Posted by: williamjsykes | December 31, 2008

Reasons: Why North Korea will Collapse in Not a Distant Future and What We Must be Concerned With

In the latter half of the twentieth century following the onslaught of World War II, the East Asian region has achieved an incredible degree of development in terms of the area’s both political and economic stature across the globe. There was, however, one exception amongst this list: North Korea. Commencing a dialogue concerning North Korea, however, is not a simple process as describing any other nation with failed economy and authoritarian rule, as it is –as most westerners are aware of – also a country that appears in global media the most, though usually as a menace to global security, not as another example of rapid economic development that much of East Asian region was blessed with. While most former communist nations –east or west alike– either enjoyed a successful transition or faded into obscurity, North Korea did not fall into neither scenario and now is one of the most talked-about nations in the world due to its dual face as both one of the most impoverished nations in the world after an economic breakdown that began following the demise of the Communist Bloc, and a threat to global security through its insistence to preserve its heavy armament and its insistence upon developing its controversial nuclear program. Now one question remains: why?

After the collapse of the Communist Bloc and the end of the Cold War in the wake of the 1990s, the world expected a new paradigm of global geopolitics where martial conflicts will be minimized and a good degree of stability across the world was to be assured. Nonetheless, after nearly two decades after the fall of what Ronald Reagan once described as the “Evil Empire,” the world is still prone to a series of disorders and crises in numerous regions, as seen in the crises in Middle East manifested by our prolonged and unsuccessful war effort in Iraq. One aspect we must pay attention to regarding these current conflicts, however, is that a large portion of the current geopolitical crises came as the aftermath of the events during the Cold War era, with notable instances being Iraq, Kosovo, and North Korea.

A study on North Korea is both very intriguing and disturbing, one of numerous reasons being a fact that it possesses perhaps the most bizarre brand of communism even when compared to its most rigid counterparts throughout the former Communist Bloc. As a former member of the Communist Bloc and still a very oppressive Stalinist regime, our subject North Korea must rank high amongst the list of countries whose nature as a threat to global security largely descended from the problems generated following the end of the Cold War. This, I believe, tells us that in order to achieve a full understanding of North Korea’s recent behaviors, the understanding of its history is crucial. With its economy failing miserably and most foreign governments unwilling to provide a substantial amount of aid, North Korea could be considered as a country that is now on the verge of collapse, which may –unfortunately– choose to end itself under the mayhem of nuclear or full-fledged warfare committed by its leadership faced with few alternative decisions. Faced with such concerns, there are a number of points I would like to address with regard to this extremely important issue in this essay. In this writing, indeed, I would like to address the reasons why North Korea is currently on the verge of collapse due to its own incompatibilities, the argument that will be backed by a thorough presentation the political history of North Korea to illuminate why North Korean leadership put itself in such position.

To begin with, North Korea, often dubbed by the mainstream media as the “Hermit Kingdom,” is a nation under an ironclad control of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party that is virtually shut out from any foreign influence. Though defining itself as a communist nation, North Korea’s ruling method could be seen as perverse and oppressive even from an orthodox Marxist’s standpoint. North Korea’s head of state, to take one example, is inherited directly from the country’s founder, Kim Il-Sung, a practice that is unprecedented in any country with past or present communist ruling experience. Furthermore, throughout its history, North Korea has openly devised its own brand of communist ideology in an attempt to justify its totalitarian rule, in what is known as the Juche ideology. In what seems to be a rather tenuous combination of the ideas from Chairman Mao and Il Duce, Kim Il-Sung, the architect of the Juche system, asserts that every communist polity shall be operated under the firm principle of self-reliance, even though North Korea itself largely depended upon the economic assistance from fellow communist nations to support its own economy.

The advent of Juche ideology also marked the practice of personality cult in North Korea, which forced its populace to worship a head of state like a monarch, which one may see as following the footsteps of the Imperial Japan during World War II, ironically the state North Korea condemns as its version of “Evil Empire” alongside the United States. In practice, the Juche idea largely served as a handy tool for North Korea’s leadership to justify its reign of terror, as it could demonize anyone that opposes policies imposed by the Kim Dynasty regime as an imperialistic, counterrevolutionary figure. The Juche ideology also served as a rationale behind North Korea’s intent to develop nuclear arms despite the opposition from Beijing, its reluctant ally, though one could point that Pyongyang’s attempt to arm itself with nuclear warheads is a mere attempt for the current leadership to survive, an aspect of the contemporary world politics surrounding North Korea that I will clearly show in the subsequent parts of this paper. The Juche theory, as we shall explore throughout this paper, would plague North Korea’s sustainability throughout the history of the Hermit Kingdom due to its nature as an ideology that was constructed without much expert knowledge in political economy and under a firm belief in self-reliance despite the necessity of mutual trade in order for a nation to achieve any respectable economic and technological growth.

Before further presenting the argument itself, however, let us cover the political history of North Korea in order to clarify where the Juche idea and North Korea’s current domestic and foreign policies came from. This, I believe, would strengthen the argument I intend to address in this paper, while also clarifying the Chinese mindset behind still seeing North Korea as somewhat of an ally despite the strained relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang with regard to numerous issues, most notably regarding North Korea’s intent to develop nuclear warheads despite the opposition from both China and its neighbors surrounding the East Asian region.

North Korea was established after World War II and the collapse of the Japanese Empire where the Soviet Union, alongside the United States and Great Britain, emerged as the victors of this massive global conflict. The Korean Peninsula, legally a Japanese territory during the war years, soon caught the interest of both Soviet Union and the west, as these newly-emerged superpowers needed a safeguard area where the influence by either nation was as dominant as other countries that already came under either American or Soviet interest. With this concern in his mind, the Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin addressed in Yalta Conference that should Soviet Union enter the war against Japan, it must consolidate what he called “buffer zones” in both Asia and Europe, with its buffer zone in Asia being the northern half of the Korean Peninsula. In the process, a compromise was made between Washington and Moscow to divide the Korean Peninsula in the parallel line of 38. The United States, vowing to consolidate the reconstruction effort in Japan, occupied Korea below the 38 line and eventually established Syngman Rhee, a rather obscure figure who hardly involved himself in Korean independence movement, as its head of state. At the same time, the Soviet Union appointed Kim Il-Sung, a former Soviet officer with some –if dubious– record of fighting against the Japanese, as the leader of the newly-launched communist state in the Korea above the 38 line. What we must notice in this process is that from its very beginning, North Korea –at least behind the eyes of Moscow or Beijing– was a nation whose main purpose is to serve as a buffer state behind its mother nation. This remains virtually unchanged to this day, though the circumstances surrounding the patronage from more influential states have changed over time, especially after the collapse of the Communist Bloc and a massive economic surge China enjoyed in recent years. This, I observe, is the most significant reason why Beijing retains its ties with the Hermit Kingdom despite the recent events, as a breakdown of the status quo in North Korea may lead to an establishment of a pro-western regime in the area, something China does not want to happen.

At the same time, one of Pyongyang’s rationales behind its attempt to maintain its massive –and costly– military and develop nuclear warheads is a technically ongoing war with South Korea, an issue that a number of far right-wingers in Seoul take advantage of as well. To understand this, one must obtain a clear picture of the aftermath of the Korean War, which left the two Koreas with an intense mutual hostility that lasts to this day. The Korean War is also important in one’s attempt to fully understand current North Korean politics, as it was the Korean War –and its unclear outcome– that helped Kim Il-Sung to cement his monopoly of power and thereby establishing a political atmosphere where he could practice his questionable brand of communism.

In several years following the birth of North Korea, Moscow –then controlled by Joseph Stalin– decided to provide Pyongyang with a substantial amount of war materials for potential warfare against the pro-American south, though Stalin himself acted largely upon an assumption that Washington is doing the same in the south and Kim Il-Sung will not provoke a full-scale war. The United States, by contrast, did not expect the Soviet Union to break the balance of power, thus leaving South Korea with only a handful of military units and dismal local military to defend itself. Shortly after its establishment, North Korea –partially inspired by a declaration made by Dean Acheson, the Secretary of State under Truman administration, that United States will not include South Korea as its new defense plan– engaged itself in what is now known as Korean War. Kim, aware of a fact that his army was in far superior condition compared to its southern counterpart, believed that he could end a war within a short period of time. After a rapid –and thus unforeseen– advance of North Korean army in the wake of the Korean War, both Moscow and Beijing had somewhat of an assumption that the western world will not intervene because of their supposed disregard of Korean Peninsula as an important geostrategic spot, and the lack of immediate manpower –after the demobilization of American troops following World War II– to oppose the rapidly advancing North Korean army. Seeing South Korea as a buffer zone to Japan, its newfound and extremely important ally in the postwar Asia, Washington thought otherwise. The United States, with an approval from the United Nations, thus intervened. The subsequent years of the war saw the Chinese entry to the war in rescue of Kim Il-Sung’s regime, and a rather stagnant warfare where neither Beijing nor Washington desired to make a substantial advance due to the fear of another world war and because of the fact that both China and the United States were content with the pre-war status quo, as both sides managed to assure the buffer zone for themselves to retain an acceptable degree of stability in the East Asian region.

The Korean War ended in 1953, with a very unclear result with borders similar to the pre-war level, only leaving an enormous degree of hostility between North and South Korea. From Pyongyang’s perspective, the war was a failure, as it did not succeed in its initial goal: The reunification of Korean Peninsula under the helm of Korean Workers’ Party. Thus, the unclear outcome of the war provided Kim Il-Sung an opportunity to purge the political opponents that he did not like or perceived as a threat. The history of North Korea after the Korean War, therefore, was noted with a series of purges towards Kim’s political rivals that cemented Kim’s dominance in what is called “Korean Workers’ Party,” now an agent of oppression towards its people whose status as the oppressor persists till today. The war, at the same time, provided the authoritarian rulers of both Koreas a rationale to exploit national security as an excuse to devise a more rigid, oppressive regime that bolstered their rule. While South Korea eventually managed to reinvent itself as a somewhat democratic nation due to drastically improved economy in recent decades, North Korea has retained the kind of political structure that is nearly exactly the same with the one Kim Il-Sung consolidated following the Korean War. The North Korean system, however, did not seem to be in danger until the 1970s when its economy still achieved a respectable amount of growth largely due to assistances made from Soviet Union and other nations in the Communist Bloc, the progress that was made under the conditions quite contrary from what the Juche principle insists. Thus, it was following the fall of communism and the end of foreign assistance when North Korea faced its most dire problems: The economic problems.

Throughout the Cold War years, the North Korean economy largely depended upon the military and economic assistance from Moscow and Beijing, a pattern that was largely similar in Pyongyang’s southern counterpart. Even during these years, however, North Korea’s opportunity to further take advantage of the situation was often hampered due to the presence of Juche ideology and the Pyongyang Politburo’s insistence to preserve the principle of “self-reliance” whenever possible. Amid this period emerged Deng Xiaoping in Beijing’s Politburo, who introduced open-door policies to many parts of China’s industries in an attempt to modernize the stagnant Chinese economy. While Deng’s policies proved immensely successful in China, they also brought in the new ideas that the Chinese populace was not able to reach in previous years, which resulted in some people questioning the legitimacy of the dominance of Chinese Communist Party as a whole.

A staunch Stalinist, Kim Il-Sung saw this kind of reform as both a betrayal to communist principles and making the country prone to potential domestic instabilities. To a certain extent, he was right. Soon after Deng’s policies became implemented, a series of domestic insurgencies in fellow communist nations that newly adopted open-door policies –with most notable example being People’s Republic of China as seen in the Tiananmen Incident of 1989– convinced Pyongyang to strengthen its grip in its isolationist policy at the peril of the country’s already fluctuating economy. While this helped North Korea to maintain its Stalinist rule in a short term, in a long term it furthered the ineffective nature of North Korean economy caused by an enormous military expenditure, poorly-planned economic policies, and Kim Il-Sung’s intent to keep his country more as self-reliant as possible to preserve his monopoly of power. Following the fall of the Soviet Union and the Communist Bloc by the year 1991, the North Korean economy started deteriorating due to the lack of foreign trade –which provided virtually all foreign capital in the nation besides a small amount sent from Chosen Soren, a pro-Pyongyang organization based in Japan that is suspected have taken part in abducting Japanese citizens into North Korea. This is during this time period where Kim Jong-Il, the son of Kim Il-Sung assumed power from his father then started imposing even more isolationist policy of his own in his attempt to preserve the political status quo. Within this light, North Korea’s desperation could be also seen in its hasty nuclear development, in an attempt to have both a deadly threat and a viable bargain weapon with the outside world without letting the North Korean populace to start questioning the legitimacy of the rigid Stalinist regime through outwards access.

Given the incompatible nature of North Korea’s regime we have observed thus far, one could naturally suggest that there is a vast array of reasons one could suggest why North Korea will collapse in not a distant future. One of such reasons is North Korea’s economic reality, which is barely sustaining itself by “unconditional” aids from China and South Korea. The lack of food resources and resulting famine is a serious concern in North Korea since early 1990s, while not a substantial improvement was made from Pyongyang’s Politburo. The leadership of North Korea, meanwhile, is more concerned in preserving its seat as an authoritarian ruler of the nation, as any substantial open-door policy –especially at this point– will immediately let the populace question the legitimacy of the communist leadership, thus creating an atmosphere where reversal of the status quo is possible in any occasions.

Hereby the current governance of North Korea faces a serious dilemma: whether to preserve the current system under the Juche ideology that has no chance of improving North Korea’s economic conditions while relying upon occasional aids provided by China and South Korea, or to impose an open-door policy to save North Korea from itself, a move that will put leaders of North Korea a severe crisis of legitimacy. One must also consider a fact that if the current dismal economic conditions become prolonged for a long period of time, there will be good potential where there will be inner conflict within North Korea to transform the leadership to one that is capable of resolving North Korea’s diplomatic status and economic difficulty at least to a certain extent.

Another major factor that could contribute to the downfall of current North Korean leadership is its diplomatic status where North Korea caused itself to be left with arguably no reliable allies. One could argue that as a communist nation, the Kim Dynasty might still have strong ties with its Chinese counterpart. This assumption, however, is misleading, as North Korea’s relationship with China has deteriorated over time due to a number of causes. One of those reasons is North Korea’s unwillingness to comply with what Beijing demands, especially in terms of its pursuit of nuclear weapon and military strength for aggressive warfare disregarding China’s warning not to do so. This, without a doubt, poses a serious threat to the neighboring countries of the communist rogue state, while also aggravating Beijing’s intent to utilize North Korea as its buffer zone without being a threat to China itself. After the North Korean nuclear experiment in October 2006, China was one of the first nations to condemn Pyongyang’s decision to engage in such attempts. With this in regard, the Pyongyang Politburo will have to be prepared to face China’s reluctance to help the Hermit Kingdom in case of conflict with the western world, especially when such problem was generated by North Korea’s ongoing nuclear problems.

Throughout this essay, we have observed the reasons why North Korea’s status quo will be put on the verge of collapse for a wide variety of reasons. One major factor, of course, would be a potential crisis of legitimacy once North Korea attempts to save itself from a seemingly endless economic downfall, which seems to hardly improve despite economic aids from China and South Korea. Pyongyang, therefore, is bound to be rather reluctant towards any kind of openness, while the continuation of the status quo –along with North Korea’s brinkmanship diplomacy– will further global pressure on North Korea and could result in a massive warfare that could be a major geopolitical catastrophe in the East Asian region. At the same time, one potential major factor during the collapse would be People’s Republic of China, as Beijing would like to preserve North Korea as its buffer zone against the mounting western pressures, as seen by Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, all of which retain close ties to the United States. This, I believe, means that while the collapse of the current leadership in North Korea seems inevitable at some point, there shall be a considerable degree of mutual compromise between the two sides should there be peace and stability in the East Asian region, though possible aftermath like a rapid reunification of the peninsula may pose a colossal geopolitical catastrophe at the peril of the region’s stability.



  1. Very nice essay. Your history in particular was through and interesting.

    As to the prospects of reunification following a collapse of the Kim Dynastry (which I agree is inevitable), I think the South may prove more nimble than we expect. There is a Korean proverb that Korea is a shrimp crushed between two whales (Japan and China. They have a long history of having to play powers off against each other. I wouldnt be suprised if they agreed to terminate their alliance with us or otherwise finlanize to China in exchange for agreeing to unificaiton. If memory serves the Sovs pushed for a similar deal with Germany after the wall came down, but Bush but the kabash on it.

    Now though the US is relativley weaker and China is in a better position than the Soviet Union in 1989. If unification happens, I expect the US will be a big loser in it.

    One final point, following the actual collapse of the Kim dynasty. I expect a power struggle similar to the one following Stalin’s death. I think the security services which are clearly the strongest faction in the country will initially seem to be the natural successor, but in time the rest of the elite will rally behind a moderate out of fear of the security services. I think there will be at least a brief moment when there is someone the world can do business with. Where it goes from there I dont know, he may not last long, but it seems to me logical (and I admit ideology often trumps logic) to fallback on a more moderate Kruschevesque policy of relying on nuclear deterence while reforming at home. I base this on my belief that most of the elites know the current situation is untenable and will feel a desire to preserve their position as best they can after Kim is gone and that should appear to be reform.

  2. Uhm.. Concerning reunification, I never said it was inevitable by any means. Instead, we must work to prevent such setback at all costs, as an instability in Korean peninsula means a breakdown of a delicate balance of power that is preserved through the maintainence of status quo (concerning sphere of influence, not Kim Dynasty itself) of the division of the peninsula. In addition, a rapid reunification (East Germany in 1991 was fairly affluent and possessed good amount of educated individuals to sustain a reunification attempt) in the context of Korea -where South Korean economy is rather fluctuating (it was never in an excellent shape anyway) and North Korea with a life condition comparable to Sub-Saharan African countries would mean a swift collapse of South Korean economy and political stability, thus an intolerable economic loss for Japan and United States, both of which have heavily invested in the southern part of the Peninsula.

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