Will North Korea Collapse?

Kim enjoys the good life. Will his son?

South Korean newspapers Korea Times, Chosun Ilbo, Dong A-Ilbo and Arirang News reported late last week that the Russian Institute of World Economy and International Relations opined in September that the Kim regime in North Korea will collapse and that “the North will no longer exist in its current form.” The peninsula will then come under the control of the South, a result the Institute considers good for Russia. A different view is presented here.


The Institute appears to include many of the Russian elite and is run by the Russian government. According to a South Korean Foreign Ministry official, the report is “an official declaration by the Russian government of welcoming unification on the Korean Peninsula led by the South”

The report apparently is not yet available at the Institute’s website, last updated on November 7.  According to the Arirang News article, the report says that

 the two Koreas’ reunification will be accelerated by a power vacuum that will be created during the power transfer from current North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to his son Jong-un in the near future.

. . .  the power vacuum, which is expected to happen in [within?] ten years from now, would lead to power struggle between the North’s elite bureaucrats and military personnel. While the two groups battle for the state’s new leadership and identity, the report predicts that an interim North Korean government supported by the international community will be set up in [within?] two decades. (Emphasis added)

As noted at page 4 below, there are signs that such a power struggle is already starting.

The Arirang New article continues,

The report adds that the reunification of the two Koreas would serve Russia’s national interests, saying that the stabilization of the Korean peninsula would benefit both the Russian economy and Russia’s diplomatic relations.

According to the Dong Ah-Ilbo article, the Institute

also said in its recent report . . . “A provisional government capable of disarmament and modernization of the Stalinist country will likely be set up in the North in the 2030s to make full preparation for complete control by South Korea.” The report effectively forecast that the South will achieve reunification by absorbing the North in 10 years. (Emphasis added)

Dong Al-Ilbo comments,

Russia has shunned using the term “collapse” for the North, so it is unusual for the think tank, which helps devise Moscow’s foreign policy, to consider the collapse of the North as a fait accompli. This signals that either the North is showing abnormal signs that cannot be taken lightly or Russia is making a major change in its assessment of the North’s status. Moscow has apparently judged that the North is on a downward path toward collapse and that the path is rapidly narrowing.


China and Russia have different interests.

Relations between Russia and China — apparently amiable now — could come under strain due to the Korean situation. China would not likely view a “positive impact on Russia’s standing in the Asia-Pacific region” as in her best interests. Although China has occasionally seemed frustrated with North Korea, they retain a symbiotic relationship. China’s acceptance of reunification, as summarized by President Hu, envisions neither collapse of the North nor reunification under Seoul.

Chinese President Hu Jintao has said that “independent and peaceful reunification” of the two Koreas is “in the fundamental interest” of both sides.

Asked whether China believes “that reunification of the Korean peninsula will bring more stability than maintaining the status quo?” Hu said, “As a close neighbor and friend of [both Koreas], China hopes that the North and the South will improve relations and achieve reconciliation and cooperation through dialogue and consultation and eventually realize independent and peaceful reunification, and we support their efforts in this regard. This is in the fundamental interests of both the North and the South and conducive to peace and stability on the peninsula.”

The Chinese leadership has expressed support for reunification independent of the military and political influence of the U.S. and led by the two Koreas themselves several times. But it has been widely believed to prefer the status quo for strategic reasons. (Emphasis added)

With unification on the terms desired by China, it could have more influence over the entire peninsula, including the South, than now.


Reunification and the South

Reunification is decreasingly popular with young South Koreans.

The change is clear both from anecdotal evidence and public opinion polls. In a recent survey conducted by the Peace Research Institute, respondents were asked whether they see North Korea as the same state and North Koreans as their ethnic brethren.

In regard to the first question, 44.1% chose the following response: “In the past North Korea was the same state, but now I am beginning to feel it as a different state.” In regard to ethnic solidarity, a majority (52.9%) said that they still perceive North Koreans as their ethnic brethren, but the second most popular (30.2%) response was: “In the past they were our ethnic brethren, but now I am beginning to feel that they are foreigners.” And an additional 9% said: “North Koreans are as foreign as Chinese.”

Just 15 or 20 years ago, such replies would have been virtually unthinkable. Every good, patriotic Korean, regardless of his/her views on other subjects, was supposed to be an ardent believer in the glory of unification.


Absorbing the North could cost about $3 trillion and be far more difficult than was the reunification of Germany.  Meanwhile, North Korean defectors continue to dribble into South Korea, twenty-one on October 30. Although the trip by sea is very dangerous, a total of 21,294 defectors are reported to have arrived by various means as of April of this year. They provide much of the South’s information about the North.

Under the Institute’s thesis, the collapse has begun.

Linking the collapse to the beginnings of the transfer of power from Kim Jong-il to his son, Kim Jong-un, indicates that the collapse has started. A link between the transfer of power and a collapse of the Kim regime has often been suggested. Last August, for example,

The head of a leading news service covering North Korea [predicted] . . . that the ruling communist regime is headed for the dustbin of history — and soon.

North Korea will collapse, of course, but the question is how long it might take,” Park In-ho, president of the Seoul-based Daily NK, told the Washington Times. “Within five years, 70 percent chance. But within 10 years? 100 percent.”

His confidence stems from the North Korean regime’s plunging popular support, its lack of funds and its loss of diplomatic support — including from former sponsor China, he said.

The actual power transfer could come soon. There have been signs beyond Kim Jong-il’s ill health that symbols of power are flowing to his son. Some appear to be significant even to westerners. For example, it was noted last September that

Kim Jong-un, thought to be in his late 20s, emerged from obscurity a year ago this past week as a four-star general and vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party. . . .

He has also been seen on state-run television with

“octogenarian party secretaries bowing to a man their grandchildren’s age before accepting the smiling man’s handshake or kowtowing to his instructions.”

A year after Kim Jong-un made his public debut as North Korea’s leader-in-waiting, scenes like that — the old party elite groveling — have become a staple of North Korea’s propagandist media, a crucial tool for the country’s leader, Kim Jong-il, to elevate his son as his successor.


Other important signs could appear meaningless in a different context than North Korea. For example, Kim Jong-il and his son began wearing the same Russian style hats in January. This is seen as suggesting that “North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s son and heir Jong-un is already being treated with the same level of protocol as his father.”

Mad hatter and son

A senior South Korean government official [recently] said Kim Jong-un seems to have moved up to the same rank as his father. “The most conspicuous sign is that Kim Jong-un has started wearing a top-quality furry hat that only Kim Jong-il has been wearing so far,” the official added.

A former senior North Korean official identified as Choi, who has defected to South Korea, said, “The hat was customized by a foreign master craftsman using top-quality otter fur. It’s an unwritten rule that nobody else can wear such a hat, so if Kim Jong-un is also wearing one, it means he has now reached almost the same status as his father.”


North Korean Military Intelligence vs. the National Secret Police

It was reported here on November 5 that

Senior officials of the secret police (NSA, National Security Agency) have been arrested for taking bribes to enable people to escape to China. This is unprecedented, as the NSA is considered the ultimate guardian of the North Korean government. But for the last few years, a growing number of rumors described many NSA officials as “approachable” (could be bribed.) Four months ago, North Korea sent agents from two competing agencies (military intelligence and the NSA) to help fight corruption along the border. The agents were ordered to watch their rivals for signs of someone being bribed.

The NSA arrests are part of a crackdown on the areas of greatest corruption. One of these is North Pyongan Province (in the northwest, along the Chinese border). In this area, officials are publicly confirming rumors of executions, usually by firing squad, of corrupt officials and managers of commercial enterprises. To speed things along, local government and police officials were kept out of the investigation and prosecutions. Police and prosecutors were brought in from other provinces. Like many other parts of North Korea, once the local officials became corrupt, they all cooperated to protect each other from being prosecuted and punished. While the punishment of the corrupt officials is popular with most residents, the process wrecked the administration of the province and the newly appointed officials are expected to start stealing as soon as they have a chance. (Emphasis added)


Corruption in North Korea is endemic and is not new; it is necessary to survival. Executions have been reported frequently in the past and family members of those executed can wind up in prison camps with about 200,000 other political prisoners:
Pitting North Korean military intelligence against the secret police adds a new twist; it may suggest an incipient acceleration of the break between the North’s “elite bureaucrats and military personnel” referred to in the Russian Institute report.

North Korea is a black hole

Little light emerges and what does is refracted often beyond the comprehension of westerners. That Papa Kim is portrayed even in North Korean propaganda as what we would consider a queer duck further complicates our comprehension of the people’s understandings and loyalty to him. Do most believe the nonsense or privately snicker at it?
Predictions about what will happen next week are difficult. Projections running out twenty years or longer are more difficult and less likely to be right. That’s why contingency plans must be updated, continuously, based on available facts and cautious speculations beyond those rooted in western culture.

The United States may or may not have human intelligence personnel on the ground in North Korea. That would be difficult for the United States; most any Asian can easily distinguish Koreans from Japanese, Chinese, etc. Koreans can easily detect non-Koreans, even those who speak Korean fluently. Although it appears that the internet is becoming increasingly available to the elite in North Korea, reliable sources of human intelligence remain necessary and so do analysts long immersed in the Korean culture. South Korea very likely has such sources in the North and her intelligence analysts are best able to understand what is discovered.


Our strategic interests are for the most part aligned with South Korea’s. Like it or not, we need to give substantial credence to the perceptions of South Korean intelligence personnel of what’s happening in the North, while pursuing our own best interests and preparing for what may happen.  Kim Jong-il may chose to go out with a bang or a whimper; we do not know which. Subtle signs will be there.  While preoccupied with looking through dark and cloudy glasses at our economy, the Middle East, and other troublesome sights, we must detect and understand the signs from Korea, lest we find ourselves over our heads in kimchi.


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