Political Change in the North

August 4, 2011 7:30 AM

In an earlier post, Dan Pinkston (International Crisis Group) and I talked with Asia Policy editor Andrew Marble about the prospects for political change in the North. While in Seoul recently, we dropped in on our friends at the DailyNK for a further discussion of the issues. Eun Kyoung Kwon and Christopher Green from DailyNK posed the questions; we have taken the liberty of editing from the full transcript of the conversation, focusing on the meaning of the often-used and abused concepts of “collapse” and “regime change.”

Daily NK: You have said that the North Korean regime is not going to collapse, and have given many reasons why. Yet other people see the regime as approaching its end. What are we to make of this difference in view?

SH: We have to ask ourselves what we mean by the term “collapse.” Collapse is typically used in the study of comparative politics to refer to a loss of central authority, when the regime is incapable of asserting control over territory or providing order. Such cases of state failure typically occur in very low-income countries with very weak central governments: Somalia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, or Afghanistan during its civil wars.

North Korea is now a very low-income country but it has a very highly-developed state structure and security apparatus; it is an institutionalized country.

If collapse does not mean state failure, it has to mean one of two things: either that there is a challenge from below which forces the leadership to exit, as occurred in East Germany, the Philippines or South Korea in 1987. It doesn’t seem to me that there is a basis for that kind of collective action from below in North Korea.

The only collapse scenarios left are one in which some faction within the government challenges the succession. This could happen if a group of regime insiders is capable of demonstrating to Kim Jŏng Ŭn that he cannot rule by himself, or that he cannot rule at all. In the latter case, they would seize power, which would be more like a coup d’état; note that under this scenario the regime does not really collapse but is transformed into some other kind of authoritarian system.

A second type of internal challenge is one in which the challengers miscalculate their chances of seizing power and fighting breaks out among the parties. It is possible that such fighting could be prolonged, but if we look at other settings—including South Korea—it is more likely that the fighting would come to a conclusion relatively quickly.

An example is what happened in the fall of 1979 in South Korea. After Park Chung Hee was assassinated, there were strong pressures from below, including riots in Masan and demonstrations in Seoul. But the regime didn’t collapse; rather, there was a transfer of power from Park Chung Hee to Chun Doo Hwan. Chun accomplished this by first seizing power within the military, and then by declaring martial law in May 1980.

In short, it seems incumbent on those arguing that the regime is going to collapse to clarify the scenario through which this would occur.

One final distinction is worth making: between a change 'of' the regime—a fundamental change in political form--and change 'in' the regime. These are two very different things. Even if the regime is likely to be stable in the intermediate run, the system could change from within. For example, if Kim Jŏng Ŭn consolidates power, which I think is a reasonable probability, he could then take steps to alter the direction in which North Korea is going.

DP: I agree for the most part. Those arguing for a collapse scenario look at the combination of economic distress and the vulnerabilities associated with a power transition. Transitions are a very delicate process, because they involve not only the ascent of a new leader but a whole new generation of leaders. People talk about one man leading the country, but no one person can lead a country by himself or herself; it takes a minimum coalition of support. Passing power along is not easy because you cannot alienate the old generation. And when North Korea is suffering such economic difficulties and the pie is shrinking, there are fewer spoils to divide.

But barriers to collective action within the elite are also difficult to overcome. There are very strong incentives to coalesce around the new leader, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the transition goes off very well.

SH: So far, we have been talking about the short-run. Let’s widen the time horizon over five to seven years. What are the prospects for pressures to arise from below? As a North Korean facing severe material distress, I have a choice to act politically or focus on survival.  Because of the repressive apparatus and very low incomes, there are no NGOs or civil society organizations of any strength. Material deprivation forces people into non-political activities.

But that process creates problems for the regime, because people are moving out of the state sector; companies, work units and households are drifting out of the planned sector into the market. Can the market become a basis for collective action?

We know from our surveys that at least some people are not happy and are communicating their dissent. We also have survey evidence that those involved in the market are more likely to communicate this dissent to others. Collective action might emerge in response to state efforts to control the market. In a famous incident in Hamhŭng, market women protested against efforts to restrict the market, arguing that they could not make a livelihood.

But you have to be careful in terms of predicting large-scale political change, because the government can also relax restrictions in a tactical way to prevent such protests from occurring.

Another path of change is that as the market grows it becomes more and more costly for the government to shut it down; the currency conversion showed these costs clearly. The regime may not want to go down the market path—indeed, they have clearly been resistant—but they are more or less forced to relax restrictions periodically. In this scenario, you would have a change not ‘of’ the regime but ‘in’ the regime. Note that the Chinese Communist Party undertook wide-ranging reforms after 1978, but still exercises political control; the political regime in China has not changed.

Could marketization provide the basis for wider conflict within the regime? As more and more people are involved in the market, they come to have more resources. Party officials and segments of the military are also involved in corrupt activities that the central government doesn’t fully control. It is possible that a struggle could break out over the allocation of resources within the regime, for example between the military and other sectors. I don’t see this as likely to generate overt fighting, but it could certainly generate power struggles within the regime, and probably has already.

Daily NK: That sounds like a budgetary conflict in some respects. On which point, recent video from ASIAPRESS shows that the military is not getting the food it needs. Does that mean that this conflict is building more quickly than you just suggested?

SH. It’s possible. It depends on what the outside world does. The current administration in South Korea and critics of engagement say we should force this process and that food delivery will just prolong the regime. Humanitarians—including myself--say you have to make decisions about humanitarian assistance based on need, not on some unknown probability that the regime will collapse.

Which brings us to the crucial role of China. We have ample evidence that the Chinese are thoroughly disgusted with the North Koreans, but are they disgusted enough to pull the plug? I think everyone agrees that the answer is “no.” This means that the regime has a cushion that is going to prevent them from facing these choices to the extent that we would like.

DP: Here is the good and bad of the dilemma the regime faces. On the one hand, the policy mix is so bad that you don’t have to be a Nobel Prize winner in economics to put together a better economic policy package. With some very minor adjustments, they could get big improvements in the economy.

But the problem is that if they liberalize and relax some of the controls, allow the type of governance and property rights that let market actors increase productivity, then the regime could also get an uptick in economic performance for which it could take credit. As those actors become less dependent on the state, they will have divergent interests based on their market activities and might engage in collective action over the long run. But I see this taking quite a long time.

SH.  Another important point to make about collective action concerns political geography. Except in civil war settings, regimes are typically challenged from the capital. But the regime is pouring money into Pyongyang: this is visible in housing, cell phones, the availability of consumer goods. But they are also keeping some forms of market activity out of Pyongyang. For example, the biggest wholesale markets are in P’yŏngsŏng not in Pyongyang; pproximate but not in the capital city itself.

Reform experiments are being pushed to the borders of the country. Why is there not an export processing zone in Pyongyang? It is the logical place to have an industrial park. But rather these experiments are in Rasŏn and Kaesŏng, away from the capital city. The regime is very strategic about protecting against disaffection at the center.

Daily NK: That makes for a potent mix at the borders, doesn't it?

SH. That’s an interesting point. In China, the areas with the deepest marketization in the early reform period were areas where the Great Leap Forward famine was most severe. In a reformed North Korea, the Hamgyŏng provinces could be a dynamic area, as will the border regions to the west. If the lid is lifted, the areas with the most de facto marketization are most likely to take off.

DP. Another point about these areas is that they may partially escape central control. In Pyongyang there is a clear government presence, oversight and monitoring. But when I visited Kaesŏng,on a city tour, I was struck by the limited amount of propaganda surrounding the Kim family; it was there, but nothing like in Pyongyang. Also, people’s attitudes were quite different. In Pyongyang people seemed very confident, very loyal to their government, whereas in Kaesŏng,people had confidence because they were removed from Pyongyang.

The propaganda was also much, much less than I had expected. The people In Kaesong talked about Koryo, of which Kaesŏng was the capital, and about old heroes. In short, they talked in terms of very different traditions.

Daily NK: The existence of Kim Jong Il is sometimes portrayed as the problem, but there is clearly a wider elite. How far down do we have to pluck out the roots of the regime before we can be comfortable with what remains?

SH. These are very important questions to ask if I am wrong and the regime were to suddenly change. I watched 'de-Baathification' in Iraq, and it is important to be cautious.

Lustration is the process by which new democratic regimes decide who from the old regime is to be tried and punished, and who will be rehabilitated. Should you try twenty people, fifty people, a hundred people, or a thousand people? Equally important, how many from the old regime will be allowed to work for the new? In Iraq, disbanding the army created insurgents and firing senior civil servants deprived the regime of much-needed expertise. You cannot send the whole Korean Workers Party to prison; you have to allow them to re-enter society and find a productive role in the new order. This is a question not only of transitional justice but of retraining.

I would have no problem trying Kim Jong Il in the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. I think you could probably make a case under the Rome Statute, including with respect to the responsibility for the famine of the mid-1990s. But the likelihood of this transpiring is extremely low.

Add new comment