Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The Last Days of North Korea?

Joseph Schouweiler
Division of International Studies
Hanyang University
(Image from Hanyang University)

Twice lately, I've written on the 'inevitable' collapse of North Korea, so I'm gratified to see that the more learned Professor Joseph Schouweiler, of Hanyang University, holds a similar opinion -- as does also the ever-insightful Ms. Jodi Kiely -- thereby bolstering my confidence in my own less-well-informed predictions.

In the June 29th issue of the JoongAng Daily, Schouweiler has published a moderately long, interesting article with a nearly-eschatological-sounding title, "Entering the final days," in which he analyzes three stages in the history of North Korea, culminating in a "third and perhaps final phase of [its] existence":
We may now see the beginning of the third stage in North Korea's history. Kim Jong-il is ailing, but grooming one of his three sons as heir apparent: probably Kim Jong-un, the youngest. This entrenchment of a communist monarchy would almost be laughable if not for the tragic results suffered by the people in the North.

Kim Jong-il trained for many years under Kim Il Sung in several important party posts and government positions. Unlike the rigorous testing of the Dear Leader, his three sons are mostly inexperienced, lacking independent power bases and probably unfamiliar with the geopolitical realities facing North Korea today.
Schouweiler outlines four possible futures for North Korea, noting implosion as the most likely of these:
These [various problems] . . . along with ongoing, intensified repression point to the most distinct possibility: collapse of the whole regime, probably within the next 10 to 15 years. The only constant in the universe is change, something the Pyongyang elite still don't get.
The 10 to 15 years seems a bit long to me because I would expect the crisis to come with Kim Jong-il's imminent death, which could be within the next year. That would be the moment for a power struggle that might bring the system down altogether. Let me supplement this point with a passage from a short piece written by Jodi Kiely on Joshua Stanton's One Free Korea:
[W]hat makes the reunification scenario more possible this time around compared to previous predictions that have fallen short throughout the years? It's obviously the brief grooming period for Kim Jong Un combined with his youth and inexperience. Should Fat Boy Kim croak within the next two years, the scene is perfectly set for a power struggle: How much loyalty will DPRK leaders and the people have for KJU? (Remember, his father had virtually decades of grooming -- enough time for a loyal following to form.) Also, how much influence can a 26-year-old kid who has spent most of his years being educated in Europe (versus China or Russia) have on leaders who no doubt hold seniority over him not only in age, but also experience within the regime? Is a military coup possible in someone's greed for power? Or will KJU act as a figurehead leader and let those in the regime control him as they see fit?
Ms. Kiely considers a military coup or Kim Jong-un as figurehead, but expects collapse. Schouweiler doesn't explicitly discuss the likelihood of a power struggle, but he gives some details that can be pressed into service on this point, for if that struggle weakens the system, the North Korean people might see an opportunity for change because they know that they have been lied to about the South:
North Koreans while suffering the ordeal of day-to-day survival are gradually learning more about freer, more prosperous lives in China and South Korea. Fraternal bonds between Beijing and Pyongyang are fraying more these days. Trade and other contact between Mainland Chinese and South Koreans is growing in leaps and bounds over those across the Manchurian-North Korean border.
This is happening concurrent with a worsening economy in the North, as pointed out by Ahn Byeong Jik, whom I quoted in a previous blog entry on North Korean collapse:
"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."
Moreover, the North Korean people realize that their lives are getting worse, and are even willing to say so, as I noted in a follow-up blog entry by quoting a North Korean man, Han Duk-soo, who voiced this remarkable complaint: "Even though the Party now claims times are good, things were not even . . . [so] bad as this during Japanese rule." Given such open skepticism about their government's competence, the North Korean people might have finally run out of their longsuffering patience with the Kim family's hereditary communist rule and thus might not put up with another succession. But everything depends on China, as Schouweiler notes:
The key to minimizing a disruptive implosion lies primarily with the government in Beijing, the lifeline for Kim Jong-il. So far, a divided Korea has served the interests of the Chinese government well: a communist buffer state on its border and profitable trade with the South. They must realize this arrangement won’t last forever. South Korea and China have the biggest long-range stake in forging a peaceful, revitalized Northeast Asia after the demise of the North.
China may exact a price, and though Schouweiler doesn't specify one, Ms. Kiely offers a rather pricy scenario:
[I]n order to prevent a China rule by proxy or invasion of North Korea after a regime collapse, the U.S. (not South Korea) would have to step in and try to hatchet out an agreement with the Mainland. Such an agreement, he believes, would require the absolute, 100% withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea which would leave the U.S. military nowhere near China or any of its borders. In such an event, perhaps then, China would back off and allow South Korea to occupy the North.
Stiff terms for the US, perhaps, but probably worth it for the Koreans . . . and the Americans will still be merely a hop away, just across that sea with the disputed name to the east of Korea and the west of Japan.

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At 2:59 AM, Blogger DogwoodTree05 said...

It's not only that Kim Jong-un is so young and has spent little time building up support in North Korea. It's also that his father, Kim Jong-il never attained the same authority as his father, who retains the title "eternal president." Kim Jong-il doesn't have the same authority to secure his son's ascension as his own father, Kim Il-sung, had.

The annointed successor's position is also weakened by his lineage; his mother was born in Japan. In the 1950s and early 1960s, North Korea used patriotic appeals to lure Korean residents of Japan. Japanese-born Koreans and their families have long been used as a source of foreign currency and goods but have never been accepted as real Koreans.

If Kim Jong-un assumes power, his fate will be like that of Joseon's last king, Kojong, who had no real power and did not live to a ripe old age.

At 4:22 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Excellent points, and thanks for noting them. They further demonstrate just how precarious is the position of the North Korean nomenklatura as Kim Jong-il weakens.

Thanks for visiting.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oops, I forgot to login under my better known Wordpress username, Sonagi. That post was mine. I wondered for a moment why you wrote "Thanks for visiting." It sounded rather cold. Then I glanced at the username and realized you thought you'd attracted a new commenter. Sorry to disappoint.

At 1:19 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Ah, Sonagi! Now, I recognize that literary hand.

Thanks for visiting (hee hee hee).

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:52 AM, Blogger Won Joon Choe said...


Most of your points are sound, but the Kojong reference is a bit odd, because he did "live to a ripe old age." I believe he lived to be almost 70, and he was actually one of the longest-living Joseon monarchs. Perhaps you are getting him confused with his wife--who did have a early, and emphatically fitting, demise?

At 5:57 AM, Blogger Won Joon Choe said...

Let me correct myself a bit: Consort Min's demise would've been more "fitting" if it had occurred during 임오군란, rather than at the hands of the Japanese--which engendered a revisionist movement to lionize her as a some sort of patriotic martyred heroine.

At 5:58 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I'm not sure if Sonagi will see your comment, but if you went to her website, you might be able to get her attention here on this point.

Anyway, good to hear from you again.

Jeffery Hodges

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