How long will N. Korea’s regime last?

A man and a boy looking at the poster walk by the poster saying "severe punishment to the U.S. imperialists and their satellites" in Central District, Pyongyang, on Thursday, May 2, 2013 <AP Photo/Jon Chol Jin>

Three problems of young leader

How stable is the North Korean government? Is it going to continue indefinitely? And if it does not, what is its life expectancy? The present author encounters those questions nearly every day.

The only honest answer to such questions is that we do not know. There are two obstacles which make serious assessment impossible – and each obstacle is formidable indeed.

1. Doing guesswork, looking at a crystal ball

As the history has shown countless times, it is almost impossible to predict the future – for every successful prediction there are dozens of failures. Experience, education and common sense help, but only to a certain degree.

The second issue is the unique opacity of North Korea. Even by the standards of authoritarian regimes, the regime is very good at hiding information from outside observers. It is difficult to have a frank talk with a North Korean on political issues, since no sane North Korean would normally take the risks associated with saying politically improper things to a foreigner. Refugee testimonies are important, but should be taken with a grain of salt since refugees tend to be far more critical of (and hostile to) the regime than the average citizen.

Nonetheless, some guess work is possible. The present author has met a large number of refugees and has had some opportunities to interact with non-refugee North Koreans. Despite the limits, these conversations still provide important and useful insights that help to construct a picture of what is going on inside North Korea.

It seems that support for the North Korean regime from below is dwindling. There are at least three different and related processes that drive the ideological disintegration of North Korean society. And the government cannot do much about any of these factors.

2. The information is getting in

The first process is information dissemination, the gradual spread of information about life outside North Korea’s borders. It is not incidental that the North Korean government has always gone to great lengths to keep the public as isolated from the outside world as humanly possible. Tunable radios are illegal, non-technical foreign publications can be accessed only by those with the proper security clearance, and any non-authorized interactions with foreigners is strongly discouraged.

These policies are vital because the North Korean state is lagging far behind its neighbors both in economic terms in general and living standards in particular. The per capita income gap between North and South Korea is conservatively estimated at 1:15.

The spread of knowledge about the success of the outside world is likely to be destabilizing for the regime because it will expose its gross economic incompetence. It also does not help that the same tiny group of families has run the regime for generations (usually, the grandfathers of these families took over the state in the 1940s and 1950s). So, it would be difficult for the current leadership to blame previous office holders, since this would mean repudiating their fathers and grandfathers.

Nonetheless, dangerous knowledge is spreading throughout the country. In this cross-border movement to/from China is pivotal – the scale of such movement has shrunk of late, but until 2008-9 it was very significant. Few hundred thousand North Koreans have illegally moved to China to be employed as migrant workers there. Most of them eventually returned. While in China, they could see what appeared to them to be unbelievable prosperity, as well as the remarkable degree of individual freedom (and they usually watched South Korean TV as well).

Also important is the spread of new electronic media – above all, DVD players – within North Korea. DVD players are cheap and affordable for many, if not most, North Korean households. They are used to watch smuggled South Korean and foreign TV serials. This means that a significant number of North Koreans (as much as 75%, according to a recent research) has been exposed to images of South Korean life. Of course they do not necessarily believe everything they see, but they still understand that South Korea far more advanced and affluent than their own country.

All this does not necessarily translate into revolution, but growing awareness about the disastrous state of North Korea’s economy means that North Koreans increasingly are asking dangerous questions, albeit between themselves.

3. Piecemeal liberalization

The second trend that is eroding support for the government is the government’s gradual liberation. Contrary to what is frequently stated, in the last two decades North Korea has become less repressive than it was in the days of Generalissimo Kim Il Sung.

To a large extent, this liberalization is the byproduct of rampant corruption, since low level officials including secret police personal are always on the lookout for bribes. It is therefore possible to ensure that they will look the other way when needed. Tunable radio sets may remain illegal and listening to foreign broadcasts are indeed still a crime, but refugees agree that it is now very rare for people to be punished for listening to Voice of America or Radio Free Asia. It is much more likely that he or she will buy his/her way out of trouble by paying a bribe (a hundred US dollars or so, if caught while listening).

However, not all signs of liberalization can be explained as the mere byproduct of corruption. In many cases it is clear that the North Korean government itself has decided to take a softer approach to political misbehavior. For instance, going to China without permit used to be considered a serious political crime. Now however, those caught on route or while in China are usually subjected to a few months imprisonment. One can get into serious trouble only if one is found guilty of interacting with foreigners and/or Christian missionaries. This is indeed a significant change and it happened around 1996, at the state of Kim Jong Il’s rule.

Around the same time, North Korea abandoned the family responsibility principle that had been so important as a political control mechanism in earlier times. Under this system, those who lived with a given political offender were all arrested and sent to camps. Since the early 1990s however, this system ceased to be universal, and recently it has all but disappeared except for a few exceptions.

My North Korean interlocutors agree that one can now get away with many things that just thirty years ago would have led to imprisonment. Even minor criticism of the regime seems to now be tolerated, though the Kim family members and the basic principles of the regime are still untouchable.

At any rate, this liberalization, spontaneous and otherwise, mean that North Koreans are more likely to talk politics with their family and friends. This is still a long way from the emergence of opposition groups, even a liberal North Korea still remains highly repressive by any standards. Nonetheless, the decline of mass fear has created the conditions for dissent to brew.

4. Generational shift

The third trend that might potentially endanger regime stability is the ongoing generational shift. People who are now in their early thirties and younger are very different from their parents. These younger North Koreans have never lived in the ‘proper’ National Stalinist society that functioned under Kim Il Sung. Most of them have never received full government rations, and survival for them means hard work in the booming but deadly Dickensian market economy of North Korea. For most of the younger generation, government officials are merely a horde of parasites – always eager for bribes, but with no socially useful function.

These people have never been subjected to the seriously brainwashing education of the Kim Il Sung era. From the early 1990s, it became relatively easy to skip an ideological indoctrination session or two, and around that time the old ideological zeal disappeared as well. Rather, younger people have been much exposed to knowledge about the outside world. They know that the official media is lying, and they are naturally skeptical – not to say cynical – about the claims of the government propaganda.

Many of this generation has been involved in private enterprise. They have learnt how to make a living for themselves with little or no interaction with the state. They are also used to the idea that it is economic efficiency, not ideological zeal, which should be rewarded at one’s workplace.

Needless to say, these people are still young and constitute a minority of North Korea’s adult population. In a decade or two, these people will become a majority, and this shift might have serious consequences for North Korea’s future.

So it seems that control is slipping from the hands of North Korea’s hereditary elite. These people have tried to stir up old ideological vigilance – staging a massive campaign against the US imperialists and their running dogs, for example – but such campaigns are not as effective as they once were.

This does not mean that the North Korean state is on the verge of collapse. It might be the case indeed, but we cannot be certain due to the absence of reliable and unbiased information. We can sure, however, that with the passage of time, North Korea is steadily becoming a less stable place.

One cannot help but feel sorry for Kim Jong Un, it is quite possible that the young marshal will enjoy the numerous perks of his job for a while, but it is unlikely that he will be in power until his life ends naturally.

One Response to How long will N. Korea’s regime last?

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