Pondering Change in North Korea

Andrei Lankov, Author, Guest Columnist and Professor, Kookmin University  |  2011-08-08 17:08
One of the things attracting worldwide attention in recent times has been the ongoing civic revolution in Libya. The Jasmine Revolution that began to spread across the Middle East at the end of last year laid down a challenge to the Gaddafi dictatorship which has controlled Libya for the last 40 years.

But unlike other authoritarian regimes such as Egypt and Tunisia, so far the dictatorial regime in Libya has not fallen. The battle has continued for months, with neither the pro-government forces nor the revolutionaries being able to gain the ascendancy, turning Libya into a de-facto divided nation in the process.

When the Jasmine Revolution first began, there were more than a few observers who sang about the possibility of it spreading to China and North Korea. In my opinion, these claims are unconvincing. However, there are a number of lessons that people with an interest in the future of the Korean peninsula can take from the Libya situation. For example, we can guess to an extent the kinds of challenges and crises that the Korean peninsula will have to face sooner or later.

Most of the popular revolutions taking place within the Middle East can be called velvet revolutions, the reason being that they have been easy victories, taking place without the spillage of blood or economic hardship. The former dictators of these countries chose not to fight with the people in order to maintain the system and their own power.

The authoritarian leaders of Egypt and Tunisia chose to give up their power in the face of relatively peaceful opposition from the majority of their people. However, Libya was not the same. The autocrats in Libya not only chose to fight; they clearly had a measure of support within their own country.

The main reason can be found in the tribal and clan rivalries which still remain an important part of Libyan politics. The clans of Western Libya who have enjoyed privileges under the Gaddafi regime support the dictator for fear they would be targeted were the regime to be defeated.

- Collapse of the North Korean System inevitable; elites will choose to maintain the system

Naturally, being humble humans, we cannot predict the future, but I believe that the outbreak of a popular revolution in North Korea is only a matter of time. The North Korean elite is not going to initiate Chinese-style reform and opening in their own divided country because there is a good chance that such reforms will bring not a Chinese-style economic growth, but rather German-style collapse of the system.

But as much as the elite say they will never accept reform and opening , they can only hope to postpone the final crisis of their incurably inefficient system; there is no way to actually avoid this collapse. If the anachronistic structure of the economy is not changed, then it is only a matter of time before the system falls apart. Unfortunately, such transformation is unlikely to become a non-violent velvet revolution. The social groups who maintain a close relationship with the Kim Family Regime understand that their future after a system collapse would be bleak, so they would probably fight to maintain the current system.

In Egypt and Tunisia, the elite were not too badly affected by what occurred after the Jasmine Revolution. It goes without saying that businessmen, politicians, public servants, journalists and others who colluded with the autocrats found themselves in trouble, but such people were only a very small minority. In the Middle East, people who were company presidents before the Jasmine Revolution are still running their businesses, and those who were colonels or generals in the military are still wielding command. Public servants are still in their old jobs too, for the most part.

On the other hand, North Korea is not like that. There is a high probability that a popular revolution in North Korea, one part of a divided country, would lead to unification by absorption. Obviously the South Korean public does not want things to move in that direction, they are afraid of unification by absorption- or rather of the financial costs it will incur. Nevertheless, history is written without regard for the hopes and fears of individuals. There is a great possibility that unification by absorption may come in spite of the individual hopes and fears of the South Koreans.

When demanding unification, the North Korean people will believe that it should not take long to bring about income and consumption levels similar to those of their southern counterparts. However, the North Korean elite will understand that a peoples revolution could potentially bring about that particular form of unification, and rather than submit to the demands of the people, they are more likely fight to suppress their struggle instead. They will not accept a revolution knowing that they themselves have no future under a unified state.

When the regimes of most communist states began to buckle in the late 1980s, party cadres and other members of the ruling classes did not fight to save the crumbling system. When you look at the situation from their perspectives, this was a perfectly logical decision. Most communist states of the day lacked an organized opposition with enough power to challenge the dominance of party elites.

Party elites actually had experience in administration, management and state affairs, as well as the knowhow and practical ability required to maintain control of a state. For that reason, when the communist system collapsed in the USSR and East Europe, those party elites, administrators and managers were able to maintain their actual influence and power.

Analyzing the former Soviet Union and Eastern European countries twenty years after the collapse of communism, we can see that those members of the privileged classes from the communist era still account for a great number of the political and business elite. In most ex-Soviet republics and many East European states, it would be fair to say that the system and overriding ideology changed, but personal composition of the elite remained the same. The former party apparatchiks and police officials instantly re-designed themelves as entrepreneurs, bankers and democratic politicians.

The circumstances in North Korea are not the same, however. The Korean Workers Party elites and NSA agents cannot one morning just cast away the communist ideology they never believed in, they cannot do what the Soviet Union elites once did, suddenly turning themselves into believers in power of a free market economy or proponents of political democracy. The existence of rich South Korea next door deprives them of any chance to emulate the survival success of their East European peers. It would be extremely difficult for any former member of the Kim Jong Il regime to find an important post in a unified state. This even extends to the economic managers who fared remarkably well in post-communist East Europe. In the case of North Korea, such people would have more knowledge and experience than the average citizen, but even they would not be able to compete with the mega-corporations of South Korea.

And North Korean officials cannot help but worry about the crimes they have already committed. When communism collapsed in the late 1980s, those who had been responsible for the slaughter of millions of innocent people in the former Soviet Union and Eastern European bloc during the 1930s and 40s were long dead. The political elite of the 1980s bore no direct responsibility for the human rights abuses that occurred in the days of Stalin.

- The North Korean elite will not be able to distance itself from human rights crimes

The former Soviet Union and Eastern European bloc governments discontinued their policy of mass terror after the death of Stalin in 1953. From the early 1960s, the number of people held in Soviet gulags was no more than a couple of thousand, and this was a country with a population far higher than North Korea. These conditions allowed the leaders of the Soviet Union not to worry about becoming the target of hate and revenge amongst the citizenry. By the times of Gorbachev, the bloody deeds of Stalin and his henchmen were, essentially, an ancient history.

North Korea is in a completely different situation. The number of people held in North Koreas political prisons is estimated at somewhere between 150-200,000 people. The proportion of the population considered political offenders is slightly higher in North Korea now than it was in the Soviet Union just prior to Stalins death. Accordingly, the North Korean elite are justifiably worried that the collapse of the system would not just lead to the loss of their privileges, but that they would face jail or even potentially the death penalty.

A change of system would spell imminent end for the privileged classes, and thus they would take the option to fight against such change. The Party elite and NSA agents would chose to fight in order to protect the safety and lives of themselves and their families.

Of course, the number of such Kim collaborators is much smaller than the number of average citizens. But this is not to say that this number is insignificant. It includes party leaders and state administrators of the middle and upper level, almost all NSA agents and some agents of the Peoples Safety Ministry, as well as certain members of the military and even industrial managers. It is possible that were all these people to band together, the number of pro-Kim forces would be as large as one or two million people.

Those people have military training; they are organized and have the ability to fight. According to various rumors, North Korea has for a long time been preparing the arms and communications facilities required to fight a guerrilla war, and in a time of crisis, much of this armory would no doubt be in the hands of pro-Kim forces.

It would not be an illogical decision for these people to choose to fight. Initially, the pro-Kim forces would hope to suppress the revolution and then to restore the system as it was under Kim Jong Il. Failing that, they would hope for China to intervene in the conflict.

In the current climate, it is true that amongst the North Korean elite there is a lot of mistrust and suspicion aimed at neo-capitalist China. But were the system to collapse, the chances are high that China would become the only country on which they could lean for support. If North Korean elite face a choice between being absorbed into South Korea and the establishment of a China-controlled satellite regime, they would choose a pro-Chinese regime without a moments hesitation.

If a regime controlled by China were to be established in the northern part of the Korean peninsula, those who had served as the elite of the Kim Jong Il regime would keep their positions as well as their privileges and authority.

Of course, nobody really knows how such a messy conflict would play out. Far from being merely an internal transformation, the attitudes of China, the US and South Korea as well as a host of other inestimable variables would be decisive in the future crisis. However, the most unfortunate thing from an outsiders perspective is the high chance of a North Korean revolution becoming a violent affair.

So what can the South Korean people and their government do under these conditions? There is the need to consider measures which will ease the fears and concerns of the North Korean elite. Various compromises might help to achieve such an objective. For example, one thing I have advocated a number of times is the unequivocal promise of a general amnesty for the North Korean elite, to be made when/if a crisis starts. That would mean a promise not to ask about a persons particular role in human rights abuses committed under the Kim Jong Il regime.

It would also be necessary to ensure that the elite would be able to go on living in a unified state. It goes without saying that they have committed awful crimes. Nonetheless, nobody can revive their long-dead victims; one must place more emphasis on building a better future than on revenging the past misdeeds. Still, more important than that is to advocate proper diplomacy with China and the US. That in itself though is a whole other issue, and one I plan to make the subject of the next column.
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