Totalitarian regimes like North Korea are stable until they are not. Once they are gone, their passing can seem predictable and even overdetermined. As the political scientist Mark Beissinger once wrote of the Soviet Union’s demise: “The once unthinkable and impossible had become the conventional and inevitable.”
Is North Korea on the brink of collapse? Perhaps. Years of economic mismanagement exacerbated by hulking international sanctions have made it difficult for Kim Jong-un to make ends meet. The country is facing a food crunch. Energy has long been in short supply. And while North Korea claims to have shut out Covid-19 for the past 18 months, it is more likely that the pandemic’s ravages have simply gone unreported and unaddressed.
It is feasible that economic distress and miserable living conditions will combine with a major public health crisis to send North Korea over the edge—if not a popular revolt, then perhaps a split in the ruling elite that brings about the regime’s downfall. But North Korea’s leaders have weathered tempestuous political storms before and there is every reason to believe that they will do so again, especially with backing from Beijing.
The reality is that US-based analysts have no way of knowing what is happening inside North Korea right now, let alone what will happen in the future. The only course of action is to plan for both outcomes: regime collapse, to be sure, but also the long-term survival of a repressive, nuclear-armed government in Pyongyang with Kim at its head.
Imagining North Korea’s collapse is a grim business. Who would deliver essential humanitarian aid to the country’s 25 million impoverished citizens? How many refugees could be expected to cross into South Korea and China? Might regime loyalists, military hardliners, and ideological zealots engage in violence against South Korea, Japan, the United States, or the segments of their own population? What would be the fate of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal?
These weighty questions need to be revisited on a regular basis. Even so, Washington must also prepare for the more likely scenario that Kim Jong-un will be in power for decades to come. Indeed, even a brief consideration of a North Korean collapse should be enough to demonstrate that the United States has at least some interest in helping the regime to avoid a catastrophic implosion. The current leaders of North Korea are remorseless killers, but this does not mean that the regime’s sudden disappearance would bring relief.
On the contrary, state failure in North Korea would be a humanitarian catastrophe and a geopolitical nightmare. No matter how good the planning, the logistical challenges of avoiding famine and rampant disease would almost certainly be insurmountable in the short term. Establishing a new government would be close to intractable. The international community has no allies inside North Korea; there is no organized opposition or government-in-exile waiting to assume power.
What is more, Beijing almost certainly has its own plans for handling state failure across the Yalu and Tumen rivers—plans that do not involve U.S. interference or prompt reunification with South Korea. If the great powers could not agree on how to respond to a crisis in North Korea, it would be ordinary citizens bearing the brunt of their disagreements.
A better and more humane regime in North Korea is something to wish for. State collapse is not. As counterintuitive as it might sound, people in the United States had better hope that the Kim regime hangs on a while longer, at least until such a time as it can be ushered out of existence in a somewhat managed fashion.
Meriel Hahn is an incoming graduate student at Queen’s University Belfast. Peter Harris is an assistant professor of political science at Colorado State University.