It's been a matter of considerable interest--and speculation--over the past decade. When, exactly, will the "Worker's Paradise" (a.k.a. North Korea) finally collapse, and can the regional powers, including the U.S., prevent a war as Pyongyang implodes?
Korea watchers have been predicting the demise of the DPRK for at least 20 years. By any reasonable standard, a country that is increasingly isolated, economically bankrupt and unable to feed its own people can't last very long. So, it's just a matter of time before Kim Jong-il and his regime wind up on the ash heap of history, right?
And, the demise of North Korea may happen sooner, rather than later. In a column published yesterday at Real Clear Politics, former New York Times correspondent Richard Halloran cites analysts and other experts who believe the moment of reckoning is at hand for Pyongyang. As he writes:
Analysts everywhere point to a decade of hunger that has left seven year old North Korean children eight inches shorter and 20 pounds lighter than their South Korean cousins. North Korean soldiers in a regime that gives priority to the military forces have been reduced to two skimpy meals a day. Factory workers nap on the floor for lack of food and energy.
That has led to conjecture that North Koreans, despite the pervasive controls in the Hermit Kingdom's police state, may throw caution to the winds. "We just don't think they can go along with this much longer," said an American official with access to intelligence assessments.
The Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington reports that North Korea, after ten years of food shortages, stands on the precipice of famine that could have political consequences. "The possibility of widespread social distress and even political instability," the institute said in a study, "cannot be ruled out."
Another study, from the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, says: "Dismal economic conditions also foster forces of discontent that potentially could turn against the Kim regime -especially if knowledge of the luxurious lifestyle of communist party leaders becomes better known or as poor economic performance hurts even the elite."
While we can't disagree with these assessments, it would be a grave mistake to underestimate North Korea's ability to survive. By hanging on through years of famine and economic failure, Kim and his regime have defied expectations, simply because they don't play by the rules.
Consider this: how many western governments would still be in power after the decade of hardship that the DPRK has endured. While Kim Jong-il treated himself to western delicacies (and acquired the only paunch in North Korea), more than a million of his countrymen starved to death. Thousands more fled to China, leading desperate, hidden lives along the border, willing to risk deportation--and death--if they are caught.
Or, imagine living in a country where electricity is an increasingly rare luxury. Look at a nighttime satellite image of the Korean peninsula. South Korea is awash in light, a testament to 50 years of free markets and economic prosperity. In contrast, the area north of the DMZ is almost totally dark, a monument to a half-century of centralized economic planning.
North Korea is a country with no viable exports, save SCUD missiles and nuclear technology--the same armaments that fund the modest imports that keep the elites happy. To supplement its arms trade, Pyongyang also dabbles in drug dealing and forgery; North Korea has the most advanced printing presses this side of the Bureau of the Currency, printing millions of bogus $100 bills each year.
The forgery, in turn, helps support Kim Jong-il's lavish lifestyle, including an unlimited supply of Dunhill cigarettes, Henessey cognac, and the world's largest personal film library. Yet, thanks to the support of his military and the systemic brain-washing of the populace, Kim and his late father, Kim Il-Sung, remain god-like figures in the DPRK. According to North Korean propaganda, everything flows from the Kim dynasty.
So, the younger Kim can afford to smoke, drink and gorge himself while his nation starves--as long as the military remains supportive. Mr. Halloran notes that there has been little apparent change in the loyalty of North Korea's armed forces over the past five years. Indeed, Kim Jong-il has been grooming a new generation of generals who back his regime, providing enough perks and luxuries to keep them in line.
That's the main reason that Pyongyang will continue to beat the odds, despite predictions of its imminent demise. With sufficient military power, Mr. Kim can keep his populace at bay, and command the attention of other powers in the region. With half of his army within 60 miles of the DMZ, the U.S., South Korea, China, Russia and Japan cannot ignore North Kroea.
In his final paragraph, Halloran notes the conspicuous absence of Kim Jong-il at the Beijing Olympics. The implication is that the DPRK is increasingly irrelevant in the "power politics" of Northeast Asia. But that ignores another reality: the North Korean leader had no desire--or need--to attend the Olympiad in China.
When he needs to, Kim has other ways of getting the world's attention, and the leaders who gathered in Beijing have been rather conciliatory toward him in recent years. In fact, they have promised extensive aid, if only Pyongyang will make good on its most recent nuclear agreement.
That's hardly a regime that seems destined for a quick collapse. If anything, North Korea will probably find a way to soldier on, existing on its military power, and the confidence games it plays with the west.