[Viewpoint] Entering the final days

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[Viewpoint] Entering the final days

The relationship between North Korea and the rest of the world appears to be worsening. With prisoners taken, missiles launched and sharp words exchanged, there seems to be only the slimmest of chances to restart the six-party talks soon. Although the other five nations to those negotiations eagerly await the return of Pyongyang to the bargaining table, they must expect more challenges ahead. North Korea may very well be entering its third and perhaps final phase of existence.

The first stage was from 1948 to 1994, essentially the Cold War period and its immediate aftermath. Though quite harsh and collectivized by Western standards, life for most individuals in the North was bearable then. North Korea had more success industrializing than its southern counterpart up until the late 1970s. The former Soviet Union and China provided reliable energy supplies and Eastern European nations were ready markets for many North Korean products. Predictably, the fall of communism in Eastern Europe hit the North hard.

Additionally, a still uncompleted and asymmetrical realignment further estranged Pyongyang from the community of nations. Between 1990 and 1992, the former Soviet Union and China established diplomatic ties with Seoul. Kim Il Sung was at that time waiting for the United States and Japan to do the same with Pyongyang. When such reciprocity didn’t materialize, North Korea expressed a wish to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and accelerate research and development of nuclear weapons. The deadlock continues to this day.

The transition to the second phase began with the death of Kim Il Sung in 1994 and the gradual accession of his son Kim Jong-il. It was the first dynastic transfer of power in a nominally communist country. The North’s over-centralized, archaic leadership and severe, natural disasters almost guaranteed economic calamity. With at least a million dead from disease and starvation in the late 1990s plus rapidly falling industrial output, Pyongyang reluctantly reached out. NGOs came to feed isolated populations and Kim Dae-jung instituted the Sunshine Policy, the South’s new approach to the North that seemed to bring some tangible results at first: family reunions, reconnected rail links, cultural exchanges, and two summits.

Nevertheless, one could see clouds on the horizon. North Korea’s civil liberties record remained appalling. Defectors and human rights organizations could attest to that. Furthermore, Pyongyang’s attempts to attract South Korean and foreign investment were halfhearted at best. The Rajin-Sonbong Special Economic Zone and the Sinuiju Special Administrative Region are to this day almost complete failures.

The Kaesong Industrial Complex appears to be somewhat more successful, but still unprofitable for some of the South Korean businesses involved. Kim Jong-il’s regime is now reneging on pledges it made about the wages of North Korean workers, the safety of South Korean personnel, land use fees and border-crossing procedures. Other South Korean companies are going to be extremely wary of investing under these kinds of threats and abrupt changes.

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.

So, where is North Korea heading? There are four basic possibilities: (1) continued stagnation and isolation, (2) substantial reform and opening, (3) war on the Korean Peninsula, or (4) eventual implosion of the entire state.

Let’s deal with each scenario separately. Muddling through would be the outcome preferred by the party and military elite. This is unlikely to continue on a long-term basis. 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.

South Korea and the U.S. have encouraged meaningful restructuring and loosening of the old order in the northern half, with little to show. It’s been almost 15 years since the death of Kim Il Sung. From the late 1970s to the early 1990s, both Vietnam and China dramatically improved their economies and increased their contacts with the outside world. By comparison, Pyongyang’s steps in those directions have been miniscule and dawdling. The North’s aversion to sustaining agreed-upon military accords and diplomatic understandings makes this route even more remote.

An event that nobody wants would be all-out war. Fortunately, this is also very improbable. Combined South Korean-U.S. defense capabilities (including the nuclear umbrella) ensure that a North Korean invasion or missile attack would end in defeat for Pyongyang. Furthermore, neither Russia nor China has any desire to assist the North in such an adventure. Some analysts point to the size of the Korean People’s Army, estimated at 1 million. But most of those soldiers are underfed, poorly trained, and without sufficient ammunition, spare parts or fuel.

These shortages 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.

So be it; as they try harder and harder to hold on, their grip will eventually falter. This is particularly true with such untested young leadership about to take the reins.

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.

On the other hand, the U.S. and South Korea should expect stagnation (in the short-term), encourage reform and contacts, prevent a devastating war, yet also prepare for long-term collapse in the northern half of the Korean Peninsula. Although some naval inspection of North Korean vessels might occur, short of war, there is little else the United States or South Korea can do at this point.

*The writer is a professor at the Graduate School of International Studies, Hanyang University.

by Joseph Schouweiler
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