Tuesday, March 21, 2006

North Korea's Future Uncertain

North Korea is a country crippled by decades of Soviet-style central planning, leavened by a devastating cult of personality. Its policies have led to horrendous famine in recent years, with millions dying. Its economic madness has finally caught up to it, and its leader has recently authorized the creation of special economic zones where its impoverished citizens may engage in trading, particularly of agricultural products, and where foreign firms, mostly South Korean, may invest and take advantage of a docile and cheap work force.

We have seen this movie before. The last showing was China in the early 1980s. Its reforms began as just a dollop of experimentation in the countryside and in four special economic zones, where the usual Marxist rules were suspended. The most famous was Shenzhen, adjacent to Hong Kong, and it and the remainder of the coast powered what became the Chinese growth miracle. By liberating the Chinese people to achieve rapidly growing standards of living, the regime (certainly after the 1989 Tiananmen massacre) gave them an incentive to avoid for now the question (which will ultimately arrive) of greater political rights and an end to the Communist Party's strangehold on power.

So can North Korea duplicate this feat? Not for long, I think. The primary node of DRPK contact with the global economy is going to be South Korean firms, and doing business with them and the rest of the planet is going to require a certain amount of freedom of movement, much as it required the lifting of many Chinese emigration restrictions before. Whereas Chinese could go abroad and either stay there or still identify with the mother country, when North Koreans begin to link with the broader world around them they will notice that in some sense their country is superfluous. There is already a globally linked country full of competitive Koreans - South Korea. While the Chinese government can tap a reservoir of patriotism and claim to possess what Chinese once called the mandate of heaven because of its oversight of China's rising prosperity, power and prestige (and never underestimate the importance of the latter to a people used to decades of humiliation), once the DPRK abandons the cult of the Kim dynasty it has no claim to legitimacy.

And so I would predict that pressure on the Kim regime will come much faster than it has fallen on the Chinese communists. Here connection to the global economy really will foster (in short order) pressure on the regime to either end its oppression or to go extinct entirely, merging with South Korea. The ROK has always feared a rapid collapse of the North, resulting in a surge of impoverished refugees southward, but something similar - a poor but more prosperous and sophisticated DPRK populace demanding everything that their neighbors to the South already have - is coming. That of course will threaten the apparatchiki of the DPRK, all the way up to Kim Jong Il himself, and there is no telling how they would react to a threat to their power and corresponding perquisites. But given their cultural counterexample to the South and their powerful neighbor to the North, I cannot see how the DPRK leadership can avoid extinction. I suspect farsighted people in the South and China are already thinking about how to engineer a quiet ride into the sunset for the DPRK leadership (in the manner of East Germany or Poland rather than Romania). This would explain the increasing comfort the ROK government has with China, and the DPRK's desperate cultivation of the threat of its possession, proliferation and even use of nuclear weapons. Achieving the quiet retirement of the North will be a task calling for the highest diplomatic arts, but I would be very surprised if North Korea exists seven or eight years from now.


Blogger Exciting! said...

The CCP has been at this game you think will strip Kim Jong-il of power for decades now and they are nowhere near losing control.
The personality cult of Mao can easily be compared to the Kim dynasty yet the CCP managed to stay in control even after Mao’s death and the coming of a slightly less authoritarian type of dictatorship.
Predicting DPRK’s demise within 7-8 year may be jumping the gun

9:30 AM  
Blogger Evan said...

Maybe. But there is no "South China" capable of absorbing a huge migration once people give up on the DPRK. Under the Cultural Revolution as many people fled to Hong Kong as the city could hold. If Hong Kong had been fifty times bigger Mao might've been done then.

10:10 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home