The illusion of a collapse
The Park Geun-hye administration launched three years ago with an ambitious drive to improve inter-Korean relations with a so-called trust-building process. Three years later, the trust-building process was superceded by a theory of North Korea’s collapse, which emerged as the pillar of our government’s North Korea policy. Over the past year, Park’s hard-line policy transformed from a belief that the North will collapse to an attempt to bring it down.
It is the fourth time that we have seen the theory of the North’s collapse. The first was raised when the Soviet Union and the Eastern European socialist countries fell in 1991. The second time was upon Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994 and the third came during the Arab Spring from 2010 to 2011. In all three periods, people anticipated the North’s collapse, but didn’t take active measures for the toppling of the North’s ruling regime. This time is different.
Following Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test on Jan. 6 and a long-range rocket test on Feb. 7, Park decided to pull the plug on the Kaesong Industrial Complex and to allow the U.S. deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) antimissile system in the South. In a speech on Feb. 16 at the National Assembly, Park spoke of her intention to bring down the recalcitrant regime in Pyongyang. “I will make the North Korean regime acutely realize the fact that nuclear development won’t guarantee its survival and that it will actually speed up its collapse.”
With the speech, her declaration that unification will be a “jackpot” — made during a press conference at the beginning of 2014 — and her Dresden declaration to “bring changes to the North through contacts” — made in March of that year — all became null and void. At the Creative National Defense seminar by the Ministry of National Defense in August 2015, a decapitation operation aimed at removing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was announced.
The decapitation operation is in line with the U.S. strategy for the 2003 Iraq War. Based on then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s strategy of concentrating firepower on the “Center of Gravity,” U.S. troops took over Baghdad first and removed Saddam Hussein. The strategy is based on the theory that in a totalitarian state, removal of the leader will lead to the collapse of the entire system. After the decapitation operation and the theory of North Korean collapse were made public, Pyongyang — as we could easily expect — countered with raw verbal assaults against Park and threats to attack the Blue House.
Is North Korea’s collapse possible? For anticipation to become reality, a popular uprising must take place as in the Arab Spring in 2011-12, in Eastern Europe in 1989 and East Germany in 1989-90. Or an ideologist boxed into a corner who assassinates the supreme leader — like Kim Jae-gyu’s assassination of Park Chung Hee on Oct. 26, 1979 — is necessary.
And yet, the North does not have a civic society and there is almost no possibility that a popular uprising will take place. That scenario may be possible when the number of mobile phones in the North increases to 10 million from the current 3.7 million. Under Kim Jong-un’s politics of fear, in which military leaders are promoted and demoted frequently and top officials of the party and the military are often executed, it is impossible to expect an assassination of the supreme leader or a coup inside the reclusive palaces of Pyongyang.
Now, what about toppling North Korea? We do not have any means to achieve it other than a war. South Korean people oppose a war. The United States, whose support would be necessary to prosecute such a war, does not want a war on the Korean Peninsula, except for its military-industrial complex. Furthermore, there is the China factor. A war would definitely end the Kim dynasty in the North, but Beijing won’t allow this if it means the South’s absorption of the North. For China, the North is a priceless strategic asset as a buffer in the increasingly hostile U.S.-China confrontation on the peninsula.
It is unrealistic that North Korea will collapse, and it is also unrealistic that the South will bring it down. The theory of the North’s collapse, therefore, is a wishful fantasy of so-called collapsists in Seoul and Washington. Removing Kim Jong-un also does not automatically mean the collapse of the North Korean regime, and the collapse of the North regime does not automatically lead to a unification in which the South will absorb the North. There still remains an intervention by the United Nations.
On Feb. 24, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi agreed to impose the toughest-ever UN sanctions on the North’s trade, including stiff restrictions on the North’s exports of minerals and a ban on selling fuel for North Korean military aircraft. That shows the North’s fate is not determined by the South, but the United States and China.
China accounts for 90 percent of the North’s trade and minerals are the North’s key exports. If China continues to execute the sanctions as agreed, Kim won’t be able to hold out for long. He will have to come to a negotiating table offering a nuclear moratorium. Therefore, our North Korea policy must focus on keeping the cooperation of the U.S. and China strong, rather than holding on to the unrealistic theory of the North’s collapse.