Sunday, June 07, 2009

North Korean Collapse Already Underway?

Ahn Byeong Jik
(Image from The Daily NK)

The June 4th issue of The Daily NK -- not a North Korea news agency, lest there be some confusion -- has an intriguing article: "North Korean Collapse Already Underway."

That's the view of Ahn Byeong Jik, Chairman of a South Korean think tank, The Zeitgeist. He thinks that North Korea is already collapsing . . . in slow motion, apparently. Ahn analyzed the North's economic situation in a paper, "The Past, present and future of the policy towards North Korea," presented on June 3rd at the Research Institute for New Korea.

Arguing that "North Korea under the Kim regime faces a situation where simply maintaining the economic cycle is impossible" and that "[i]nternal conditions which will inevitably cause collapse" are growing worse throughout the North, Ahn offers a list of factors suggesting serious decline: "collapse of the economic system; collapse of the financial and bureaucratic systems; paralysis in the reigning system; paralysis of social infrastructure; and widespread contraction of production."

He then adds a point that I've also been thinking about over the past several months, for I've been receiving unclassified daily reports from the US Army's open-source intelligence-gathering office, and the facts on the ground suggest systemic failure. As Ahn puts it:
"North Korea's planned economic system has fallen, but a market economic system has not been established to take its place. Without any functioning economic system, the national economy is just drifting . . . . The most obvious signs are consecutive famines and prolonged reliance on foreign aid."
I would add that from my reading of the open-source materials sent to me, even the lower levels of the ruling elite are growing disastisfied, for their lifestyle is in decline as the regime loses its ability to pay them regularly. The problem lies partly in the North's declining wealth, but also in the system's arbitrariness, as Ahn notes:
"The ultimate fate of both capitalist and socialist states depends on how the national finances are managed, but in North Korea the finances are managed on an arbitrary basis. The finances in North Korea are mainly controlled by Kim Jong Il and his power elite. Kim Jong Il's inner circle manages around 80 percent of the national finances and the Cabinet manages the rest. Such a Kim Jong Il-centric financial management system is concomitant with the collapse of the bureaucracy."
Apparently, only in the North's capital, Pyongyang, are food and other necessities tolerably supplied. Elsewhere throughout the North, the people are fixated upon the daily necessity of finding food. As Ahn points out, this means that the regime can no longer "control the people under a planned economy" and thus can no longer "mobilize manpower," which in turn causes a greater "collapse of production activities." The North is therefore caught in a vicious cycle ineluctably headed toward total collapse.

Meanwhile -- though the report on Ahn doesn't raise the point -- Kim Jong-il is frail and declining as he tries to ensure his youngest son's ascension to power by assuring the loyalty of the military through atomic testing and missile firing, but how much power can a son who is merely 25 or 26 wield in a culture where hierarchical status depends on age and experience? I think that the system will also begin to fail from the top as the decision-making process breaks down in upper-level squabbling once Kim Jong-il is gone.

What will happen then is anybody's guess, but I fear it won't be pretty -- a collapse that's less East German and more Romanian.

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At 11:16 AM, Anonymous Richardson said...

I don't think so, not yet. North Korea's planned system failed several years ago, but the country plugs along - the black market is not the system.

But the situation is still very fragile. The second side to stability is keeping truth from the population, and the flow of information that began during the famine is unstoppable and will eventually have effects.

Economics alone, though, won't do it as long as China intercedes. The regime elite has demonstrated that they have no problem letting most people starve while they live in comfort.

The problem is this; the elite control the situation, and they know that they have no chance of being successful in a reunified Korea. So their interest is in the status quo. Until that changes, North Korea won't fall.

When it does fall, there will be no soft landing; our choices are hard and harder.

At 11:17 AM, Anonymous Richardson said...

Should be "the black market is the system."

At 11:25 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, the black market, but that is draining support away from the elite. And the elite is not monolithic, nor uniformly culpable. Some are bound to switch sides. China is problematic, as you say, but what will happen when the young chip off the old block takes over in North Korea at age 26 or 27? I foresee problems.

But we'll see.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There'll be problems. Yes.

But I think China could (if it were seen by China as such) something useful. For the present using the "give/take tool" gives China pretty much the "barking dog on the front porch" tool.

It is useful for China to have a barking dog on it's doorstep. All attention is paid to the barking dog.

Best (for China) to keep that tool in it's tool-kit. Occasionally come out to assuage the dog, yet keep the barking heard.

All in all, NK serves China's purposes far, far more than it does NK's own.

Basically, NK serves as a "sounding board" - a test device in other words for China. Actually a good strategem were I looking at it from that side. China's got quite a bit tied up in US resources, witness a recent acquisition of of a necessary US' "GWOT" hardware company. Lest I unnecessarily confuse, Hummer.

Regardless, I consider that NK is simply a barking dog on a chain. There is no way... well I won't say that, we've got a succession apparently coming up.


At 12:53 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

China's a little annoyed, however, that this dog barks all night and maybe even in China's direction.

The succession issue might give China leverage to support some military leaders instead of Kim Jong-un, so the collapse could be delayed -- and perhaps circumvented if the military were a reform-oriented group.

We'll see.

Jeffery Hodges

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