Thursday, August 04, 2011

Robert Kaplan and Abraham M. Denmark on North Korea's Demise

Robert Kaplan and Abraham M. Denmark, both of the Center for a New American Security, have co-authored an article for World Affairs (May/June 2011): "The Long Goodbye: The Future North Korea."

Robert Kaplan

Abraham M. Denmark

Their interest is in the possible collapse of North Korea, which they expect will be almost entirely unlike most of the collapses that occurred in Eastern Europe in 1989, but they did find one potential parallel:
[T]here is one lesson from Eastern Europe's example that does shed a chilling light on North Korea: the more repressive and artificially maintained the regime is, the more sudden and precipitous the collapse. Poland and Hungary, the most liberally administered Communist satellite states, with reformist factions tolerated inside the party apparatuses, had soft, velvet collapses that played out gradually over many months, beginning in 1988, a year before the Berlin Wall actually fell. But Albania and Romania, whose Stalinist regimes were heavily dependent on extreme cults of personality, unraveled at once and without warning. In the case of Romania, it took only ten days for a small demonstration about minority rights in the western city of Timisoara to mushroom into a nationwide uprising that culminated in the grim executions of tyrants Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu. Nobody should consider the future of North Korea without keeping in mind the Romanian example. It is not a coincidence that Nicolae Ceausescu was a close friend of Kim Il-sung, and considered North Korea a model for Communist Romania.
I recall stating a similar warning in 1995, but sufficient time has passed for me to steer clear of uttering confident remarks about North Korea's possible collapse . . . though I'll gladly quote the predictions of other individuals. The parallel to Romania is at least historically valid, for Nicolae Ceausescu modeled his own cult of personality on that of Kim Il-sung after a visit to North Korea, and I remember well what happened when the abrupt collapse struck, for a friend and I were in Switzerland listening to the BBC-reported events on his shortwave radio, and we had a bit of fun at Ceausescu's expense, though events were in fact quite serious.

Kaplan and Denmark don't exactly predict, but they do consider various scenarios for collapse, each one more unexpected and alarming than all of the others.

The article is worth reading for a reminder that none of us knows what the feck is going to happen in the Kingdom of the North . . .

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At 2:12 PM, Blogger Aaron said...

Thanks for the link. I hadn't seen this article.

I've thought for a long time that when regime change (or outright collapse) comes in North Korea, it will come suddenly, without much (if any) warning. As the saying goes, "history has a way of arriving unannounced." One day everything will seem normal up there, and then the next day we'll all be wondering what the hell just happened. The United States intelligence community has come under (unjustified) fire for failing to predict the wave of protests sweeping the Middle East, but the U.S. has even less worthwhile knowledge about what goes on inside North Korea. Perhaps China will be better positioned to foresee big changes in the North, but even with their access and influence, the Chinese are not omniscient. And South Korean spies, for their part, certainly haven't inspired much confidence of late. So, as much as South Korea, Japan, and the United States would like to orchestrate a slow, carefully managed reunification of the two Koreas, my money's on that unannounced arrival of history.

At 2:26 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

You're welcome, Aaron. The article's a good summary of things. I didn't learn anything new, but the reminders were useful.

Like you, I put my money on the unexpected up north. Unlike you, though, I have more sympathy for the US intelligence failure in the Middle East. Did anyone see that coming?

Now, you'll likely point to somebody who did, and I'll have to eat crow . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:40 PM, Blogger Aaron said...

Sorry, I guess I didn't word that correctly. Like you, I don't believe we can fault US intelligence for failing to predict that a Tunisian fruit-seller would immolate himself and thus ignite the whole region.

As someone mentions in the linked article, the Mid-east turmoil isn't likely to spread to the DPRK. That said, I wouldn't be surprised if some seemingly small event (like the fruit-seller's protest) escalates into something that threatens the North Korean regime. There's ample speculation about macro factors which might cause that regime to collapse, but the actual, micro-trigger is impossible to foresee.

At 5:05 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I agree, though conditions up north would need to be more developed so as to allow intercommunication among protesters and recognition by the world.

The mass demonstrations in the Middle East were possible due to the combined effect of the old mass media and the new postmodern media.

North Koreans need more cell phones to organize themselves and get their messages out to the world before something like the self-immolation of a fruitseller would set off a country-wide conflagration.

In my opinion . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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