NEW YORK – From time to time, newspapers shower readers with predictions of a looming mass starvation in North Korea, usually in springtime. In March 2011, the New York Times wrote: “North Korea: 6 Million Are Hungry.” One year earlier, in March 2010, the Times of London warned: “Catastrophe in North Korea; China must pressure Pyongyang to allow food aid to millions threatened by famine.” In March 2009, a Washington Post headline read: “At the Heart of North Korea’s Troubles, an Intractable Hunger Crisis.”
The predictions come every year, but famine does not. Indeed, the last five to 10 years have been a time of modest, but undeniable, improvement in the North Korean economy. According to estimates from the Bank of Korea, gross-domestic- product growth from 2000 to 2011 averaged 1.4 percent per year. Anecdotal evidence and observations support such mildly optimistic estimates.
Malnourishment remains common, but few if any North Koreans have starved to death since 2000. A new middle class can now afford items that were unheard of in Kim Il Sung’s time. DVD players are common. Refrigerators remain rare but are no longer exceptional, and even a computer in a private house is no longer a sign of extreme wealth.
The improvement is especially noticeable in Pyongyang. The huge avenues of the North Korean capital, once empty, are now reminiscent of 1970s Moscow: Traffic is not too heavy, but clearly present. In older parts of the city, where streets are not that wide, one can occasionally even encounter traffic jams. Visitors and richer Pyongyangites alike can feast in posh restaurants. Gone are the days when a bottle of cheap Chinese shampoo was seen as a great luxury; nowadays one can easily buy Chanel in a Pyongyang boutique.
This slow improvement in the economic situation may actually be as dangerous for the regime as a famine. Without radical reforms, North Korea might continue to grow moderately, but it is not going to achieve growth rates like that of China or South Korea. The huge income gap between North Korea and its neighbors — the major potential source of political discontent at home — is sure to keep growing.
At the same time, less daily economic pressure means that citizens have more time to think, talk and socialize.
Contrary to the common perception, people seldom start revolutions when they are really desperate: In such times, they are too busy fighting for physical survival. A minor, but insufficient, improvement in people’s lives is what authoritarian regimes should fear most.
An ongoing generational shift poses an especially dangerous challenge. North Koreans below the age of 35 have not been subjected to intense ideological indoctrination, and they have grown up in a world where everybody knows newspapers are not telling the complete and only truth.
They don’t remember the times when the state was seen as a natural giver of all things; for many of them, the state and its officials are merely a swarm of parasites. They know that the North lags hopelessly behind the South. They also grew up in more relaxed times, when state terror was scaled down, and hence they are less afraid to speak about such dangerous topics.
All these changes in mind-set don’t bode well for the long-term stability of the regime. A reckoning might be years off, but it is almost inevitable.
There are four likely scenarios that might trigger a dramatic crisis. The first is an attempt at reforms more or less similar to those undertaken in China and Vietnam. I have argued that the North Korean leadership understands the inherent danger of Chinese-style reforms and will not take the risk. However, this was said in the context of the Kim Jong Il era’s North Korean leadership — and this leadership is changing. New leaders — including, above all, Kim Jong Un himself — might be seduced by the prospect of opening up the economy, hoping to enrich themselves as Chinese party cadres have. They would thus ensure their own downfall, as increasingly dissatisfied citizens pushed to reunify with the much richer South.
Another possible trigger of unrest would be serious factional infighting within the top leadership — a purge of prominent officials, for instance, or an attempted coup.
Alternatively, the loser in a factional clash might decide to go down fighting. Such an open clash would be perceived as a sign of the elite’s inability to keep the situation under control. In that case, many people who would otherwise remain docile might start expressing their grievances — with predictably dangerous consequences.
The third possible endgame involves a spontaneous outbreak of popular discontent — a local riot that quickly develops into a nationwide revolutionary movement, somewhat similar to what we saw in 2011 in the Arab world.
Nowadays, North Koreans appear to be too terrified, isolated and distrustful of one another to emulate the Tunisians or Egyptians. Nonetheless, the regime’s control is steadily getting weaker, fear is diminishing, and the knowledge of available alternatives is spreading. So in the long run, a “Pyongyang Spring” isn’t impossible.
The fourth scenario would involve the spread of unrest from China — the only country where an outbreak of civilian disobedience or a riot might produce some impact on North Korea.
Of course, the above-mentioned scenarios can combine, and I’m not so vain as to think I’ve listed all the possibilities in this short sketch. Nonetheless, one thing appears to be almost certain: Due to the peculiarities of North Korea’s domestic and international situation, neither a gradual and manageable transformation of the regime nor its perpetual survival appears to be a likely outcome. Sooner or later, it will go down in crisis — in all probability, suddenly and violently.
The North Korean elite fear that if the regime collapses, they will be persecuted by victorious southerners or lynched by angry mobs of their own compatriots. Therefore they might choose to fight, assuming that they will be fighting for their lives and the lives of their loved ones.
Their initial instinct will be to put down disturbances, slaughter the ringleaders and attempt to restore what the Kim family regime defines as “law and order.”
If unsuccessful, they will beg for Chinese help. A very significant part of the current North Korean elite would much prefer a Chinese-controlled satellite regime to unification under South Korean tutelage.
Will Beijing listen to these demands?
So far, Chinese policy on the Korean Peninsula has been largely aimed at keeping the North afloat at a moderate cost. Chinese intervention would restore order in North Korea, thus preventing a refugee crisis and greatly curtailing the likelihood of uncontrolled nuclear proliferation. It would also ensure that North Korea continued to exist as a strategically useful buffer zone and that Chinese corporations were able to maintain their privileged access to North Korea’s resources.
However, these geopolitical gains would come with a large price tag. To start with, a Chinese takeover of the North would produce a tidal wave of anti-Chinese sentiment in South Korea. China would instantly become the major target of Korean nationalist passions, and the South Korea-U.S. alliance would be strengthened dramatically.
Inside North Korea, nationalism would surge, as well. The Soviet experience in Eastern Europe serves as a good guide. In 1956, Soviet tanks crushed a popular rebellion and installed a pro-Soviet client regime in Hungary. This regime was more successful than anyone had anticipated and soon made Hungary, according to a popular joke of the time, “the merriest barrack of the Soviet camp.” But this didn’t make either the Soviet Union or its Hungarian clients popular with the Hungarian people. Common Hungarians still despised their government and blamed the Russians for more or less everything that didn’t go right in Hungary. There’s little reason to believe that Chinese domination of North Korea would be any more popular.
Last but not least, openly intervening in a North Korean domestic crisis would undercut the myth of China’s “peaceful rise,” which plays such an important role in Beijing’s global image-building efforts.
All of China’s neighbors will see themselves as potential victims of Beijing’s rediscovered “imperial ambitions,” which will lead many of them to tighten their relations with the U.S.
For South Korea and the U.S., as well as for the majority of the North Korean population, the emergence of a pro-Chinese satellite regime in North Korea would be better than indefinite continuation of the status quo. But a unification of the Koreas is still the most preferable outcome. Therefore officials in Washington and Seoul need to consider ways to convince China that a unified Korea is less unacceptable than an intervention.
First of all, the Chinese government should be assured that a unified Korea will not become a strategic bridgehead for U.S. military influence in continental Northeast Asia. A joint statement from South Korea and the U.S., promising that upon unification no U.S. forces and/or U.S. military installations would be located north of the present-day demilitarized-zone area, would help to ameliorate Chinese strategic concerns.
Secondly, South Korea’s recurrent support of irredentism in northeastern China and semi-official claims about alleged Korean territorial rights to large chunks of China are counterproductive. They strengthen suspicions that a unified Korea would strive to seed discontent in borderland areas of the mainland itself.
The South Korean government should explicitly state that a unified Korea will respect earlier agreements pertaining to Sino-Korean borders. It will also be necessary to assure China that a unified Korea government will respect and honor all Chinese concessions and mining rights granted by the North Korean state.
Alas, the widespread hope that reformist groups in Pyongyang will finally emerge and bring about a nonnuclear, nonthreatening, and peacefully developing North Korea seems to be wishful thinking. At the same time, the status quo isn’t sustainable. Sooner or later the current regime will go down. Now is the time for the world to start planning for that moment.
Andrei Lankov is a professor of history at Kookmin University in Seoul. This is the second of three excerpts from his new book, “The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia,” which will be published May 8 by Oxford University Press. The opinions expressed here are his own.