Collapse of the North Korean regime appears inevitable, and the world needs to prepare for it
Deng Yuwen and Huang Ting say the flimsy economic plan unveiled at the Workers’ Party congress will do little to alleviate the country’s crippling problems, which include severe food shortages and growing discontent
The seventh ruling Worker’s Party congress in North Korea, the first in 36 years, turned out to be a coronation for Kim Jong-un, formalising the system centred on the young leader and promoting the party’s status vis-à-vis the army’s.
The national byungjin strategy, which calls for securing a nuclear arsenal while seeking to develop the economy, was re-emphasised.
A five-year plan was put forward to show the government’s commitment to economic problems, especially the supply of electricity, as Kim admitted that a lack of power has affected economic development and improvement of people’s living standards.
The general idea from the congress was thus that Pyongyang would devote greater efforts to economic reform, pay more attention to developing its economy and improve people’s lives.
However, in reality, the plan merely opens the door to reform just a crack instead of pushing hard. Without such opening up, reforms will not make significant progress. So there is still much uncertainty over North Korea’s future.
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With the significant drop in grain output and reduction of food aid as a result of increased international sanctions, North Korea is this year facing the most serious food problem in recent years. According to the UN World Food Programme, there is already a shortfall of 1.1 million tonnes of food, and a quarter of children are severely malnourished.
There have been signs that Pyongyang is preparing to test a fifth nuclear weapon and more missiles. If Kim goes his own way, regardless of opposition from the international community, he will surely bring harsher sanctions upon his nation, which will affect his plan to build North Korea into economic power.
Thus, while it is still hard to judge North Korea in full, there remains a high probability of regime collapse. Unless Pyongyang gives up its nuclear programme, the byungjin strategy is bound to fail.
Even an economic recovery and improvement in people’s livelihoods is unlikely to change this trend. Harsh sanctions have left many from the upper classes at odds with the leadership and led to a growing number of defectors. In the most recent case, 13 employees of a North Korean-run restaurant in Ningbo (寧波) defected to the South – the largest single group in the past decade.
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Trouble usually arises within one’s own boundaries. Once those who have benefited from the regime in the past start to become dissatisfied with the government and seek an escape route, the collapse of the Kim dynasty, built on the basis of lies and repression, is just around the corner. There may only be 10 to 15 years left for the Kim family to govern, and a collapse could begin at any time. So, how would such a scenario play out?
There are several possibilities. First, if the economy fails to pick up in the long term, more people will be pushed into extreme poverty, causing general dissatisfaction with the government, leading to more and more people from all classes seeking to flee the country. Under such circumstances, the collapse only needs a catalyst.
With UN sanctions biting, it is impossible for Pyongyang to quickly solve the problems of food and electricity shortages.
Sanctions will increasingly isolate North Korea, preventing it from gaining the necessary funds, technology and assistance to spur growth. Thus, in the long term, with no economic recovery, dissatisfaction will grow among the people. With widespread poverty and general social discontent, it would be increasingly hard for the government to deal with any emergency caused by policy mistakes, something which is common in a totalitarian regime.
Second, in order to solve the problem of a lack of food to support a large army, Pyongyang would have to promote self-reliance among its citizens, relax control over the economy in a limited way and, to some extent, even allow some form of capitalism.
In its fragile state, North Korea would also be increasingly vulnerable to natural disasters. Without external aid, which has shored up the government in the past during such calamities, Pyongyang would find it difficult, if not impossible, to handle any natural or man-made disaster on its own.
The possibility of an internal coup also exists; the moody and unstable nature of the totalitarian regime leads to fear and insecurity that could bubble over into a bloody internal power struggle.
It is believed that it was fear of a coup that prompted Kim to execute his uncle, Jang Song-taek, and other veterans. The congress seemed to further consolidate Kim’s power, but its stability is very superficial and new dissenters could be created by the regime’s actions at any moment.
Lastly, outside intervention, including a targeted assassination and military strikes, is possible. In terms of its capabilities, there would be little North Korea could do if the US decided to press ahead with such an option.
In such circumstances, it would be difficult for Kim and his family to survive challenges at home and abroad.
In any of the above scenarios, great calamity would befall a Pyongyang that is already suffering much stress and danger.
The collapse of North Korea is just a matter of time; it is important for the international community to realise this, explore the issue and be prepared for the inevitable chain reactions.
Deng Yuwen is a researcher at the Charhar Institute think tank. Huang Ting is a researcher at the Innovation and Development Institute, Shenzhen