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North Korea: A realistic path to regime change

North Korea: A realistic path to regime change

One of the great career mistakes a North Korea analyst can make is to predict Pyongyang's downfall, or (even worse) try to attach an actual date to that event. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) manages to survive no matter how much the world throws at it, no matter how many times we on the outside confidently predict it will fall.

And it sure looks like it should fall. North Korea violates almost every expectation we have about successful (or at least stable) states in the contemporary era. Indeed, we often label it a failed state, which suggests that instability or breakdown are imminent or likely.

But one does not often see a credible pathway, one without huge changes in current circumstances, laid out for that implosion. Instead, I often find at conferences or in regional journalism a vague, almost teleological sense that North Korea's time is up, that it will naturally crumble, subject to 'historical forces' or something. The South Korean government is particularly prone to this sort of nebulous-but-confident speculation. Its presidents ritualistically suggest unification will happen soon. Lee Myung-Bak wanted a 'unification tax' for this imminent event, while Park Geun-Hye spoke of it as a soon-to-come 'bonanza.'

Even more fantastically, the South Korean left likes to speculate about a Korean federation paralleling relations in 'greater China' or even the EU. I have seen lots Powerpoint presentations over the years on what to do with the North Korean military or its nuclear weapons after unification and so on, but surprisingly few credible scenarios of how to actually get from here to there.

So rather than predict a date for North Korea's collapse, I want instead to lay out a credible pathway to change, if not necessarily collapse: a Chinese cut-off of North Korea igniting divisions in the regime's elite as Pyongyang factions fight over a declining budgetary pie. [fold]

There are other obvious possibilities: a war could break out (probably by accident, as a result of a North Korean provocation gone too far), and ignite a tit-for-tit spiral that escalates. North Korea would lose that war.

Andrei Lankov has also suggested that the ongoing flow of information into North Korea could ultimately create generational change. The young of today, exposed to the outside world, will inherit North Korea's institutions tomorrow and slowly change them. Or perhaps, North Koreans will themselves rise, as Eastern Europeans did in 1989 and Arabs in 2010. But all these scenarios involve huge changes, whereas mine tries to deal with the DPRK as it is now.

Rather than looking for a black-swan event like implosion or collapse, the possibility of regime splits at the top (leading to some sort of mild, perhaps rolling political change) is far more likely. Comparative political science often argues that authoritarian states are prone to change when divisions arise among elites. Often popular revolts catalyze these divisions. But North Korea has never had a popular protest in its history and there is precious little evidence of a civil society. So what other mechanisms might set the DPRK's elites against each other? As it is basically a gangster state, how about their money and goodies?

The current South Korean and US strategy is to slowly isolate North Korea in hopes of pushing it back toward the bargaining table. Sanctions have steadily increased; this year has seen the heaviest UN sanctions yet, plus the targeting of Kim Jong Un personally by the US. This has likely slowed the nuclear and missile programs, but North Korea's behaviour this year is arguably its worst since 2010. South Korea closed the Kaesong Industrial Complex, depriving North Korea of US$100 million in legal currency per annum. And Seoul is now seeking to peel away North Korea's 'third-worldist' friends, like Cuba and Namibia. This should make it harder for North Korea to evade sanctions and engage in the gangsterism that has provided cash to the regime for decades. This approach slowly shrinks North Korea's room for maneuver, and it wisely pursues low-hanging fruit first. Cutting off subsidies, thickening sanctions, and isolating North Korea step-by-step from its few remaining friends slowly backs it into a corner, where it survives almost exclusively on Chinese forbearance. 

North Korea is greatly dependent on China. China accounts for roughly 90% of North Korean trade. Its banks hide the regime's slush funds. Informal cross-border networks help feed North Koreans where the state no longer can. It is the pathway over which luxuries like alcohol, HDTVs, and jet-skis travel to the Pyongyang 'court economy'. The closure of Kaesong, roll-up of other allies, and tough new sanctions on North Korean shipping increasingly leave China as North Korea's last major pipeline to the world economy.

Chinese cut-off would therefore be disastrous. It would dramatically reduce resources flowing into the country, especially the luxury goods that underwrite the governing bargain between the Kim family and the military. In the mid-1990s, Kim Jong Un's father promised the military extraordinary access to politics and the budget, in exchange, most analysts believe, for not overthrowing Kimist rule after the end of the Cold War. This was known as the 'military first policy' (son-gun), but it is better understood as a gangsterish bargain: the Korean People's Army (KPA) will not overthrow the Kims so long as they provide the goodies to the brass. Those benefits include living in Pyongyang in nice apartments with proper electricity, water, and so on; foreign luxury items like HDTVs, liquor, films, and automobiles; a blind eye to corruption and personal debauchery; and limited access to the outside world for elite families and their money.

Critically, this 'songun bargain' (my term) requires an outside pipeline. These luxuries are not substitutable domestically, no matter how hard the regime squeezes its population. Should the booze, jet-skis, clandestine shopping trips to Beijing, and so on be cut off, what are the benefits to the KPA standing by the Kims? The costs are clear and enormous; senior regime figures are marked men globally, individually subject to the whims of the Kim clan, cannot travel easily, will likely be lynched or executed should North Korea fall, and so on. Why carry these costs if the luxury benefits are not there?

Further, all sorts of other goods, such as hydrocarbons and machine parts, would dry up if China took sanctions more seriously. Fuel shortages already inhibit KPA training, for example. Factories would shut down. 

In short, if the Chinese seriously shut the gate, there would eventually be a contracting budgetary and foreign-goods pie in the court economy at the top, which could set elites against each other over what was left. This would not happen immediately; there would be a 'pipeline effect' of several years, perhaps a decade. Extant reserves would cover initial losses. China would probably not seal off North Korea completely, even if it were offered a withdrawal of US forces from South Korea in exchange. North Korea would likely return to serious gangsterism in order to find funds, and the regime would first crack down even harder on its own people to find resources for the court economy.

But eventually the shortages (particularly in niche foreign goods, such as Kim Jong Un's favorite cigarettes) would feed through to the top. As resources shrank, it is easy to imagine a gangster regime, already built on predating its own people and the international community, falling into mafiosi gangland-style infighting over what was left.

If there will be no popular uprising to push North Korean elites toward fracture, maybe depriving them of the luxuries (the only benefit they accrue from the whole awful system) will. North Korea cannot survive on its own. It has always required a foreign patron; the only time it did not have one, it fell into a man-made famine. Worse, the regime's ideology is a preposterous quasi-theological monarchism that its elites almost certainly know is bunk. The military-first policy and well-known indulgence of the North Korean elite strongly suggest their cynicism. We also know that North Korea reacted sharply to the US pursuit of its illicit holdings at Banco Delta.

Exploiting this weakness for foreign cash and luxuries will, as ever, require Chinese cooperation on sanctions, plus a long-term effort to convince China that North Korea is greater threat to it than a unified Korea. This re-evaluation may be underway, and South Korea should China, however humiliating it may be. The road to Pyongyang still runs through Beijing.

Photo: Getty Images/The Washington Post

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