Small Wars Journal

Are North Koreans Heading for the Exit?

Tue, 09/20/2016 - 3:10pm

Are North Koreans Heading for the Exit? By Kongdan Oh, Asia Times

A decision by the Chinese government to withdraw support would be a game changer for North Korea.  Although Pyongyang appears to be stable now, such stability is like nuclear deterrence: it works right up to the day when it does not.

Since North Korea’s deputy ambassador in London defected to South Korea in the middle of August, the international media have renewed their speculation that North Korea is beginning to collapse.  News of North Korea’s fifth nuclear weapons test on September 9 has eclipsed the defection in the news cycle, but the test may have increased the chance of a North Korean collapse.  After both events, my phone started ringing, and once again I needed to consider where North Korea lies on the collapse-survival scale.

This is a question that has dogged North Korea ever since European communist governments collapsed in the early 1990s—to the obvious discomfort of a Kim regime that continues to misrule the country.  Has anything materially changed in North Korea’s survival calculus in recent years?…

Read on.


Ever since I wrote about North Korean nuclear weapon ambitions in the early 1990's as an undergraduate I figured somewhere someone is running a spreadsheet.

A spreadsheet that includes tangible/intangible cost/benefit analysis for foreign policy directed at North Korea.

I always had the personal opinion that there was almost a nuclear armed mafia extortion contract in place.

North Korea doesn't execute any action to majorly disrupt the Asian/Global economy and in exchange receives some form of good behaviour protection payment in exchange. A politically expedient and temporary win-win for a bit.

I could be completely wrong on that.

And I could be completely wrong on this:

While I completely agree that it's worth asking if North Korean leadership is rational and whether it will make rational decisions(or not), is it worth asking a similar question of the West, particularly the US?

Throughout the 90's and 00's it certainly seemed crystal clear(at the time and retrospectively) that it was more cost effective to pay small extortion payments to North Korea in order to avoid rocking the global economic boat.

Is that still the case today?

While a North Korean initiated incident(or threat to do so) to rock global economies could be a very real possibility(especially during the awkward 6 month limbo before/during/after a Presidential election), would a North Korean crisis be a convenient excuse to initiate deep structural economic change that has also been kicked like a can down the road?

In short, does the North Korean problem that has been perpetually kicked down the road coincidentally parallel the major structural economic problems that have been kicked down the road?

Do they potentially intersect in a way that could see a shift in US response(or thinking), if not before, but during and after a North Korean crisis?

Never let a crisis go to waste?

I wonder what a cost/benefit calculation on a major North Korean crisis looked like in 1996, 2006, and 2016?

I wonder what would change and why from every major actor's perspective?

From the article above:


Given the options of doing nothing, fighting the system, or escaping from it, most North Koreans have paid lip service to the regime while quietly altering their economic lives by participating in the technically illegal market economy. ...

The Kim regime has always tried to keep its people ignorant about the outside world—especially about the far more prosperous life that South Koreans enjoy. However, this isolation has been seriously breached by information that surreptitiously reaches the country through cell phones, thumb drives, radio broadcasts, and word-of-mouth from travelers. Most North Koreans, even those living in the countryside, have some knowledge about the outside world. So far, most of this information is for entertainment purposes and has not prompted North Koreans to question their political system. But any uncensored information has the potential for breeding discontent, as the Kim regime is well aware.


Given our recent hard-learning re:

a. The exceptional weakness, impotency and/or indeed counterproductive/catastrophic nature/potential of our so-called "soft power,"

b. The gross imprudence, therefore, of believing that this same "soft power" can be used as the basis for achieving (1) successful revolutions/regime changes and/or (2) favorable state and societal transformations (to wit: more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines). And

c. The now-understood "soft power" preeminence -- of individual and unique "identity" instead -- (exemplified, for example, by even our very own Brexit?)

Given all of the above, then should we not tell ourselves that:

a. It is very unlikely that the "North Koreans are Heading for the Exit?" And that, if they indeed are,

b. This should be viewed as more of a "bad" thing rather than as more of a "good" thing; this,

c. Given the horrible outcomes that we have witnessed -- in the Greater Middle East today -- re: such attempts/endeavors?

Bottom Line:

From everyone's point of view:

1. The highly successful and productive state and societal change model? Via the regime and as with the former USSR and pre-capitalist China. (May have to wait some time for this to occur.)

2. The horrible/horrific state and societal change model? Via the populations and as per the example of the Greater Middle East today.

In this light to see that -- and indeed why -- the Chinese government is not likely to withdraw its support for the N. Korean regime. (Twisting their arm harder? That we can believe.)

Dave Maxwell

Tue, 09/20/2016 - 3:36pm

If you do not read anything else on north Korea today read this. This succinct piece provides some of the best insight into north Korea and the Korean people living in the north that has been written in recent years. Few people have such clear insights into north Korea as Dr. Katy Oh. My 2012 thoughts on why the Koreans living in the north do not rebel are here: