When North Korea Collapses

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As we have pointed out previously, in the principal divided-country scenarios of the second half of the 20th century -- North and South Vietnam, East and West Germany, North and South Yemen -- reunification was thought of for decades as only a remote possibility, before it suddenly occurred in a tumultuous, fast-moving fashion, in a way few of the experts had predicted, making a mockery of so many policy papers written on the subject. The current division of the Korean Peninsula should be seen in this light. Not only is the collapse of the regime in the northern half of the peninsula possible, but if and when it does occur, the process might be quicker than many suspect.

In a century of seamless digital communications that are remaking world politics, the survival of such a hermetic regime as North Korea, built on information control, certainly appears problematic. Behind the weird artificiality of the regime itself lies something quite ancient: The very concept of a leader in his mid- or late-20s, with no experience, made a four-star general and hailed as the "brilliant comrade" harks back to bizarre descriptions of ceremonial politics associated with the deep past. How much longer can such a situation go on?

To gauge the expiration date of the regime, it helps to describe its various stages of life, which one can divide into three generations of leadership. The first generation was the authentic revolutionaries and fighters: those of the anti-Japanese guerrilla struggle during World War II and of the struggle against American-supported South Korea during the Korean War. North Korea's ruler for the first half-century of its existence, Kim Il Sung, was the towering rock of this generation. This generation had immense stores of credibility encapsulated in Kim Il Sung's very charisma, comparable to that enjoyed by the Yugoslav and Albanian World War II communist guerrilla leaders and Cold War-era strongmen, Josip Broz Tito and Enver Hoxha, who did not rely on the Soviet Red Army for their countries' liberation from Nazi rule.

The second generation was the sons and daughters of those hardened fighters. This was a generation of privilege, of those who had accomplished nothing on their own, and thus had no inherent credibility. What's more, they had little intellectually to offer their countrymen, educated as they were in the Soviet Union, Mao Zedong's China and Communist Eastern Europe. And so the members of this generation harbored little or no real-world knowledge. This generation was represented by Kim Il Sung's son, Kim Jong Il, who simply had no ability to foster change. The relative prosperity of the elder Kim's North Korea -- in the late 1950s it actually was richer than South Korea -- further undermined this younger generation, which governed at a time of extreme poverty and occasional famine and thus had little to rely on but repression in order to stay in power.

The third generation, typified by the current ruler, Kim Jong Un, has possibilities, however. This generation, brought up after the collapse of communism as a world movement and geopolitical force, was sent to study in places like the United Kingdom, Austria and Switzerland and thus has gained more exposure to the West, however limited and pampered their individual experiences abroad might have been. Moreover, this third generation is not necessarily tied to the second generation's grim militarism -- to wit, the North Korean submarine infiltrations of South Korea and Japan during the 1980s. As for the North's sinking of the South Korean corvette in 2010, that was not something that a 20-something-year-old like Kim Jong Un decided upon on his own; such a decision was made by members of the second generation in order to ensure their own survival and that of the new third generation in power. Members of this third generation, which is only now starting to fill leadership positions in the bureaucracy, might -- because of their Western exposure and their own relative lack of political baggage -- actually be the ones to sell the country out by becoming power brokers in their own right for the economic exploitation of the country.

Much of North Korea's natural resources, such as coal, oil, lead and tungsten, lie in the northern two-fifths of the country, where much of the factories and population are also located -- in other words, close to China. China has detailed knowledge of North Korean companies -- something that the West totally lacks. Thus, a third generation sellout of its own country could take the form of an enhanced economic opening to China -- a quasi-liberalization of sorts, which would move North Korea away from Stalinism toward being a reform-Communist buffer state between China and South Korea, modeled in Beijing's own image. Of course, this implies a gradual change played out over years in order to stave off regime collapse, with the third generation all the while getting rich by off-loading the assets of the state to China and maybe some other countries.

But what if this process fails? What if a sell-off of state assets leads to economic changes that trigger political ones? Remember, the more oppressive and artificial a regime is, the more sudden can be its implosion. It may be that North Korea's eventual transition to a more normal state simply cannot be managed from the top.

If that is the case, then the next question is: How does one define collapse? The loss of central authority in the capital of Pyongyang, while fast-moving in a historical sense, might nevertheless play out over weeks rather than days. So at what point does China move forces across the Yalu and Tumen rivers to prevent a massive flight of refugees northward? At what point does the South Korean military act? Because North Korea is a heavily militarized state, the direction in which its commanders decide to defect -- to Beijing or to Seoul -- will be critical.

As we have previously written, there is, concomitantly, the strong likelihood of the mother of all humanitarian interventions in the event of a regime collapse. This is a country of 24.3 million people, many of whom subsist in utter poverty on the brink of starvation, and the responsibility for their welfare presently rests with the regime in Pyongyang. But if central authority disintegrates, the population will instantly become the responsibility of the so-called international community, which in this case means the militaries of the United States, South Korea and China.

In a fast-moving crisis, regional power balances for years and decades to come can be decided upon by crucial decisions made over hours or days. Such decisions may determine whether regime collapse leads to a veritable Beijing-run protectorate in the northern half of the peninsula or the eventual unification of the two Koreas. A reunified Greater Korea would perforce be run from Seoul, as South Korea's population of 48.5 million is twice the size of North Korea's, and its economy by some estimates is 37 times as large. And remember, Beijing is Seoul's largest trading partner. That means that even in the case of a Communist collapse in the North, China's very economic heft and geographical proximity will allow it to find a way to take advantage of any new political reality. Conversely, Japan, particularly because of the bad memories associated with the 1910-1945 occupation, may find it hard to have as close relations with a new Korean super-state as China.

Nevertheless, a unified Korea would be very nervous about ending up overly dependent upon China, given its size, proximity and history of periodic domination over the peninsula. It is likely that a Greater Korean state would, with the help of the United States and maybe Russia, seek to balance China and Japan against each other.

The key realization is that Asian geopolitics may in future years shift enormously, depending on the internal dynamics of one backbreakingly poor and diplomatically isolated state.

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