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Projecting Pyongyang: The Future of North Korea's Kim Jong Il Regime

Authored by Dr. Andrew Scobell. | March 2008

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This monograph considers the future trajectory of the Pyongyang regime and explores a range of future scenarios. It does not consider the future of North Korea as a geographic or territorial entity. Some analysts and observers discuss the future without clarifying whether they are discussing the country of North Korea or the Pyongyang regime. In this monograph, the focus is on the fate of the regime dominated by the Kim Dynasty, initially ruled by Kim Il Sung and then led by his son, Kim Jong Il, following the former?s death in 1994. A fundamental assumption is that the regime will collapse. Thus, the key question is not whether the regime will collapse, but when and how it will collapse. The logic behind this assumption is based on this author?s assessment that the Kim regime is a totalitarian one, and that such a regime has a limited life span. However, this collapse may be a long and drawn out process that could very well play out over a period of years or even over the course of a decade or more.

The purpose of this monograph is to set out an array of scenarios to assist planners and decisionmakers in thinking about and preparing for possible future contingencies concerning North Korea. This monograph does not dwell on war or conflict scenarios involving North Korea because military planners have already focused considerable effort and attention on these. It is entirely possible that the fate of the country as a political, territorial, and juridical entity is intimately bound up with the fate of the regime, but one should not assume this to be so. In other words, the collapse of the Kim regime may not lead to the collapse of North Korea as a state. Moreover, one should not assume that even if the regime collapse is followed by state collapse that these events would inexorably lead to Korean unification.

How does one differentiate between a state and a regime? A state is a political entity that is recognized as having the sole legitimate authority over a geographic area. A state is responsible for the basic safety and welfare of the inhabitants of this area, including protection from both foreign and domestic threats. Different states have different structures and formats. The term regime refers to how a state?s political power is organized. The most common distinction used in identifying a state?s regime type is whether it is a democracy or a dictatorship. Of course, there are many variants of each. There are many types of authoritarian regimes?monarchies, military governments, one-party dictatorships, one-person dictatorships, and totalitarian systems, to name but a few. ?Regime change? in this context refers to a transition from one type to another. This change may be violent or peaceful; it may be gradual or sudden. In any event, such change almost never occurs without some kind of upheaval or drama. A state can be considered ?failed? when it loses authority over large areas of the territory it claims and loses control of its borders. Failed states are usually plagued by chronic internal warfare, violence, lawlessness, and economic collapse.

Forecasting the future of any country is challenging, but these problems are magnified when, as in the case of North Korea, the amount of information we possess about the country?s domestic politics, the decisionmaking process, and statistics from economic to demographic information is typically not authoritative or verifiable. We actually know quite a lot about North Korea, and the twin challenges confronting analysts are: (1) how to avoid drowning in the vast sea of open source information available, and (2) how to determine which data are reliable and useful and which data are not. Moreover, the information available is prone to a variety of interpretations. In short, experts can and invariably do tend to disagree about North Korea. One dispute among analysts concerns the basic nature of the political system in North Korea. No credible analyst would describe the Democratic People?s Republic of Korea (DPRK) as anything but authoritarian with brutal and repressive features that are distasteful and deplorable.

But what credible analysts do differ on is the degree of dictatorship and rate of change in North Korea. Some analysts contend that the DPRK is a totalitarian regime in which a single dictator wields near absolute power and presides over a centralized coercive regime that seeks to control all aspects of human activity, including political, social, and economic. Others insist that while the preceding characterization may have been entirely appropriate to describe North Korea in the past, today a very different system exists.

A regime is said to collapse when it loses ?political hegemony? and a country experiences the ?disorganization of political power.? A failing regime is one that is becoming increasingly disorganized; a failed regime is one that is extremely disorganized and in many respects has ceased to function even though significant institutions still exist; a collapsed regime is one in which political power has completely evaporated, as has its structure. A collapsed regime can leave a power vacuum or trigger a reorganization of state power leading to the establishment of a new regime type. The precise dividing line between ?failing,? ?failed,? and ?collapsed? seems difficult to discern. This is because the process of state decline is often gradual. Perhaps the best approach is to think of failure and collapse as processes rather than outcomes.

Another way to conceive of this difference of opinion over North Korea?s regime type might be as an optimist/ pessimist distinction; in other words, arguing whether the glass is half empty or half full. This debate ought not to be dismissed as simply academic and therefore irrelevant to real world policymakers and planners. This would be dangerous because the nature of the North Korean regime itself has significant implications for its future. This author contends that there is a real difference between whether the glass is half full (no longer totalitarian) or half empty (still fundamentally totalitarian). If the glass is half full, then fundamental economic and political change in the DPRK is possible in the near future; if the glass is half empty, then such thoroughgoing reform is not imminent. There seems to be one basic truth where totalitarian regimes are concerned: they do not undertake systemic reform.

But while such regimes are resilient and enduring, they also tend to be quite brittle, and burnout is inevitable. They certainly do not live forever. No totalitarian regime in history has survived longer than a few decades?until Pyongyang that is. North Korea is the world?s longest lasting species of totalitarianism?5 decades so far and counting. In the first decade of the 21st century, Pyongyang is best described as a failing or eroding totalitarian regime where exhaustion, loosening of central control, and weakening of the monopoly of information are taking their toll.

When totalitarian regimes end, they seem either to collapse through defeat in war?the way Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy did?or evolve into post-totalitarianism, as in the cases of the Soviet Union and China after the deaths of Stalin and Mao. Economic disaster, or indeed complete collapse of the economy, does not necessarily lead to political collapse. Numerous dictatorships have survived despite severe economic problems such as hyperinflation, widespread famine, and or mass unemployment. The deathwatch for the Pyongyang regime has lasted more than 15 years. Those who predicted or anticipated its imminent demise have had to eat their words or do a lot of explaining. Pyongyang is far from dead, and there is evidence that the regime may be regrouping.

Looking to the future, there seem to be three possible and analytically distinct trajectories: suspended animation, a soft landing, or a crash landing. Suspended animation refers to a future in which the status quo persists?the regime continues to survive without major policy changes. A case in point would be Albanian communism in its twilight years. A soft landing refers to a scenario in which Pyongyang adopts significant economic reforms and moderates its security policies. A case in point would be China?s transition from Mao Zedong to Deng Xiaoping. A crash landing sees a situation in which the regime collapses. A case in point would be the end game of Romanian communism.

Between ?China?s? Soft Landing and ?Romania?s? Crash Landing scenarios, one might also insert another scenario that possesses some aspects of each. This hybrid scenario would closely approximate the experience of Cuba. Like Pyongyang, Havana experienced tremendous economic difficulties in the final days of the Soviet Union and in the aftermath of its patron?s collapse. Like North Korea, Cuba confronted an economic crisis of monumental proportions as subsidies and credit from Soviet bloc countries evaporated. The Castro regime adopted ad hoc reforms in piecemeal fashion starting in the early 1990s. But Cuba and North Korea do seem to have much in common, including the fact that both regimes are in a holding pattern of sorts, ruled by dynasties wherein the current dictator?s days are clearly numbered. In each case, there appear to be clear limits to the change possible in the immediate future. In early 2008, Fidel Castro, who had been plagued by medical problems, handed over the reigns of power formally to his younger brother and designated successor, Raul. Fidel, who turned 81 years old in August 2007, remains the dominant political figure in Cuba, although Raul is in charge of the day-to-day affairs of state. Once Fidel Castro and Kim Jong Il pass completely from the scenes of their respective countries, there is likely to be far greater scope for change.

Of the five scenarios described??suspended animation? (Albania); ?soft landing? (China); ?crash landing? (Romania); ?soft landing/crash landing hybrid? (the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics [USSR]); ?suspended animation/soft landing hybrid? (Cuba)?the closest to the reality of the North Korea?s current situation is a Cuban mix of ad hoc reforms and regime holding pattern.

These scenarios could very well play out gradually over several years or even for as long as a decade or more. Why use this time frame? One reason is that Kim Jong Il could conceivably live for another 5, 10, or even 15 years. Although he has health problems, Kim also has the best medical care available in North Korea. Given this, and the fact that his father lived into his 80s, it is possible that he could have a comparable lifespan. Probably the weakest link in a totalitarian regime is at the apex. The longevity of the absolute dictator tends to correlate closely with the lifespan of the regime. Totalitarian regimes are perhaps most vulnerable during a period of leadership transition. Indeed, only one regime has survived much beyond a change of top ruler: Pyongyang.

Preliminary conclusions include the following:

  • Do not conflate the end of the Kim regime with the end of North Korea as a state.
  • Regime type matters, and regime change does make a difference.
  • Collapse is best viewed as a process not an outcome.
  • The process of the collapse of the Pyongyang regime has already begun.
  • When the crash landing comes, everyone will be surprised.
  • A crash landing is likely to be messy.

Even if the collapse of the Pyongyang regime occurred without a major military conflagration, the situation faced by the armed forces of the United States and the Republic of Korea (ROK) would be extremely challenging ? a significant number of the conditions coalition forces faced in Iraq in the period since the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime would likely be present in a post-Pyongyang regime North Korea. The situation would likely be nothing short of an enormous multidimensional catastrophe.

A crash landing is probably not imminent but in the mid to long run, it may be virtually inevitable. When collapse occurs, it will almost certainly catch everyone, including Pyongyang elites, off guard. In the end, all trajectories may ultimately lead to a crash. Soft landings and suspended animation could turn out to be mere way stations on the road to final impact. Because the policy package that Pyongyang has adopted cannot be determined with absolute certainty, forecasting the regime?s future requires constant and careful monitoring of key indications of regime change, collapse, or transformation. Five key indicators that bear watching closely are: trends in elite politics, the trajectory of economic reform, defense policy, ideology and information control, and foreign policy. While these are relatively straightforward to monitor, there are two other ?wild card? indicators of change in the DPRK that are more difficult to monitor and assess: Pyongyang?s process of leadership succession and Beijing?s North Korea Policy.