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70th Anniversary of the Korean War: North Korea isn’t Going Anywhere; It’s Pretty Stable (Unfortunately)

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This is a re-post of my contribution to The National Interest’s recent essay round-up on the 70th anniversary of the Korean War. (My essay here; the full symposium here.)

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My argument, in brief, is that North Korea is actually quite stable. Hence the answer to the symposium question – would Korea be re-unified by 2025 – is a resounding ‘no.’ Here is a brief Twitter thread which summarizes my argument.

North Korea faces little pressure internally – Kim has consolidated power quite nicely; elites are quiescent; there’s never been a popular revolt – and externally – China is unwilling to cut NK off; nukes give NK deterrence against regime change. The sanctions are tough, but Northern elites have been pushing the costs of them onto their population for decades. They won’t bring down or substantially change the DRPK system.

So we are stuck. We can try to negotiate, and we should, but the last few years’ flailing shows how hard that is. The stalemate is quite persistent.

The full essay follows the jump:

 

On this 70th anniversary of the Korean War, I believe the division of the Korean peninsula will persist through 2025. North Korea’s elite opposes unification – they would lose their privileges and likely face harsh retribution – and they face little pressure to change:

1. Internal Pressure?: Supreme leader Kim Jong Un has successfully entrenched himself as monarch.

Autocracies are most susceptible to change during leadership transitions. Most of have no clear rules for succession. Even classical monarchies routinely suffered from jockeying among various bloodline claimants.

North Korea most recently went through such a transition in 2011-2012, when Kim’s father passed. Kim was, at the time, young and inexperienced. He lacked the cronyist relations which bolstered his grandfather and (less so) father’s rule. He had no direct experience in the two most important institutions of the regime – the party and the army. Nonetheless, he was not eliminated or made a figurehead.

Any challengers by this point have likely been killed or removed. His father’s pallbearers, it has been widely noted, are all out of power now. Also, there has never been an internal popular revolt akin to Arab Spring or the Velvet Revolution.

So Kim likely faces little internal challenge, and he has behaved ruthlessly, much as his father and grandfather before him, on the core issues of family control and regime survival.

2. External Pressure?: China can increasingly afford to ‘carry’ North Korea.

In the late 1980s, Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev ‘sold’ East Germany to the United States, because the Soviet Union was declining and Gorbachev was looking to retrench from Europe to save the Soviet system. China’s relationship with North Korea today is the opposite. China is rising; it can increasingly afford to carry North Korea and its dysfunctional economy as a part of its larger regional ambitions.

China is the only external actor with any real influence over North Korea, and it opposes Korean unification. A united Korea would likely be led by the more functional South and therefore tilt toward the democratic world. Hence Beijing’s economic ability and political desire to keep North Korea intact mean little external pressure on the regime to change.

3. Coercion?: Not with a Nuclear Missile Shield

At home, Kim has disciplined and bought off the party and the military. Abroad, so long as he grooms the China relationship properly, he will not face a regime-threatening quarantine of his economy. But regime change by force has always been another, however frightening, possibility. US President George Bush put North Korea on the ‘axis of evil,’ and President Donald Trump threatened fire and fury.

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But this possibility is now nearly foreclosed too. The North has successfully developed a basic nuclear warhead and an intercontinental ballistic missile. It can now directly deter the United States via nuclear weapons. This all but precludes offensive US military action. So long as Kim exercises a minimum of caution – not stumbling into an accidental war with the Americans – the North is safe on this front too.

Other scenarios are even more far-fetched than the above discussion. For example, all the above scenarios assume North Korea pressured, or otherwise collapsing, into South Korean-led unification. But could North Korea lead a unity project? Almost certainly not. Southern citizens would fight the loss of their freedoms, and the North probably could not even absorb the South without bringing down its own highly stylized internal system.

The only remaining possibility for regime crisis is the premature death of Kim, which would immediately raise the issues of power transition and change discussed in point 1 above. Kim’s health is poor; his father died suddenly of a heart attack; and there is no obvious successor at the moment, as Kim’s children are too young. But assuming that Kim does the minimum necessary to stay alive and cogent, North Korea appears quite stable right now.


Robert E Kelly
Assistant Professor
Department of Political Science & Diplomacy
Pusan National University

@Robert_E_Kelly

 

 


 

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