Premature predictionsAfter a recent series of North Korean defections involving members of the elite class such as diplomats, a debate over the possible collapse of the Kim Jong-un regime is in full swing in South Korea. According to the Ministry of Unification yesterday, the number of North Korean defectors to the South is expected to surpass 30,000 next month.
Following the shocking defection of Thae Yong-ho, North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom, to South Korea in July, two senior officials from the North Korean Embassy in Beijing jumped on the bandwagon by applying for defection to the South.
Hard-liners in South Korea have a penchant for interpreting such events as the prelude to a collapse of the regime. Some of them insist that Seoul trigger an internal collapse of the North Korean government by fueling North Koreans’ deepening discontent with their government.
President Park Geun-hye made remarks strongly suggestive of her sympathy with the hawkish line. On Oct. 1, she encouraged North Koreans to “come to South Korea” as the government “will pave the way for them to live happy lives here.” At a cabinet meeting on Oct. 11, the president ordered her secretaries and ministers to prepare systems and capabilities solid enough to accommodate a wave of defectors.
But it is naïve to believe that an increasing number of elite North Korean defectors — such as diplomats — will lead to the demise of the regime. The collapse of a regime needs internal schisms in its core ruling class. It is too early to predict the Kim Jong-un regime will fall soon — whether it is sustained by fear-based rule or cajoling-based governance of the elite. The regime can hardly crumble as long as Kim and the establishment are united in their self-interests.
The collapse theory is nothing new. It surfaced when the Eastern Bloc dissolved in Europe in the late 1980s and when Kim Il Sung died in 1994, not to mention when Kim Jong-il drew his last breath in 2012. Elite defections have occurred before. Pundits predicted the collapse of the North when Hwang Jang-yop — former secretary of the North Korean Workers Party — defected to the South in 1997. Ironically, such immoderate predictions could help North Korea unite because “its poverty directly resulted from Uncle Sam and South Korea.”
It is no time to be obsessed with collapse. We should concentrate on the best solution — helping the North Korean equivalent of a nomenklatura change their world view through diverse contact.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 13, Page 34