[OUTLOOK]Preparing for a real possibilityA year has gone by, and suddenly we are at the beginning of a new one. People used to ask what changes would come in the new year, and this time, the issue of whether or not the North Korean government will collapse is an important one.
Our government’s high-ranking officials are confident that it will not. Does that mean it is really impossible?
People started talking about the theory that the North’s regime would collapse after they witnessed the fall of the former Soviet Union and communism in Eastern Europe. Not only did the Soviet Union have the largest military force in the world, it was a totalitarian state that strictly regulated society and individuals through a strong party organization and a huge bureaucracy. That is why nobody predicted its collapse.
In his book “Autopsy on an Empire,” Jack F. Matlock, who was the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union in its last days, pointed out that because the political and social systems of the Soviet Union were fundamentally flawed, its economic system fell behind and its ideology lost its persuasive power; the leaders of the Soviet Union relied on mass manipulation and oppression to govern the country.
Mr. Matlock admits that he does not have an explanation for why the regime ended in 1991 rather than sooner or later, or what the main factors were that led to the collapse, or whether it was inevitable or not. In other words, while structural causes were to blame for the end of the Soviet Union, no one knows exactly why it occurred when it did or for what reasons.
North Korea is in a similar situation. Its economy is ruined, and its politics are dependent on a military dictatorship. North Korea meets the structural requirements for a collapse. Moreover, the regime is in a dilemma in which it can neither promote reform, and open the country, nor not do so.
If reform is introduced, the sudden jump in inflation and the unemployment rate will threaten the stability of its society. But without reform, economic collapse will bring even more serious results.
Ultimately, for North Korea to choose reform would be an act of self-denial. If it chooses the path of the market economy, its very identity as an alternative to South Korea will disappear.
With a market economy, the North would essentially be no different from the South ― just shabbier and underdeveloped by comparison. This would probably mean the end of North Korea.
This is why North Korea is inconsistent, passive and hesitant when it comes to inter-Korean relations. The North is not hesitant because the South Korean government is intentionally trying to confuse North Korean society. The North is hesitant because the very existence of South Korea is a threat to it.
It is true that structurally, North Korea has the potential to collapse. The problem is that, just as in the case of the Soviet Union, no one can say when or how it will happen.
Therefore, instead of denying that it will happen, we must prepare ourselves for the possibility.
In particular, Northeast Asia’s geopolitical balance will have to be reconstructed the moment the status quo on the Korean Peninsula is destabilized.
Needless to say, our allies will be the most important countries to us in such a case. China could play a vital role. Japan and Russia should not be underestimated either. The attitudes and roles taken during German reunification by the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and France, as well as the diplomacy of West Germany’s leaders, are useful examples for us.
If North Korea does collapse, South Korea will have a great deal to do. However, if we continue to say that it won’t happen, and if we fail to prepare for it, our credibility will be questioned at the very moment when we will have to take action to achieve our national goal: unification, and peace in Northeast Asia. When speaking to the international community, it is advisable to make remarks that will leave a strong impression, and to do so only after having thought deeply about the issue from a long-term perspective and considered it from various points of view. In this respect, it is my hope that both our leaders and the people will become mature enough to choose their words carefully in the new year.
* The writer, a former ambassador to the United States, is a professor emeritus at Korea University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kim Kyung-won