How stable is North Korea right now? We should approach this question with some humility. We thought we understood the Soviet Union’s internal dynamics. Our singular Cold War focus on the USSR included concerted espionage, deep and broad academic study, treaties, and extended diplomatic activity. We had close military and diplomatic contact at Berlin’s “Checkpoint Charlie”, along the “Iron Curtain” frontier, and across air, land, and sea. The Berlin Blockade and the Cuban Missile Crisis tested our decisionmaking, establishing de facto rules of engagement.
Yet despite this focus and extended analysis, the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the subsequent 1991 dissolution of the USSR surprised us. We have not ignored North Korea since the early 1950s, but it is safe to say that our level of effort, and our success in predicting “Hermit Kingdom” events, fall well short of our effort with the USSR. It’s been helpfully called the Defiant Failed State.
As Soviet support for North Korea declined, it seemed that North Korea’s days were numbered. Yet they endured. The death of founding leader Kim Il-sung led to renewed speculation about North Korea’s future under the son, Kim Jong-il. Was the son, fond of elevator shoes, to be a worthy successor? Massive famine and economic crisis in the mid-90s, well-documented in graphic descriptions by international aid organizations allowed to operate there, generated more doubt over leadership stability. Kim Jong-il’s death, of natural causes, led to the second dynastic transfer of power, this time to a little-known young man Kim Jong-un, (even his late-20s age was an estimate) of unknown capability. He quickly proved his absolute rule credentials by brutally executing Jang Song-thaek, an established government leader who happened to be Un’s uncle, married to Kim Jong-il's sister. That Jang was also a favorite of the CCP leadership in China added to the audacity of his execution.
Throughout this time North Korea not only survived but thrived in its quest to become a nuclear-armed state with weapons of mass destruction capable of ranging Asia and beyond. This was a North Korean goal from the early 50s after General MacArthur threatened to use nuclear weapons in the war. Now North Korean Weapons of Mass Destruction capability goes beyond nuclear weapons. Chemical weapons capability was demonstrated in the 13 February 2017 deployment and employment of nerve agent VX to assassinate Kim Jong-Nam in the Kuala Lumpur Airport.
North Korea may have few of the sovereign state attributes generally considered necessary for stability. Yet North Korea’s continued stable existence and its growing threat to neighbors in the region and beyond continue to grow. Strategic deterrence, internal suppression, geography, terrain, geopolitics, and economics also add to stability.
Possession and demonstration of weapons of mass destruction capability bolster stability by making the price of subjugation prohibitively high. Illicit weapons technology trading also contributes directly to North Korea’s cash balance. Office 39 of the Korean Workers Party, reporting directly to Kim, is likely involved.
The North Korean population is subjected to brutal control measures. Between 100,000 and 200,000 North Koreans are held in concentration camps in brutal conditions, with frequent torture and executions. Multiple generations of families are imprisoned for the sins of an individual. A particular threat is perceived to be the penetration of South Korean pop culture. Possession of any electronic tool that can access it results in harsh penalties. Combined with the general poor nutrition beyond the elites, this greatly decreases the potential for any protest.
North Korea’s geographic position between democratic and capitalistic South Korea, Communist China, and Russia, with Japan directly across the Sea of Japan, stabilizes North Korea. China has a high interest in North Korea’s continued existence as a barrier to liberal government and economic thought and practice.
North Korea’s famously mountainous terrain poses daunting obstacles to movement in general, and particularly to any possible military action. North Korea’s deeply buried, hidden, and hardened, cannon and rocket artillery sites in the Kaesong Heights overlooking one of the most densely populated cities in the world, South Korea’s capital Seoul, poses its own mass destruction threat with conventional weapons. The steep and extensive mountainous terrain throughout the country is its own strong deterrent.
Russia and China, as angered as they may be from time to time, strongly desire the continued existence of stable leadership in North Korea. Japan, South Korea, and other allies and friends of the United States support U.S. goals in the region, particularly those concerned with deterrence of attack by North Korea. All agree on the dangerous nature of the Kim regime, and that its continued existence is not at all certain. They are fully aware that if there is conflict, the collateral damage is nearly certain to fall on the region’s countries. For that reason, they support U.S. presence and deterrence. A preemptive attack is off the table. Even if North Korea is likely to fail some time, no one wants to pay the price to hasten that day.
Ironically, market economics in a Stalinist state contribute to stability. Dire conditions following the 90s famine forced the Kim regime to tacitly permit low-level market economics in North Korea. Trade among villages and communities raises the standard of living, increases tax collection, and thus contributes to the stability of a dictatorial regime.
North Korea’s continued existence as a despotic, autocratic, abusive state with dangerous weapons and a demonstrated willingness to use those weapons, is not guaranteed. What we think we know of North Korea indicates no likelihood of change. But we were wrong about the Soviet Union in the 90s.
Wallace C. Gregson served as a former assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs (2009—11) and is currently a senior advisor at Avascent International as well as senior director for China and the Pacific at the Center for the National Interest. Gregson last served as the Commander, U.S. Marine Corps Forces Pacific; Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific; and Commander, U.S. Marine Corps Bases, Pacific, headquartered at Camp H. M. Smith, Hawaii.