[Viewpoint] Dashed hopesNational megalomania and a persecution complex run deep in North Korea. The leaders believe that the world, and the United States in particular, is focused only on overthrowing its regime and leadership and is constantly hatching conspiracies to advance that cause. The North’s answer is nuclear weapons and missiles.
So North Korea hides its weaknesses and presents a strong, tough image to the world; it lavishes money on arms to reinforce that strong image, no matter how much its people suffer; and it values the threats it issues because it believes that not to threaten is a sign of weakness.
The only hope I can still cling to is that the North Korean regime is not invulnerable to shocks, no matter how effective its secret police are in stamping out dissent. I believe that further shocks are inevitable, given the effects of globalization and the penetrating power of information technology, but the quasi-religious indoctrination of the populace will not lead immediately to regime collapse and anarchy. It is during those times of increased stress but not yet open revolt that change and opening are most possible, when the leadership is hungry for survival but is facing the abyss. The 23,000 North Koreans who have escaped their homeland and made the perilous journey to Seoul are one sign of a wider discontent in the North that is effectively suppressed but still there.
Already, the central distribution system of daily essentials has broken down in most parts of the country, and an informal market system has emerged to replace it. The leaders are wary of those markets, of course, and there have been periodic crackdowns on them. But they survive, and the leaders are just as afraid of destroying them as they are of letting them continue.
If any one of North Korea’s self-imposed limitations is overcome - less religion and more practicality; less confrontation with the South and more reconciliation; less persecution complex and more focus on economic advancement; or less “military first” and more spending on domestic needs - there is a chance for a thaw in relations with the rest of the world.
China will be a key to any thaw, but the relationship between China and North Korea is complex and sensitive. Victor Cha explained in an online article in April why China is unable to bring North Korea to its senses. He says, and I agree, that China is cornered. Its interests demand that it support the North, but Pyongyang’s concentration camps and other brutalities tarnish Beijing’s reputation around the world.
As Cha notes, it is not paternal love or shared ideology that keeps China from cracking down; it is China’s calculation of its national interests. It wants a buffer between itself and the dynamic, democratic and U.S.-aligned southern half of Korea, and it wants to prevent a flood of refugees into its territory that could inflame ethnic tensions there. For its part, North Korea remains wary of China, the historical hegemon that the United States has not completely replaced.
At some point, it will be clear to Pyongyang that it must unbutton its misfastened shirt, start over again, and join the modern world. When that will happen is anyone’s guess, but the only choices are reform or collapse. With reform, North Korea can take its place in the modern world; without it, the world will someday use the term “the former North Korea” as it now talks about “the former Soviet Union” or “the former East Germany.”
* This is the second in a two-part series by Ambassador Park.
* The author is a distinguished professor at Korea University.
by Park Soo-gil