If the Kim Dynasty’s days are numbered, what will the end look like?
“North Korea as we know it is over,” according to Victor Cha, Asian affairs specialist to President George W. Bush from 2004 to 2007. “Whether it comes apart in the next few weeks or over several months, the regime will not be able to hold together after the untimely death of its leader, Kim Jong-il.”
For the sake of discussion, let’s stipulate that Cha is correct. If the Kim Dynasty’s days are indeed numbered, what will the end look like?
History offers some helpful, if not always uplifting, examples of how North Korea could collapse.
The ideal parallels—the economic liberalization of China and the bloodless reunification of East and West Germany—also seem the least likely.
The prospect of North Korea following China into quasi-capitalism seems remote, at least for now. This is a closed society, an economy smaller than virtually every state in the U.S., a country whose most lucrative exports are retrofitted Soviet-era missiles and counterfeit $100 bills, a place where citizens are required to donate food to the armed forces.
But as Ralph Cossa of the Center for Strategic and International Studies observes, “There appears to be some hope, primarily emanating from Beijing, that Kim Jong-un will take North Korea down the path of Chinese-style reform.”
One way, perhaps the only way, this could happen is if China decides to intervene directly in North Korea’s economic and political system. Given Beijing’s keen interest in preventing the sort of collapse in North Korea that would either a) invite intervention by South Korea and the U.S. on humanitarian or self-defense grounds or b) trigger a confrontation enfolding some of the most powerful militaries on earth, such interference by Beijing would not be unthinkable. Neither would it be unprecedented. In fact, it arguably would be akin to an economic version of China’s late-1950 invasion across the Yalu, which aimed to prevent a U.S. takeover of the North.
Cha notes that Beijing could, in effect, “adopt [North Korea] as a province” by offering massive aid and assistance packages conditioned on the younger Kim’s “promises of economic reform.” This could stave off the sort of dramatic, near-term change that so worries Beijing.
As to the German-reunification scenario, it pays to recall that North and South Koreans, quite unlike East and West Germans, fought each other in a brutal war, which means they bear scars and wounds that pre-unification Germans did not. Plus, for East Germans, there was no “Great Successor” to worship. By 1989, even the true believers understood that the communist state was dead. This is not the case in North Korea, where the people are completely isolated from the outside world—and totally controlled by a propaganda machine that deifies the regime. Witness the mass-mourning by the North Korean people—all for a brutal tyrant who starved them.
In other words, North Koreans don’t appear to have the will or the wherewithal—or quite simply the strength, given a diet that relies on grass as a staple—to tear down the Kim Dynasty. So, a “Pyongyang Spring” seems unlikely. And even if there is some germ of a freedom movement in North Korea—some North Korean Havel ready to speak truth to power—it’s difficult to imagine the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) remaining garrisoned like the armies of the Soviet bloc in 1989, 1990 and 1991, if the younger Kim ever calls for help. The NKPA is the most paranoid, propagandized and privileged part of North Korea. Why wouldn’t it try to sustain the regime? Why wouldn’t it turn against its own countrymen?
In fact, the military apparently has a larger stake in the country’s leadership than before the passing of Kim Jong-Il. Reuters is reporting that sources close to Pyongyang have sent signals that a “collective leadership” structure was put in place by Kim Jong-Il to guide his untested son. The structure is said to comprise a triumvirate that includes the younger Kim, his uncle and top military commanders.
In short, it seems the NKPA has all the more reason to sustain and protect the regime—or at least to sustain and protect itself. In other words, the prospect of a power struggle among military factions and regime loyalists is not out of the question. The parallel here might be the civil wars in Libya and Syria.
That brings us to an even scarier nightmare scenario: To consolidate internal control, the paranoid North Korean regime could lash out across the DMZ and send shrapnel in every direction. As a once-classified Pentagon report warns, there is “the possibility of conflict spurred by internal instability, miscalculation or provocation.” (In this regard, one wonders how many more unprovoked naval attacks and artillery barrages South Korea can ignore.)
The best version of this worst-case scenario would feature China doing the opposite of what it did during Korean War I: using its military leverage to end the North Korean regime rather than sustain it, to shorten the war rather than prolong it. But even a short war would be brutal and bloody. In their book The Next War, the late Caspar Weinberger and Peter Schweizer predicted that a second war on the peninsula would claim almost 19,000 American casualties—in less than 90 days of fighting.
Within easy range of the 11,000 artillery pieces that line the northern edge of the DMZ, Seoul would bear the brunt of the blow. Gen. Leon LaPorte, the former commander of U.S. forces in Korea, noted in 2005 that every third round fired by North Korea would be a chemical weapon. Perhaps worse, with the North Korean regime’s very survival at stake, the U.S., South Korea and Japan would have to expect the unexpected: modified long-range missilery, swarms of commandos, terrorist attacks, even nuclear weapons.
The fact that a second war would end the beastly Kim Dynasty is of little comfort. Such a war would give new meaning to the term “Pyrrhic victory.”
We can continue to hold out hope that the Kim Dynasty will fall like a rotten tree rather than explode like a time bomb. But since hope is no substitute for policy, Washington’s objective should be to brace for the worst, shield America’s allies in the region, cooperate with China where necessary and keep the powder keg from exploding. That’s how U.S. administrations have measured success in Korea for 58 years. Given what Korean War II would look like, it’s a worthy goal as Kim Jong-un takes the reins of the regime his grandfather forged in war.
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