The Other North Korean Threat

Mural at Pyongyang Film Studios, North Korea. Flickr/John Pavelka

Regime change may be as serious a threat as Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons.

With a population of twenty-four million, sandwiched between the world’s second largest economy (China) and one of the planet’s most successful rags-to-riches stories (the Republic of Korea), it would be easy to forget the existence of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. A country with periodic famines, a generally moribund economy and a brutally autocratic and inward-looking government, the DPRK’s latter decades should have remained a footnote to the Cold War that ended in the early 1990s. However, the country’s pudgy leader, Kim Jong-un, the third in his Stalinist dynasty, keeps his country in the headlines through the development and threatened use of a growing arsenal of nuclear and ballistic weapons.

Anyone visiting the DPRK’s official website is treated to an uplifting montage of stylish photos, showing regime founder Kim Il-sung (dressed in a sharp-looking Western suit and tie) surrounded by smiling and loving Koreans, colorful marching bands and happy children. Absent are any references to the country’s notorious gulag system, the famine of the 1990s and periodic purges of those who have fallen out of favor and end up being publicly executed by antiaircraft guns. The most recent, in July 2016, were Hwang Min, a former agricultural minister, and Ri Yong-jin, a senior official at the education ministry. Hwang was reportedly punished for making proposals that were perceived as a direct threat to Kim’s leadership, while Ri allegedly fell asleep during a meeting chaired by the country’s leader. Then, of course, there was the execution in December 2013 of Kim’s uncle and second-in-command, Jang Song-thaek, who was called “a traitor for all ages.”

The DPRK is a regime built around the ideas of juche (self-sufficiency—except for imported luxury goods for the elite), isolation and terror. Its main objective is to maintain the ruling Kim family in power, which it has done since the late 1940s in a ruthlessly efficient fashion via the secret police, military and ruling party, the Korean Workers’ Party. Founding father Kim Il-sung (the Great Leader) and his son Kim Jong-il (the Dear Leader) honed the regime into one of the world’s most repressive regimes, and through very Machiavellian maneuvers played the major powers—the United States, China, Russia and Japan—off one another, leaving their country independent.

When Kim Jong-un assumed power following Kim Jong-il’s death in December 2011, he inherited a country that appeared ready for change. North Korea’s neighbor, China, had long urged it to embark upon gradual economic reforms, which could help it avert food-security problems and make the economy more viable. The problem was that there were deep concerns that any changes would put at risk the political system—in particular, the hold of the Kim family. Indeed, one of Kim’s brothers, Kim Jong-nam, living in Macau, stated in 2011: “I personally believe that economic reforms and openness are the best ways to make life better for the North Korean people. However, taking North Korea’s unique position into account, there is a fear that economic reforms and openness will lead to the collapse of the present system.”

Central to the DPRK’s regime survival are a large standing army just north of the thirty-eighth parallel, and a ballistic and nuclear weapons program. Indeed, Pyongyang has used its nuclear-weapons program as a bargaining chip in past negotiations with major powers, offering to open its facilities for international inspection and work within international guidelines in return for food aid. Sadly, the DPRK has only briefly lived up to its promises, only to then return to a more aggressive stance.

The Kim regime has been active in 2016, conducting tests in January and most recently in September. The latter tests were carried out to protest the decision in July by the United States to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense system to the ROK.

The logic in all of this is straightforward: a nuclear-armed DPRK cannot be ignored, nor can it be bullied by the United States, China or the ROK. Simply stated, nuclear weapons equal regime survival. According to Siegfried Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the United States and a leading expert on North Korea’s nuclear program, North Korea’s claims that it had standardized a nuclear warhead for mounting on ballistic missiles, and could produce as many bombs as it wanted, had to be taken seriously. He has estimated the DPRK has stockpiled sufficient plutonium and highly enriched uranium for approximately twenty bombs by the end of the year, and has the capacity to add about seven more a year. Moreover, the regime’s “ability to field an ICBM fitted with a nuclear warhead capable of reaching the United States is still a long way off—perhaps 5 to 10 years, but likely doable if the program is unconstrained.”

If Pyongyang did go through with its threat to use nuclear weapons, or even long-range ballistic missiles, considerable damage could be done to surrounding countries, in particular the ROK and Japan. The use of such weapons would no doubt invite retaliation, which under the circumstances most likely mean the end of the northern regime. Consequently, the threat of a North Korean nuclear strike, while frightening to contemplate, is not likely. However, there remains a risk that the longer this regime survives and advances its nuclear and missile programs, the more dangerous it will become.

North Korea poses another threat as well: regime collapse. The DPRK is probably the most isolated state in the world, which has allowed the government to keep its population in the dark about the rest of the world. However, there are cracks in the edifice, and some information is gradually seeping into North Korea, much of it from China, just across the Yalu River. At the same time, economic conditions in North Korea remain troubling, especially in terms of ongoing vulnerability for food security. The 1990s famine, caused initially by floods and then drought, resulted in the deaths of somewhere between one and three million people. Although the regime was able to ride through this because of outside food deliveries from major powers, the country is not in a position to feed its population.

In September 2016, the food-security issue returned, due to severe flooding in the DPRK’s northeast, which, according to the regime’s official news source, has left “‘tens of thousands’ of buildings destroyed and people left homeless and ‘suffering from great hardship.” The Kim regime accompanied this news with an appeal to other countries for assistance. Are the 1990s about to repeat themselves?

When authoritarian regimes fall, they have a tendency to unwind quickly. Food problems were a key spark for the downfall of many autocratic regimes in North Africa and the Middle East; it could eventually be the Achilles’ heel for North Korea. A sudden collapse not only raises the issue of how to deal with the humanitarian challenge of feeding over twenty million North Koreans, but who would bear the costs of Korean reunification. Current estimates range from $1 to $3 trillion, though these are broad guesses.

At the same time, a sudden DPRK collapse would change the structure of international relations in East Asia. A unified Korea forms a larger power on China’s doorstep, the main reason for the U.S. military presence on the Korean Peninsula disappears and Japan most likely will have to reassess its alliance with the United States—though it is probably logical to maintain it considering the security risk Tokyo feels from China.

There is a certain less-than-satisfactory logic for the countries involved in keeping the Kim dynasty afloat. Although the regime is odious in its treatment of its own population, and its nuclear saber-rattling is unsettling, its collapse would take the region’s international relations to a very different landscape, with considerable uncertainty. That stated, the DPRK at some point will most likely collapse. It is difficult to see a managed transition of power to a more open political system with the current set of North Korean actors. This leaves one major option: at some point there will be a coup or spontaneous upheaval. To be successful, regime change must come from within, which for the foreseeable future provides more time for the Kim dynasty. But change is eventually coming, which keeps this corner of East Asia a potential flash point.

Scott B. MacDonald is Chief Economist for Smith’s Research and Gradings.

Image: Mural at Pyongyang Film Studios, North Korea. Flickr/John Pavelka