Is North Korea About to Collapse?

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North Korea’s current supreme leader Kim Jong Un was an enigma to the world prior to December 2011, yet his installment as the “Great Successor” instantaneously catapulted him into infamy on the international scene.  When his father Kim Jong Il suffered a heart attack and died on December 17, 2011, a then-29-year-old Kim Jong Un inherited the throne to the “hermit kingdom” and the global spotlight swiftly shone brightly on this new, young leader.  Security and defense analysts and the general population desired to learn more about this mysterious figure who came out of nowhere to lead one of America’s sworn enemies.

The only intelligence available on Kim Jong Un at the time he assumed power was his name and one photograph of him as a ten year-old schoolboy.  Kim was shrouded in such ambiguity that there were at least four inaccurate photos of him in circulation at the time of his appointment and ten different given birthdates. Indeed, Kim Jong Un remains an international man of intrigue to those outside the North Korean border.

However, one fact has clearly emerged since he assumed power of this reclusive nation: Kim is an untested, tyrannical megalomaniac.  Kim’s inexperience in government leadership, weapons obsession, lavish spending, and the December 2013 execution of his uncle and trusted advisor, Jang Song Thaek, may ultimately result in the demise of the Kim family regime.

When Kim Jong Un initially took the helm of North Korea, many saw the possibility of Kim as a westernized, enlightened reformer raising hopes of making inroads into the long secluded North Korean state.  He was young and educated abroad, creating expectations that Kim would infuse new life into his nation and openness to international dialogue and cooperation. 

Unlike his reclusive father who refrained from making public speeches, Kim Jong Un gave a major speech on April 15, 2012, marking the 100th birthday of his grandfather and founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Kim Il Sung.  He did not offer any concrete economic reform programs “other than a vague reference to the need for an industrial revolution.” But Kim indirectly hinted at experimentation and called for a drastic change with a termination of “belt-tightening” of his citizens.  For a brief moment, it seemed Kim’s primary focus was revitalizing the waning economy.  Analysts were led to believe that his western education may have influenced Kim to consider adopting China-like economic reforms. 

Nonetheless, since this speech, Kim has done nothing to improve his country’s poor economic conditions or his reputation in global politics.  Instead, he has proven himself to be as brutal and weapons obsessed as his forefathers and equally as unconcerned about the plight of his deprived citizens.

Kim Jong Un is defined by many as an egotistical fanatic whose recklessness led to dreadful mistakes during his two year tenure.  First, instead of implementing a sound plan to alleviate the mass hunger and poverty in his nation where the average annual income is $1,800, he continues to conduct costly missile research, development, and test launches.  To support his weapons programs, Kim spends approximately $10 billion – about 25 percent of total GDP – on his military. The $3.2 billion spent on nuclear weapons and missile development over the years is equivalent to three years’ supply of food for North Korea’s citizens. 

Second, on April 8, 2013, Kim broke his partnership with South Korea regarding their joint venture in the Kaesong Industrial Park.  This action further severed ties between North and South Korea and cost North Korea 53,000 jobs and wage losses amounting to $245.7 million. South Korea paid workers’ salaries directly to the North Korean government, so this loss of revenue further bankrupted North Korea. 

Third, and above all, Kim’s most flawed and dangerous decision was the recent purge and public pillory of Jang Song Thaek.  This action not only destroyed the image of unity in his regime, but also inadvertently acknowledged the dissension and instability within the state-run government.  It strained his nation’s alliance with its closest ally, China, who was working closely with Jang in an effort to convince a determinedly opposed Kim to adopt to a China-style economic reform.

Combined, these instances demonstrate a realistic probability that this authoritarian regime may potentially crumble in the near future.

A Korea specialist and renowned history professor at the University of Chicago, Bruce Cumings, has said Kim’s recent actions, in particular the purging of his uncle, undermined his legitimacy and stature as a global leader.  Cumings outlined that “Kim Jong Un has managed to tarnish his own image, look like a modern Caligula and give the lie to 90 percent of the bombast emanating from Pyongyang.”  While leaders in Pyongyang continue to insist that all is well domestically, “from the stand point of the top leadership [purging Jang] was a politically stupid, self-defeating move,” Cumings added.  In short, the DPRK openly admitted that someone tried to take out the “Great Successor.” And not just anyone, but the man closest to the Kim family regime. 

One might think that expurgating Jang Song Thaek, a prominent figure in the DPRK leadership, illustrates a display of Kim Jong Un’s absolute power.  However, the public purge and execution of such an influential figure may have resulted in just the opposite.  One interpretation is that it revealed Kim Jong Un’s lack of absolute supremacy and uneasy position atop the regime’s power.  Jang Song Thaek’s public execution seemed to many a demonstration that someone extremely close to Kim—as Jang had been—tried to usurp Kim’s leadership.  Surely, North Korea publicly airs only what it wants the world to see; however, revealing Jang’s charges in such detail may cast doubt on the steadfastness of Kim’s dictatorship and open up a new international view of Kim.

Westernized and supposedly more modern, Kim Jong Un had the opportunity to mend North Korea’s international relationships with the western world. Yet like his grandfather and father, he has chosen to continue on the long established path of antagonism. Kim’s neglect of the dismal North Korean economy in favor of the nuclear program and the purge of Jang Song Thaek are early indicators of poor judgment that could push his totalitarian regime toward eventual collapse.

It is possible that Kim could turn North Korea around while maintaining his dictatorship and gain the trust of his population.  But this seems unlikely. First, there is no evidence of significant economic reform in the future. The disaster that is the North Korean economy should provide a compelling impetus for reform. Yet Kim has conducted a third nuclear test, vowed to do a fourth, and spent millions on launching and developing WMDs.  Despite years of Chinese attempts – sometimes through intermediaries like Jang Song Thaek – Kim has not moved toward the Chinese economic development model, which would include some opening up and acceptance of some capitalist reforms.

Second, Kim’s behavior has damaged relations with North Korea’s sole benefactor, with many in China calling for a reevaluation of the alliance. Third, Kim has left himself vulnerable by purging those in the regime best situated to support the young leader. Voluntarily or not, Kim purged nearly all of his regents, all of whom were appointed by his father having demonstrated their loyalty to the Kim regime.

No one knows when or how the DPRK might collapse, or if it will ever relinquish its nuclear arsenal and commit to economic reform.  We can only assume the most likely situation or outcome based on reports from defectors, first-hand intelligence, historical evidence, and traditional scholastic publications.  This is the most vexing aspect of the North Korea problem, as there are still many unknowns.  But the purge of Jang Song Thaek should give reason to analysts to seriously question the regime’s permanence.

If North Korea’s regime collapses today, it would most likely be due to Kim Jong Un’s lack of leadership, common sense, and rational judgment. Given the magnitude of the potential consequences triggered by a regime collapse, North Korea’s state of affairs cannot be ignored.  The international community must remain vigilant at all times and begin to organize jointly for such an event.  A disintegrating North Korea could turn the Korean Peninsula into a catastrophic and dangerous hot zone, in which uncontrolled nuclear weapons and an exodus of North Korean refugees could combine to be the worst destabilizing event imaginable in Northeast Asia with enormous implications for U.S. security.

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