HOME > BOOK REVIEWS
Rethinking the Theories on North Korea’s Demise
“Post Kim Jong-il”
By Kim Young-hwan, Zeitgeist, 236 pages, 10,000 won
The odds of North Korea remaining intact under the watch of Kim Jong-un have come under intense international scrutiny following the death of former leader Kim Jong-il.
A number of books on the untested new leader have been published in South Korea, but people in the South seem uninformed. Furthermore, the books are limited mostly to Kim Jong-un`s persona — his personality and childhood — and the transition of power from his late father Kim Jong-il. They consequently fail to weigh the chances of the new regime succeeding or shed sufficient light on the future prospects of the North Korean regime.
Against this backdrop “Post Kim Jong-il” hit the shelves. By rekindling the debate on the possibility of regime collapse in North Korea and triggering debate on whether Kim Jong-un can prove his worth, the book strikes chords that are decidedly different from the conventional contemporary literature on North Korea.
Author Kim Young-hwan`s personal reputation is partly responsible for the buzz that this book is generating. Kim was once dubbed the “godfather” of South Korea`s pro-juche (North Korea`s governing ideology of “self-reliance”) movement in the 1980s. He was the first person to preach the juche ideology to South Korean left-wing activists and the founder of the “National Democratic Revolutionary Party,” an underground pro-North organization.
That`s not all. Thanks to direct contact lines with the reclusive regime, Kim was personally chaperoned by North Korean agents in submarines to twice meet with North Korean founder Kim Il-sung, and he also participated in debates on the juche ideology with North Korean scholars. Ironically, Kim said his epiphany on the reality of North Korea hit during these visits; he realized the regime was little more than an illegitimate totalitarian government.
Kim eventually disbanded his party and sought the help of his colleagues to launch efforts to democratize North Korea. In many ways his book offers the answers as to what made a former pro-Pyongyang activist like himself embark on the path of democratizing North Korea.
This book is not a thesis of any kind to scientifically prove theories. Rather, it`s a collection of essays that simply and effectively convey the author`s thoughts and views on issues connected to North Korea`s collapse. The author does not assume any specific theoretical perspective or approach. Instead, he is focused on unleashing his thoughts without being constricted to a theoretical mold. This makes the book an easy read and accessible to anyone who is interested in North Korean affairs. It would be equally beneficial for experts who would have access to the author`s refreshing views, opinions and hypotheses on the collapse scenario and other related issues.
The main mission of the book is to verify the proposition that North Korea`s collapse is near. To this end, the author presents largely provocative and disputable views on a host of related questions. They include: “Is North Korea a socialist regime?” “Will the Kim Jong-un regime be a success?” “Will North Koreans fall into destitution if the regime collapses?” “Would North Korea`s collapse spell devastation for Northeast Asia?” “Is an early reunification necessary?” and “What are the chances of China annexing North Korea or North Korea becoming China`s newest province?” Of these issues, this critique will focus mostly on reviewing the author`s theories on North Korea`s fall, along with the chances of a smooth succession by Kim Jong-un and the characteristic traits of the North Korean regime.
In the chapters titled “North Korea`s Collapse is Near” and “Issues Related to North Korea`s Collapse,” the author predicts an end to the North Korean regime. North Korea experts feverishly debated this topic in the early to mid-1990s. Proponents of the meltdown theory predicted that North Korea would be affected by the fall of Eastern European socialist nations. They also underestimated Kim Jong-il`s ability to cope with the challenges his regime faced, such as the death of his father Kim Il-sung, severe famines and a broken economy. They were thus unable to foresee the North Korean regime`s power to stay afloat for two more decades after the first Kim`s death.
These scholars consequently adopted a more intrinsic approach. After watching Pyongyang withstand a great famine and economic troubles, the majority now sees durability in the regime. The author chides these scholars for initially being unaware that by the time Kim Il-sung died in 1994, the North Korean regime was already gravitating towards Kim Jong-il. This was a sure indication that an immediate collapse was unlikely.
The 1995 food crisis pushed North Korea closer toward the edge, the author writes. Since then, with most of its state control systems crippled, North Korea has undergone ground-breaking changes from the bottom up. They include: 1) the emergence of a military dictatorship, 2) the military attaining more power and authority than the Workers` Party, 3) a regime-wide ideological makeover, 4) the public`s waning loyalty to the party and ruling elite, 5) widespread corruption, 6) slackening government control over the public`s economic activities, and 7) more inflow of information from the outside world and its countrywide proliferation. These new trends have rendered the regime powerless to plug the holes in its system, according to the author.
He also argues that the chances are extremely low for North Korea to make a soft landing by implementing Chinese-style economic reforms and market openings, mainly because the Workers` Party of Korea is unequipped to play a pivotal role in such restructuring. Another reason he cites is the moral deficiencies of Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un, which are manifested in the form of economic decline, human rights violation, widespread corruption, disorganized personal lives, embezzlement, and an extravagant lifestyle, all of which makes it impossible for the North Korean leadership to open up the country without triggering violent political protest from the populace.
The external environment also is unfavorable, the author writes. North Korea cannot expect any assistance from communist ideologies or the global communist movement, which has long since lost momentum, nor enlist support from the international community that disapproves of its isolationist policy. Having the wealthy capitalist South on its doorstep would also exacerbate the political uncertainties entailing economic reforms. Even if the North decides to pursue reform and openness, it would have a low chance of succeeding as its political uncertainties would deepen to the point where the regime would suffer a meltdown regardless of whether it continues reforms or not.
The effort to champion North Korea`s collapse when the majority of North Korea watchers are skeptical about the possibility should certainly be accounted for as it can rekindle debate and stoke interest among scholars. However, as the author himself admits, the symptoms do not guarantee an implosion. A detailed identification of the fuse is therefore necessary to persuade die-hard critics. That the North has been precariously hanging by a thread for a long while — since as early as 1995 — or that its demise is inevitable in the long term is not a strong enough argument.
Pinpointing the fuse, of course, is far from easy. For similar reasons, experts have yet to offer a satisfactory explanation for the fall of socialistic economies. Numerous hypotheses have emerged, but none are convincing. The theory on failed coordination says that when the markets replaced the Soviet Union`s centralized planning system, the state`s arbitration mechanism broke down and eventually sparked a collapse. Another theory blames increasing unofficial economic activities, such as household spending, embezzlement, corruption and organized crime. The theory of the dictator being coerced into surrender says the Soviet Union crashed when its authoritarian regime was forced to slacken its surveillance capabilities due to increasing expenses and the market producers realized the regime had been rendered incapable of imposing severe punishments.