The North Korean state has been remarkably stable since its inception in 1948. It survived the debacle and devastation of the war it launched against the Republic of Korea in 1950, and it survived the economic shock from the collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent famine three decades ago. Now, it is hanging in there despite the self-imposed shut-down in border trade a year and a half ago to stem the spread of the pandemic and the sharp reduction in international trade nearly five years ago owing to the effects of international sanctions.
The Democratic People's Republic of Korea's (DPRK) political stability, however, does not mean it is a strong state by any means. On the contrary, the DPRK fits best in the “weak state” categorization of Harvard Kennedy School’s Robert Rotberg, although it has some features of a failed state. The peculiar rigidities of the DPRK suggest that it is one shock away from a total failure if not collapse, should the Kim dynasty lose legitimacy with its core sources of support in the party and military. An example of a collapsed state is Somalia in the 1990s during its civil war.
The DPRK’s resistance to total failure and collapse comes from a polity that is characterized by extreme regimentation and totalitarian social controls and is ruthlessly unprincipled. Iraq under Saddam Hussein was a case similar to the DPRK, although not as extreme. Rotberg notes that such states are held together by “repression and not by performance.” Although Chairman Kim Jong Un warns that the country’s food situation “is tense” and it seems likely that another period of mass starvation could lie ahead, the state maintains control over the military and the country’s borders and it continues to provide a modicum of public goods, at least for the elite citizens of Pyongyang.
What could precipitate the loss of legitimacy of the DPRK state? It is hard to see that an economic shock would precipitate a failure-collapse. Other weak or failed states have had abysmal economic performance, but have avoided collapse. The Islamic Republic of Iran lost ninety percent of its oil exports as a result of U.S. sanctions under President Trump and the collapse in oil prices five years ago, yet the theocratic government remains as firmly in control as ever. Nicolas Madura declared a state of emergency in Venezuela in 2016, three years after taking over from Hugo Chávez, and has mismanaged the economy into four years of hyperinflation—peaking at around 1.8 million percent in 2018—and seven years of recession. Yet he remains in power.
Obviously, it is political repression rather than economic performance that has kept the leadership of both countries in power. Another factor is China’s increased role in trade and investment in both countries. For North Korea, repression and most likely a continued modicum of surreptitious trade and financing from China — supplemented by cyber theft income — is helping to keep the country from completely falling apart economically. However, what could lead to the loss of political legitimacy for the Kim dynasty is the intensification of the country’s prolonged economic distress that deprives the elite of its economic benefits. In addition to food shortages, the recent topsy-turvy instability in the North Korean won exchange rate suggests that financial pressures are rising. The near-term fix would be to relax border controls and accept offers of humanitarian assistance. Our prediction is that the authorities will eventually do so, to preserve political stability and prevent the state from barreling over the economic cliff into collapse.
Tom Byrne ([email protected]) is the president and CEO of the Korea Society and was the Asia-Pacific regional manager for Moody’s Sovereign Risk Group before coming to the Korea Society.
Jonathan Corrado ([email protected]) is the policy director of the Korea Society, a Pacific Forum Young Leader, and a contributing author to NK Pro.
The views reflected in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Korea Society.