The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea remains a sui generis communist monarchy wrapped in mystery, prone to sporadic brinkmanship and violent spasms. The young leader’s surprise execution of his uncle suggests regime instability, which might spark new international provocations for domestic political purposes.
The latest events have rekindled predictions of a possible North Korean collapse. The greatest danger is that the US would get drawn into the resulting chaos and conflict. Warned the Rand Corporation’s Bruce W. Bennett: “Inadequately prepared, the ROK and the United States could suffer many serious consequences, including a failed or aborted intervention, a destabilization of the region, and possibly broader warfare.”
The Korean peninsula became a U.S. security concern when the US and Soviet Union divided the former Japanese colony after Tokyo’s World War II surrender. Two competing and hostile states emerged, leading to the Korean War. The Truman administration intervened to prevent the DPRK from conquering the South; U.S. troops remained.
Today, however, the Republic of Korea possesses roughly 80 times the North’s GDP and more than twice the latter’s population. Seoul could do whatever it takes to defend itself. The DPRK retains sizeable armed forces but lacks advanced weaponry, combined arms training, adequate human capital, and quality industrial infrastructure. Neither the People’s Republic of China nor Russia would back a North Korean attack. Even Kim probably recognizes that the North would lose.
More likely is a North Korean collapse. Bennett has argued that “There is a reasonable probability that North Korean totalitarianism will end in the foreseeable future.” Columnist Steven Metz recently contended: “The question is not whether the Kim dynasty will fail but when.” Three years ago analyst John Guardiano said the North would “inevitably” implode.
Of course, the Kim dynasty has outlived the Soviet Union by more than two decades. The DPRK may continue to surprise the West with its resilience.
Nevertheless, the system is under increasing stress. Metz observed: “The execution could be a sign that the cohesion of the North Korean elite is crumbling. If so, it is the beginning of the end for the parasitic Kim dynasty.” Jang’s elimination suggests weakness, not strength. Jang’s relatives are being imprisoned at home and recalled from abroad; his wife, Kim’s aunt by blood, has disappeared from public view.
Any future political battle could turn even more violent. A breakdown of one-man rule in what Bennett called a “failing state” risks a political free-for-all. The North has never tried power-sharing, or any kind of collective leadership. Concluded Bennett: “The division of the North into factions would likely precipitate civil war, as at least some of the factions will seek primacy and eventual control of all of North Korea.” Moreover, the regime or even one faction could strike outward to rally internal support.
Metz posited “widespread, protracted internal conflict that could make even the Syrian civil war pale by comparison.” The resulting hardship could exceed that resulting from the 1990s famine, which killed a half million or more North Koreans. We should not expect a peaceful, German-style resolution.
Although most people presume reunification would follow a North Korean collapse, Bennett warned that “China could take political control of much of the North, likely in cooperation with one or more North Korean factions. A failure to achieve Korean unification in these circumstances could doom Korea to division for at least many more decades.”