace of capitalism have brought about neither the collapse of North Korea nor the end of the confrontation on the Korean peninsula, contrary to the predictions of many analysts who presumed that North Korea would not long survive the loss of its Communist allies without being forced to engage in economic and political reform. Yet almost a decade after the end of the cold war, North Korea has defied the "natural laws" of the politics of transition to the post-cold war era, clinging to survival and even finding limited support from an international community that fears the consequences of a shift away from the current status quo in the international relations of Northeast Asia towards an unpredictable, uncertain, and possibly unstable regional security environment.

As time has passed, the choices have only grown more stark for North Korea and its neighbors: the Asian financial crisis underscored, for South Korean policy makers, the costs of instability in North Korea, yet it is equally clear that North Korea cannot recover economically without adjustment of Pyongyang's policies, although the argument has been made that North Korea's political leadership may be able to muddle through with only minor adjustments to the system. [1] However, recent progress in reducing inter-Korean tensions notwithstanding, there is the distinct possibility that the leadership in Pyongyang may eventually be faced with crises beyond its control, with spillover effects that would necessitate an international response to instability caused by the ultimate failure of North Korea's leadership to respond to the severe challenges it may face.

Regardless of whether or not the North Korean leadership is able to muddle through with half-hearted adjustments to its current system or gain enough international food assistance and economic aid from the South to avoid the starkest possible choices, perceptions that the current regime in Pyongyang may not survive have already significantly influenced the policy calculus of North Korea and its neighbours, from the moment the Berlin Wall fell. The D.P.R.K. has decried the politics of "reunification by absorption" and appears to have learned certain lessons from East Germany's experience. Assessments of North Korea's survival prospects have been a major factor influencing the implementation of Seoul's reunification policies, Washington's non-proliferation policies, and Beijing's decisions to provide food assistance to North Korea.

Every neighboring state has already hedged its bets, promoting political dialogue formulas publicly while privately considering responses to various North Korean contingencies. But if there is instability in North Korea, precisely what factors must policy makers take into consideration? What factors have allowed the North Korean leadership to hold out against enormous systemic pressures for change? What sorts of contingencies might develop in the event of a breakdown in North Korea's political leadership, and what are the implications for regional stability? How have external assessments of North Korea's decline already influenced the direction of policy among North Korea's neighbors towards the Korean peninsula? What sorts of crisis might precipitate involvement by the international community, and how likely is it that such a failure might occur?

The recent inter-Korean summit notwithstanding, all of these questions are more, not less, salient now that North Korea's economic and political situation has stabilized; after all, populations with empty stomachs historically don't make good revolutionaries, and a stable food situation may be accompanied by questions about political responsibility for North Korea's precipitous and sustained economic decline. One must explore these questions to determine whether North Korea is "defying gravity," or whether there will eventually be a leadership breakdown in North Korea similar to that which occurred in other formerly Communist states.

North Korea's Collapse Avoidance and Regime Survival Strategies Examined

Almost a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Kim Il Sung dynasty still stands in Pyongyang despite the loss of political and economic support from its closest allies, the death of its founder and Great Leader, the narrow avoidance of a major military confrontation with the world's last remaining superpower over nuclear non-proliferation, a 25 to 40 percent drop in GDP, and a famine that has impoverished and killed hundreds of thousands and possibly millions of North Korean people in recent years. Considering these shocks to the North Korean system, the logical question is how the leadership in Pyongyang has thus far managed to achieve its primary objective of regime survival. Although an exhaustive analysis is beyond the scope of this paper, the following factors are most relevant as distinctive components of North Korea's survival strategy.

First, the legacy of Kim Il Sung's leadership and thought is the foundation of state power in the D.P.R.K., separate from the communist ideological core of other former communist states. Indeed, Kim Jong Il has relied heavily on the mantle of his father as justification for his leadership, perpetuating his identification with his father through extensive propaganda, even to the extent of reformulating the North Korean calendar to coincide with the anniversary of Kim Il Sung's birth. Kim Jong Il's genealogical relationship to Kim Il Sung and his grooming as successor for over two decades are the critical pillars of Kim Jong Il's power as North Korea's supreme political ruler.

Second, the historical competition for legitimacy on the Korean peninsula provides powerful motivation for North Korea's leadership to perpetuate its own survival, but the D.P.R.K. has found that its economy can no longer survive without dependence on external inputs. Increased empirical or anecdotal understanding by the North Korean public of South Korea's economic success represents an indirect threat to North Korea's internal political control, possibly a major lesson drawn by North Korean leaders from the German unification experience. Those within North Korea who may be in a position to gain a concrete understanding of South Korea's system are sufficiently invested in the North Korean system that they are rarely in a position to defect without paying a very high personal cost, a fact that was underscored by the recent selection, on the basis of political standing, of North Korean divided-family members who were permitted to travel to Seoul to meet their relatives on 15-18 August 2000.

Despite the adoption of Kim Dae Jung's "Sunshine Policy" towards the North, current North Korean leaders are probably not reassured regarding their likely treatment at the hands of South Korean authorities in the event of regime failure or a reunification process with South Korea on the German model. The historic competition for legitimacy between North and South Korea has inhibited North Korea's opening up because such a path would be an implicit admission of defeat; it is notable that inter-Korean economic cooperation posed at the historic inter-Korean summit in June 2000 has been done under the cover of Kim Jong Il's leadership in pursuit of Korean unification, an ironic twist on North Korea's historic use of political mobilization as a tool for maintaining political control.

Third, traditional historical influences on North Korea's government structure and organization -- including the "feudalistic" nature of North Korean social structures and the effective use of political mobilization measures and internal security mechanisms designed to enhance internal political control -- have contributed to the political stability of the D.P.R.K. through ruthless suppression of political dissent. [3] The North Korean succession process has relied on traditional Confucian influences to legitimize the leadership transition from father to son, extending expressions of filial piety and popular religious practice in the service of national mobilization in support of the political leadership.

Disruptions in the public distribution system resulting from North Korea's food crisis during 1997 and 1998 had contradictory influences on North Korean stability, increasing unrest over food shortages while effectively eliminating the threat of political dissent in favor of the more immediate challenge of ensuring personal survival by foraging for food. In addition, the lack of infrastructure and communication channels across regions within North Korea, as well as lack of contact with the outside world, inhibits the possibility that a mass-based organized resistance might spring up to challenge the current leadership. The relative stability of the North Korean system of governance and penetration of political control into almost all components of North Korean society lessens the likelihood of mass demonstrations that could lead to political upheaval; however, the desperation of the current food situation has also meant that political controls on movement and on barter activities at private markets have been loosened for the time being, leading to limited changes and some devolution of political control from the central government to local administrative authorities within North Korean society. Whether the central government is able to eventually recover such controls will be an important test of whether a North Korean process of reform might be driven by necessity, despite the absence of support for reforms among the central leadership. [4]

Influence of North Korean Collapse Prospects on Policymaking by External States

Despite the distinctive nature of the North Korean regime, analysis by "collapsists" has had an important impact on policy formation towards North Korea, particularly following negotiations resulting in the U.S.-D.P.R.K. Geneva Agreed Framework in 1994. [5] The rise in the influence of "collapsist" analysis was abetted by the tacit admission of weakness inherent in North Korea's decision to bargain away its nuclear weapons program for oil and energy resources, a development that many Washington-based intelligence analysts had predicted would not occur. As North Korea's systemic weaknesses have become more and more apparent following the death of Kim Il Sung, further questions have been raised among many outside observers regarding the longevity of the North Korean system. According to one South Korean study which used a variety of concrete economic and social indicators to compare North Korea with the Eastern European communist states, North Korea faced systemic pressures that should have led to a collapse of the North Korean system already by 1992, prior to the death of Kim Il Sung. [6] The failure of North Korea's agricultural system and unprecedented flooding in the summer of 1995 led for the first time to North Korean reliance on international food assistance from the United Nations World Food Programme, a dependence that has increased gradually since 1995.

North Korea's growing difficulties have fed perceptions of its weakness, yet the threat of North Korea's collapse and the likely international costs of spillover, in the form of refugees or possibly even military conflict, has also increased North Korea's leverage relative to its extraordinarily weak negotiating position. Thus, the influence of a possible breakdown inside North Korea on the policy formation process of its external neighbours so far is an important indicator of what types of potential future difficulties in North Korea might stimulate an international response, an issue to be taken up in more detail later in this paper.

For most South Koreans, the sudden fall of the Berlin Wall and subsequent German reunification process was initially a vicarious euphoric experience. Events in Germany transformed the debate over Korean reunification from the realm of abstraction to that of realistic possibility. As the German process developed, Korean academicians and policy analysts watched closely, drawing the sobering lesson that the transition effects of unification may be more expensive and protracted than initially anticipated. The death of Kim Il Sung catalyzed further policy debate over whether South Korea should pursue a sudden or gradual reunification policy, as prospects for an inter-Korean summit evaporated and inter-Korean tensions rose with Kim Young Sam's critical assessment of Kim Il Sung's leadership and place in history. During the next year, President Kim Young Sam appeared to pursue a defacto policy of containment of North Korea premised on the idea that KimJong II was a transitional figure who would fail to consolidate political power. North Korea was a "broken airplane" headed downward, and prospects for an imminent reunification were at hand. One year following Kim II Sung's death, however, Kim Young Sam's advisors were reported to revise their assessments, preparing to deal with Kim Jong II for the long haul; prospects for progress in inter-Korean dialogue were lost for the duration of Kim Young Sam's presidency.

In contrast, Kim Dae Jung's "Sunshine Policy" defers the issue of Korean reunification (and, by extension, appears to ignore the prospect of a North Korean collapse) in favor of enhanced dialogue, exchanges, cooperation, and peaceful coexistence. [7] A common South Korean argument in the aftermath of South Korea's economic crisis was that potential instability inside North Korea also put at risk South Korea's own economic performance by discouraging foreign direct investment in the South. South Korea's financial crisis also dramatically influenced South Korean public consideration of North Korea's prospective collapse through broad public support of the "Sunshine Policy" as a way of deferring the economic shock of a North Korean "hard landing." The practical impact of the Asian financial crisis on North Korea has been to defer the likelihood of near-term economic stabilization, possibly exacerbating North Korea's economic decline and increasing the appeal of inter-Korean economic cooperation as the only conceivable means of securing North Korea's economic rehabilitation.

Concern about the practical effects of North Korea's instability has influenced Beijing's policy towards the Korean peninsula. The impetus for an adjustment in China's policy most likely was a practical response to a surprising and disturbing increase in the number of North Korean refugees crossing the P.R.C.-D.P.R.K. border into Jilin and Liaoning provinces in search of food in late 1996. Although the government followed its policy of repatriating those North Koreans who were caught, many North Koreans sought refuge with ethnic Korean relatives living in China. The Chinese offered official bilateral food assistance to North Korea and relaxed restrictions on local trade and barter by Chinese Koreans who delivered food to relatives in North Korea. By 1997, the total flow of foodstuffs from China to North Korea had reached over one million tons. This de fact policy of support for food assistance to North Korea is consistent with China's strategic interest in stabilizing and perpetuating the existence of the North Korean regime as a security buffer while simultaneously increasing China's economic influence in North Korea even in the event of the failure of the leadership in Pyongyang. [10]

Possible Sources of Instability in North Korea

It is likely that external perceptions of North Korea's economic decline will continue to influence the decisions of policy makers in neighboring states who are faced with the following dilemma: external assessments are virtually unanimous in suggesting that the current situation and balance of power between North and South Korea is not sustainable for the long-term, yet no one wants to face the unpredictable implications of a sudden change in the status quo. Change in North Korea is inevitable, but the likely direction and pace of change remains unclear. [11]

A symptom of the lack of clarity regarding the pace and direction of change in North Korea is the imprecise nature of the analytical debate over North Korea's possible future "collapse" or "soft landing." When analysts have referred to "collapse" or breakdown within North Korea, they have often failed to indicate whether they are referring to an event or an ongoing process that may have already begun to take place. In addition, the level of analysis of such a collapse is also unclear; i.e., does "collapse" mean regime transition, breakdown of state functions, or systemic change? [12]

For instance, it is possible to envision a regime transition in Pyongyang without an accompanying collapse of the North Korean system, or regime transition may be a leading indicator signaling that the likelihood of a collapse of the system is significantly increased. (For many analysts, without a regime transition, a collapse of the political system under current circumstances is unthinkable; i.e., unless Kim Jong II leaves the scene, the system will not change.

Even if North Korea's central government were to become a failed state for a temporary period of time, a new leadership cadre -- most probably led by the North Korean military -- might consolidate political power and reassert control by winning support from local authorities. Such developments could mean the end of the Kim II Sung system in North Korea, or some elements of the system could live on in a different form. [13] Even if the regime were to fail and state collapse or chaos ensues, it is not immediately clear that Korean reunification would be at hand. Such a process of absorption would still require negotiations with, or perhaps even pacification of, North Korean local leaders who may not be willing to surrender political control or pledge their loyalties to a government in Seoul. Because the term "collapse" is used to encompass such a wide range of possible outcomes, discussion of "collapse" only hints at the various factors to be considered in formulating a proper policy response to a myriad of potential developments.