I’ve written quite a bit about North Korea over the years, but let’s start off this morning with Michael Mazza and seven scenarios for the DPRK’s immediate future:
1. Kim Jong-un, Jong-il’s youngest son, steps quickly and easily into his father’s shoes. All goes swimmingly.
2. Kim Jong-il adviser Jang Song-taek acts as regent to the younger Kim and rules effectively while Jong-un continues to hone his chops in Pyongyang.
3. North Korea launches artillery attacks against the South.
4. North Korea tests a nuclear device.
5. Factional in-fighting will prevent any individual or group from exercising effective control.
6. Kim Jong-il’s death was not natural as reported. Kim Jong-un and other members of the Kim family may be next on the hit-list.
7. The additional uncertainty caused by Kim’s death drives segments of an already hungry, malnourished population over the edge. North Koreans head for the Chinese border in droves.
Left out: Another strongman could emerge to replace the Kim dynasty and hold the country together. Probably from the Army, certainly with Stalinesque purges.
Kim Jong Young-un is only 28. We think. We know he was promoted to general recently, and started wearing big boy pants. What has he been doing? Wielding power behind-the-scenes and forging alliances and shooting random ministers to ensure a smooth transition (and keeping) of power?
Again, we just don’t know.
But there certainly doesn’t seem to be any evidence of that. What there is evidence of, is that the Party is losing control in the provinces abutting China. And that corruption has grown much worse, since the Party is low on goodies to hand out to loyal members. Smuggling — goods and humans — is the only thing keeping things going, but even that’s not enough.
So let’s take a look at the scenarios.
Number 1 is what everybody in the Party wants. It’s also almost certainly impossible.
Number 6 strikes me as the least likely. Kim Jong-il had been dying for a very long time. His death was neither sudden nor surprising, so why kill him now, when his presence is the only thing ensuring that your clique remains in power? I’m not saying it’s impossible, but not likely.
Number 4 is a variation on Number 3, and we have to file them both under “anything can happen.” I don’t expect a real shooting war with the South, as that would be a 100% guarantee that the North ceases to exist.
Number 2 is what the Party would accept. Dynasty assured, reliable regent in place. Surely this is what they’ll work for. However, this one might be obviated by Number 5. The economy will continue to slide, forcing the various cliques and circles to fight over a shrinking pie.
So Number 5 would make Number 7 almost inevitable.
Which brings us to my addition, Number 8: Chinese paratroopers in Pyongyang. And pretty much everywhere else, too.
That might seem a little extreme. Given the local geopolitical and humanitarian realities, it also might be the most desirable. At least until a “4+2” type of conference can settle on the terms of Korean reunification.
But honestly, trying to predict anything about North Korea is a fool’s game. Kim Jong-un might just hold the place together. Or the generals and party bosses might decide to get out while the getting is good. If there’s anything left in the Treasury (including counterfeit U.S. hundred-dollar bills), then maybe we’ll see all-new buyers of Riviera condos in the not-too-distant future. But that kind of looting has to be done judiciously, or you risk general societal collapse before you make it to the exits. The current Egyptian junta is showing just the way to do it. Careful notes are being taken in Pyongyang, I’m sure.
But my gut tells me that North Korea will collapse, because it has been collapsing, slowly, under Kim Jong-il. I just don’t see how a 28-year-old with apparently little experience is going to accomplish anything better than his old man. Most likely, the rot will accelerate.
And it won’t be pretty. As I wrote more than eight years ago:
South Korea has fewer than 50 million people, and while they’ve made great strides, their per capita income is still only up to that of modern Poland. They aren’t poor, but they aren’t nearly as rich as West Germany was. In addition, their economy isn’t as mature or robust, as the Asian Financial Crisis of a couple years back showed.
Up north are 22 million of their starving brethren. Before the Communist dictatorship, they lived a brutal existence as virtual slaves of Japan. “Chosen,” as Tokyo called Korea, was annexed by the Japanese Empire 93 years ago. It’s safe to say that there is no one in North Korea with any experience living in a politically modern, free, democratic, or tolerant state. Travel is forbidden. Only a small handful of South Koreans are allowed north. There is only one radio station, and it runs nothing but the foulest sort of propaganda. And according to a story in US News & World Report a few weeks ago, North Korea even has concentration camps bigger than the District of Columbia.
Through no fault of their own, the people of North Korea simply aren’t ready to enter the modern world, and South Korea can’t afford to feed, house, re-educate, and re-civilize them all.
Whether or not there’s a war, when North Korea collapses there’s going to be a humanitarian crisis on a scale the world has never seen — 22 million scared, hungry, and desperate people left without any semblance of anything familiar.
This is why I say, given the other realities on the ground, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army might be the best hope for the people of North Korea.