Abstract: Since the 1990s, many publications in the world have predicted the “imminent collapse of the North Korean regime” or a change of power in the country. However, so far this has not happened, and the DPRK continues to exist in its former form. What leads to such chronically unrealizable predictions about North Korea, and what are the alternatives for the future of this country in the short and medium term?
Based on a number of recent unfulfilled predictions, the authors try to explain the reason for these failures, closely related to ideological framework, lack of information, and dependence on certain sources, which leads to underestimation of the DPRK’s capabilities and misinterpretation of data, when any event is seen as a sign of the regime’s imminent collapse. Based on the theoretical approaches of Gordon Tullock and Vladimir Lenin, the article identifies the main types of modern threats to the current political regime (external invasion, coup within the elite, economic collapse, mass protests), as well as the probability of their implementation under the current policy of the DPRK leadership.
Based on an analysis of the factors that may affect the situation in North Korea, the authors describe several scenarios for the development of events in the short and medium term. The most likely option is a continuation of the status quo, with the current ruling elite remaining in power. Less likely scenarios include “Sinification” due to Beijing’s growing influence on Pyongyang; military escalation that could lead to an armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula; or a political and economic crisis in the DPRK.
On the Difficulties of Forecasting
Kim Jong-un’s announcement at the 6th meeting of party cells in mid-April 2021 that all party organizations were in for a “new arduous march”1 quickly triggered a wave of headlines that “hunger is on the rise again in North Korea.” This quickly resulted in a wave of headlines that “North Korea is facing another famine” and speculation on the same subject in both media and expert circles. A little earlier, Victor Cha, a prominent right-wing conservative expert on Korea, had published an article in The Washington Post saying that the North Korean economy would collapse within the next year or so.2
If we recall earlier predictions, North Korea should have ceased to exist altogether by now. According to a poll by the Ilmin Institute of International Relations (Republic of Korea), when asked in 2014 how many years the Kim Jong-un regime would last, more than 55% of South Korean experts surveyed answered “less than 10 years.”3 The Russian audience is more familiar with material prepared by IMEMO RAS experts in the fall of 2011, which contended that after Kim Jong-il passed on power to his successor, the ruling class would face a “crisis of uncertainty,” and the Korean unification process would enter its practical phase following the “takeover” of the North by the South4 as a result of a conflict between the security services and civilian bureaucrats.
Why do such predictions systematically fail and North Korea continues to exist? In the authors’ view, there are two main reasons. The first is that the predictions are made within a certain paradigm that argues that authoritarian regimes will sooner or later be overthrown because they cannot be viable on their own. This is evident in discussions about the DPRK at events that take place not among experts on Korea who understand the endemic situation, but among a broader audience that is much more strongly influenced by ideological clichés. And if we immediately frame the study with statements about “70 years of barracks communism” or label the DPRK a “Stalinist state,” it sets the context for the discussion and marginalizes other viewpoints. Meanwhile, when the discussion begins with claims that the Korean split and the subsequent fate of North and South were perfect examples of what market democracy on the one hand and totalitarian communism on the other does to people, we should recall that the South’s edge over the North in key indicators did not occur until the first half of the 1970s. Until the early 1960s, the situation was the opposite: an actively progressing North and a devastated, dictatorial and corrupt South.
The second reason is a lack of sources due to North Korea’s informational secrecy and distrust of official sources because of the abundance of anti-North Korean propaganda. As a result, researchers denying one propaganda believe the other completely, accepting as truth any information from entities claiming to have data from the field or from so-called career defectors who, seeking to secure a certain level of comfort, have turned into professional storytellers of horror stories.
The combination of these two points leads, first, to the systematic underestimation of North Korea’s achievements, which are either relegated to the category of window dressing or declared to be the result of the actions of external forces. According to the authors, this has partly played a role in underestimating the development of North Korea’s nuclear missile program. The second consequence is that, initially believing in the North’s imminent end, such researchers interpret any news story as further confirmation of it, often ignoring the real context.
A good example is the situation around Kim Jong-un’s statement about the “arduous march.” While in Western literature the phrase is used to refer to the 1995-1998 period of famine, hardship, etc., in North Korean propaganda, it refers not so much to that period as to the successful overcoming of the ordeal.
From the full context of Kim Jong-un’s speech and his earlier speeches on similar topics, it is clear what he meant. The DPRK leader has devoted much attention to restoring the role of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) as the moral vanguard, for which the parties would have to undergo certain hardships in order to really lead the people. It is in this context that Kim referred to a “new arduous march.”
The combination of these factors has formed the characteristic trend of prophesying the imminent end of North Korea in the next two or three years. Thus, in 2013, the RAND Corporation issued a report with a characteristic title “Preparing for the possibility of a North Korean collapse,”5 which claimed that the DPRK would collapse “in the coming months or years,” and in 2019, despite the failed previous forecast, it repeated the thesis that “a DPRK regime collapse could occur with little warning and have disastrous implications.”6 Nicholas Eberstadt’s book The End of North Korea7 also continues to be quoted extensively.
According to 38North, the idea of the imminent collapse of the DPRK in the US foreign policy thinking “is a persistent fallacy, almost a mythology,”8 which makes it very difficult to solve the nuclear problem and develop an effective policy toward the country. For example, since everyone expects the regime to collapse soon, the North’s partners often either deliberately do not intend to fulfill obligations or conclude agreements in the hope that they will not have to be fulfilled.
One gets the impression that no one has seriously tried to work on the mistakes and answer the question: Why has the regime not collapsed by the deadline? At best, there are attempts to explain it within the paradigm of “the bloody regime oppresses and deceives the people, so they have not yet risen.”
It seems that predicting North Korea’s future is extremely important, but the methodology of this prediction must be different. We will first look at the main factors influencing the situation, or challenges to the North Korean status quo, and then try to describe several possible developments, distributing them according to their degree of probability.
Sustainability of the DPRK at the Present Stage
Western authors usually use Gordon Tullock’s theory of the triad of threats to analyze the stability of the regime. In his opinion, an authoritarian regime usually has three variants of a bad end: (1) popular uprisings and similar actions of the nonestablishment opposition; (2) conspiracies within the elite; and (3) external invasion.9 The most common reason for loss of power is an intra-elite coup.10 The latter is proved by M. Svolik’s calculations: Of the 303 dictators removed from power between 1945 and 2002, only 30 were overthrown by popular uprising, while 205 lost power as a result of a coup d’état.11
In the view of the authors of this article, Tullock’s division of threats into three types is not entirely correct, since in quite a few cases it is impossible to identify only one cause of regime change. Quite often, two or all three causes are present simultaneously, as was the case, for example, in Libya. It seems that the fall of a totalitarian or authoritarian regime generally corresponds to Lenin’s criteria for a revolutionary situation,12 which under present conditions can be reinterpreted.
Unlike Tullock, Lenin points to the simultaneous presence of three factors: widespread dissatisfaction with the existing regime; the inability of the regime to govern effectively, including to suppress protest; and the presence of a protest structure that would play the role of a guiding and directing force.
In addition, we can clarify that unwillingness to live in the old way must seriously affect people. There is hunger protest, when people go to a rally without fearing bullets, and satiated protest, when people rally fully confident that “the authorities would not dare” to react harshly to their actions. Hence the need for a “sharp escalation of need and distress,” which in the case of the DPRK is associated with the probable collapse of the economic system, capable of causing famine, mass riots, etc. Recently, a scenario in which a coronavirus epidemic breaks out in the country has been considered such a trigger.
The expanded second factor suggests a crisis of the managerial and repressive systems, both because of the low loyalty of government officials and security officers to the authorities, and because of their corrupt decay.
The third Leninist trait, which he considers subjective, is the presence of a party or other organized structure that will coordinate and direct the actions of protesters. Organizing acts more serious than spontaneous protests requires infrastructure, or at least a layer of people who can become such an infrastructure in a critical situation.
Based on the above, we can distinguish four types of threats to the existence of the DPRK, which may well combine:
• an external invasion (with or without an internal reason)
• a coup d’état as a transfer of power to a different group of elites
• an analogue of the Arab Spring, involving regime change as a result of mass unrest and popular protests
• a profound economic crisis, causing a sharp decline in living standards, which could significantly increase the likelihood of the above scenarios.
Below, we examine each of these threats and Pyongyang’s actions to counter them.
Foreign invasion. The main guarantee of its absence is a functioning nuclear missile program, which provides no chance for victory in a confrontation with the superpowers, but its existence makes potential adversaries think about the price of victory.
North Korea has reached a minimum level of nuclear deterrence, where the likelihood of its successful response cannot be ignored in terms of the possible losses that the United States and its allies would incur by devaluing the potential benefits of eliminating the DPRK. This means that a “small victorious war” against the dictatorship would likely fail or likely not be small and without casualties. As North Korea’s nuclear missile program develops, the likelihood of these scenarios will increase.
Anti-Pyongyang propaganda often sees the unification scenario as a result of a lost war, with the DPRK attacking South Korea and suffering a legitimate defeat. However, starting a war requires at least the certainty of victory. Meanwhile, the North’s nuclear resources are enough to successfully wage a defensive war, but in the case of an offensive war, which, according to some authors, the DPRK might launch in order to maintain internal control or to unify the peninsula by force, nuclear weapons would not be particularly useful. They may provide some success in the first phase, but not in the case of a long-term war, which would be a clash of industrial and resource potentials. As an exhibit at the North Korean Arms Museum shows, Pyongyang is well aware of the capabilities of the United States and its allies, and despite the menacing rhetoric, the North’s strategies are devoid of arrogant and flippant attitudes.
Before the end of June 2021, Pyongyang had not committed any provocations against the United States. As R. Lobov put it, the door for dialogue was closed, but not locked.13 In his speech during the 3rd plenum of the Eighth Central Committee of the WPK on June 17, 2021, Kim Jong-un said that it was necessary to prepare both for dialogue and confrontation with the United States in order to safeguard the DPRK’s dignity and interests for independent development and to ensure reliable peace and national security.14 On this basis, war on the Korean Peninsula is unlikely, and the scenario in which the “insane tyrannical regime” orchestrates a second Korean War in the current situation, in the view of the authors, belongs to the realm of imagination.
A “conspiracy of generals” is unlikely for several reasons. First, the DPRK is certainly not an ideal command-administrative system, but the “decay of power” is permissible only to a certain extent, dictated by external pressure or threat. Since the possibility of confrontation is real, there must be a minimum level of combat readiness and efficiency of the administrative system.
Second, Korea’s status as a divided country creates a significant endemic; from the perspective of South Korea (ROK), the DPRK is the territory of the ROK, temporarily alienated by rebels.15 Therefore, the ROK maintains a special reserve staff of officials for immediate control of DPRK territory (the Five Provinces Administration), and this makes a significant difference for potential North Korean traitors or conspirators. An alleged general who wants to seize power realizes that the ensuing instability could lead to South Koreans putting him in a cell next door to Kim Jong-un.
Not only officials but also “new businessmen” understand their inability to compete with southerners: The more they know about South Korea, the more they understand not only how well people live there, but also that there would be no place for them in a unified Korea, or more precisely, in the doubled Republic of Korea.16 Local entrepreneurs may not like Kim Jong-un, but they are more afraid of a future without him.
Third, the country’s leader has a margin of charisma and legitimacy. At the time of Kim Jong-un’s enthronement, speculation was rife that the young leader would “fall short” and become more of a ceremonial figure.17 Kim Jong-un is considered to have been born in 1982 or 1983, had not been in the position of heir apparent, and had not shown himself as a political decision-maker. Not everyone expected that the young leader would quickly concentrate power in his hands and take such drastic measures as the public execution of Chang Sung-taek. For now, it can be said that the young leader has shown himself to be an active leader who genuinely cares about the good of the state, as he sees it.
Kim Jong-un prevents the creation of cliques and closely monitors the army. From 2012 to 2016, he purged dozens of generals, including Chief of the General Staff Ri Yong-ho and Defense Minister Hyon Yong-chol. The fact that Kim frequently changes high-ranking security officials can also be seen as a kind of precaution: While from 1948 to 2010 there were seven defense ministers in the DPRK, from 2011 to 2020 there were eight.18
Fourth, the foreign policy factor. Regimes in which antigovernment protests turned into revolutionary protests either did not receive Western support, although they were counting on it, as in Egypt and Tunisia, or had no external cover at all, as in Libya and Yemen. North Korea has the cover of China and Russia, which will prevent outside attempts to fuel the fire.
“A new arduous march?” The main problems for the DPRK economy remain the food and energy crises. According to UN estimates, some 40% of North Korea’s population is undernourished, and its own grain production, despite some positive momentum in the mid-2010s, is insufficient to provide the minimum necessary level of consumption.19 North Korea does not have its own oil and gas reserves, and most of the local hard coal is more suitable for use in metallurgy than as fuel. Therefore, the country has to import food and energy resources.
Nevertheless, a repeat of the large-scale economic crisis of the 1990s in North Korea is unlikely. At that time, the trigger and the main factor was the transition of trade and economic relations with former socialist countries (primarily the USSR) to market principles, for which the command economy of North Korea was not ready. The situation was exacerbated by natural disasters that caused significant damage to the country’s agriculture. As a result, Pyongyang was forced to seek humanitarian assistance from other countries. Since then, there have been changes to the DPRK’s economic system. The market started to spread in various spheres, and although the state has not yet recognized private property and openly encouraged entrepreneurship, a de facto private economy has developed, contributing to economic growth. Another important factor in the positive economic momentum at the beginning of the 21st century was the expansion of foreign economic relations, especially foreign trade. According to South Korean estimates, North Korea’s foreign trade increased from $2,395 billion in 2000 to $7,610 billion in 2014.20 In other words, it more than tripled.
In the second half of the 2010s, the UN Security Council imposed harsh economic sanctions on the DPRK in response to nuclear and missile tests. The restrictions applied to 90% of the republic’s exports and about 30% of its imports, as well as to foreign investment and the exodus of North Korean migrant workers. The 2016-2017 sanctions posed a serious test, but Pyongyang adapted to them fairly quickly, both by increasing the economy’s transition to self-sufficiency and by various tactics to circumvent the bans. Continued economic cooperation with China, which accounts for more than 90% of the DPRK’s foreign trade, also helped mitigate the effects of international sanctions on the North Korean economy in 2018-2019. Prices for basic foodstuff and gasoline, as well as the unofficial market exchange rate of the won against the dollar, were reported to have been relatively stable during this period.21
A more serious test for the DPRK leadership was the coronavirus pandemic that began in late 2019. Since January 2020, the country has effectively closed itself off from foreign relations in order to prevent the dangerous infection from entering the country. This situation, which is tantamount to a trade embargo, showed that the DPRK could hold out for some time on domestic reserves. At the same time, the country’s leadership had to take measures to strengthen planning discipline. With limited domestic resources, this had a negative effect on the “market” sector, causing inflation and shortages of imported goods. At the same time, the leadership did not gloss over economic problems, calling on the party and the people to bravely tackle them. Specifically, in June 2021, at the 3rd Plenum of the 8th Central Committee of the WPK, Kim Jong-un pointed to the strained food situation of the people due to the under-fulfilled grain production plan in 2020. At the same time, he noted an increase in gross industrial output (25% year-on-year) as well as “significant growth in quantities of natural goods” in the first half of 2021.22
A “Korean Spring” as an analogue of the Arab Spring is also unlikely for a number of reasons. The first factor that prevents events in the DPRK from developing along Libyan lines is demographic. The driving force behind the revolutions in the Arab East was the unemployed youth, who in Libya accounted for up to 40% of the country’s population. The demographic structure of the DPRK is very different; young people there are highly employed and more embedded in the system. The long period of army service and the constant participation of young people in voluntary work days and other mass events do not leave much free time, which is an important prerequisite for a “satiated rebellion.” In addition, Arab youth had a fairly high standard of living and an opportunity to compare their lives with those abroad. They had the Internet as a tool to create a system of horizontal connections, which was used during the revolution to quickly exchange information and coordinate activities. In this sense, a “Twitter revolution” in North Korea is impossible – simply because there is no Internet there.
This is not the only issue. In the DPRK, despite the difficult situation and the changed attitude toward the government, the population does not perceive it as the main culprit for its misfortunes. They mainly blame natural disasters or the changed international environment, including economic sanctions. Moreover, those aware of the situation outside the country have the abovementioned understanding that attempts to change the regime would entail unification with the South, where North Koreans would end up as second-class citizens.
The state takes active measures to counter threats to stability: first, by strengthening information control, including the “iron curtain” in the field of modern communications; and second, persistent attempts to improve living standards and quality of life. This is done in various ways, but the state clearly demonstrates that it cares about its citizens. For example, under Kim Jong-un, investment in agriculture, light industry23 and housing has increased, resulting in tangible improvements in the living conditions of a large part of the population, and one of the main slogans of the 8th Congress of the WPK held in January 2021 was “to worship the people as the sky.”24 Third, the difficult economic situation allows the authorities to shift part of the responsibility for the deplorable state of the national economy to emergencies such as pandemics or natural disasters, as well as international sanctions. Fourth, traditional methods of policing persist. Western research, based on interviews with North Korean defectors, shows that the DPRK leadership has been quite successful at preventing the political consequences of the market sector and the related relaxation of social control from becoming dangerous to it.25
The third factor is related to the driving forces behind revolution: North Korea lacks an ideology and organizational structure that meets these requirements and could serve as the core of mass demonstrations. The discourse of Seoul propagandists concerning a “catacomb church” remains a fantasy.26 Nor is there a Soviet-style dissident movement in North Korea. The part of the “intellectual sub-elite” that was the main source of cadres for the Soviet dissident movement in North Korea is either part of the nomenklatura, working in the military-industrial complex and under tight control, or concerned with its own survival. North Korean “dissidents” do not have the opportunity that dissidents in the USSR under Gorbachev had to officially broadcast their viewpoint.
Scenarios for the Future
Having assessed the threats to the present, let’s talk about the future of North Korea, highlighting the main factors that will affect it.
The first factor is the overall political situation in the region. The actions of the North Korean leadership are often a response to external challenges to the sovereignty of the republic. For example, the denuclearization process will only become possible when North Korea ceases to perceive direct threats and the need to rely on nuclear weapons for its defense. However, changing the situation in this direction would require shifts in world politics so tectonic that the authors classify them as belonging to the realm of fiction.27
A related factor is the level of the current US-Chinese confrontation, which will partly determine the place of North Korea on the strategic map and the strategies of Beijing and Washington toward North Korea. This scenario opens up several options of varying degrees of probability.
As the confrontation between the two great powers intensifies, North Korea appears to be China’s only guaranteed ally in Northeast Asia. Despite the existing differences, China will keep North Korea afloat by providing it with the minimum necessary level of existence.
China will probably try to involve the DPRK more actively in its orbit, to make it more pro-Chinese. However, Beijing understands that while Pyongyang may still listen to foreign policy recommendations, advice on domestic policy will be ignored, primarily because North Korea will not be able to follow the Chinese path of reform due to different starting conditions.28 Furthermore, China’s attempts to push for economic reforms are clearly resisted by the DPRK, which perceives such pressure as a direct challenge to its political identity.29
Against this background, there is the unlikely possibility that the United States would try to break North Korea away from China. Pyongyang might want to secure a regime of independence between the two superpowers, as it did during the Cold War. But to be accepted, US proposals must be serious and realistic. This is a level of political flexibility that the current US administration is unlikely to embrace. On the contrary, so far we have seen a trend toward a tightening of US policy toward North Korea, in particular, an increase in pressure on human rights.
Of course, one should also take into account the fact that US policy toward the DPRK will not necessarily remain as it is now. Clinton, Bush Jr. and Trump began their administrations with tougher rhetoric toward Pyongyang, but then, under the influence of reality, switched to a more constructive approach. If the confrontation between China and the US weakens, the possibility of joint pressure on North Korea may open up, but so far these reasons do not seem realistic against the background of statements that the confrontation between the PRC and the “world of democracy” is not political, but of a value nature.30
The second factor is related to the level of self-sufficiency of the DPRK economy and the efficiency of its economic system. Under Kim Jong-un, there has been some progress in import substitution in some light industries, and domestic food and textile production has increased. However, the ambitious goals of creating synthetic coal-based fuel or providing the country with the necessary fertilizer of its own production have not yet been realized. Objectively assessing the capabilities of the DPRK under current conditions, one can note the continuing lack of domestic resources for sustainable economic growth. The country is still highly dependent on imports of food, equipment, energy, some raw materials, chemical products, etc. At the same time, close relations with China allow Pyongyang to use external reserves to make up for shortages of fuel, fertilizers, food and consumer goods, etc. This model of relations has already taken shape and demonstrated its sustainability during the period of tightening sanctions. Special centers are currently being prepared in North Korea to disinfect pandemic imports. The subsequent resumption of trade (and deliveries of humanitarian aid) can stabilize the food situation in the DPRK and give impetus to economic development.
Another important issue is the fate of North Korea’s transition from a command economy to a market economy. Under Kim Jong-un, measures were taken to decentralize economic management, including the reduction or cancellation of directive plans for some enterprises, increasing their autonomy in organizing the production process and financial incentives for employees.31 But the use of market mechanisms has not been further institutionalized, since private ownership and private enterprise in North Korea are still illegal. Moreover, a serious factor complicating the process of economic reform has been the tightening of international sanctions that have significantly narrowed the resources available to the DPRK economy. As a result, the government has had to allocate strategically needed resources to priority areas, limiting the autonomy of enterprises and expanding the scope of directive planning. An additional driver of this process has been the coronavirus pandemic, from which North Korea has chosen to isolate itself. Under such conditions, DPRK’s economic growth opportunities are significantly limited, and the economy itself will continue to be controlled by the state.
The third factor is political leadership issues. Kim Jong-un’s health is a factor that cannot be ignored: the stress he experiences as a responsible politician, diabetes and possible heart problems. That said, Kim Jong-un has no adult children, and it is unclear how ready the country is for his sister to inherit the post.
So far, there are no usual signs of successor preparation. However, A. Solovyov32 draws attention to the fact that the rhetoric associated with Paektu Mountain is changing somewhat: Now it is understood to mean not only “Paektusan Leaders.” From this we can draw a cautious conclusion that the country’s leadership is considering an option in which a non-representative of the Kim family may inherit power in a critical situation.
On the basis of the above, we can identify several scenarios for the development of events in the short and medium term.
The first scenario can be conventionally called the “status quo.” Kim Jong-un continues to lead a country that continues to ensure its sovereignty through nuclear weapons. The standard of living of citizens may decline or rise depending on the success of economic policy and external factors, and the country’s difficulties will be blamed on objective reasons, as well as on the fact that the process of combating antisocialist and nonsocialist remnants is not proceeding fast enough.
This scenario assumes a “current” level of tension. However, specific scenarios may differ. Either North Korea will not seriously escalate, keeping in force the promises given to President Trump not to launch ICBMs. Or, in response to counter-pressure, North Korea raises the stakes and a new round of confrontation begins, after which the Biden administration enters negotiations, followed by a return of the situation to its current level.
Of course, such a plan has risks, so in the second (in terms of quantity, but not in importance) scenario, it is reasonable to describe a scenario in which control is lost against the background of aggravated relations, and we are faced with some form of forceful confrontation. This does not necessarily mean an exchange of nuclear strikes, although an increase in the level of escalation is very likely: If war breaks out, it is logical for the North to immediately strike with a large caliber.33 But North Korea is not interested in initiating a conflict. In terms of the causes of a conflict, according to the authors, a concurrence of circumstances, i.e., the notorious “war over the rabbit,”34 leads by a wide margin, and its likelihood, naturally, is increasing with the aggravation of the situation and the absence of communication between the parties.
In second place among the reasons for a possible military conflict is a situation in which, amid economic difficulties in the DPRK and a crisis of competence in US analysis, the United States decides to launch a “small victorious war.”
In third place is war due to provocation, which the “Free North Korea Fighters” or “Free Joseon” are quite capable of instigating. Given that these circles have seriously discussed bioterrorism (introducing a coronavirus in North Korea in order to provoke mass riots),35 this option cannot be ruled out.
The third scenario can be conventionally called “Sinicization.” In this case, Beijing’s influence on Pyongyang increases, formal rhetoric becomes less sovereign, there is more talk about a common socialist path, and the degree of Chinese interference in domestic politics may vary. In exchange for greater loyalty, the amount of economic and political support will increase, making the North more resilient and more dependent on Beijing’s decisions.
Note that the likelihood of this scenario increases somewhat in the event of a change of leadership of the DPRK to representatives of another family, the collapse of the economic system as a result of the exhaustion of the country’s reserves, or the penetration of the coronavirus and Beijing’s offer of assistance in combating it.
The fourth scenario is a situation in which to a large extent the new – and to a much lesser extent, the current – DPRK leadership does lose control of the situation in the country. This could be caused by circumstances in which, amid Kim Jong-un’s reduced physical performance, corrupt elements in the leadership take control of power. The DPRK then turns into a classic “rogue country,” where the ruling circles are solely concerned with their personal well-being and the problems of the population are ignored or solved by force. However, such a period is likely to be short-lived, as either China or the United States would have to deal with such a situation.
As for the scenario in which unification of Korea (absorption of the North by the South) takes place, it is almost impossible to see this happening in the foreseeable future. Even South Korea’s new generation of conservatives does not prioritize crushing the regime and reunification. Everyone understands that this would come at too high a cost. In the event of a total crisis in the DPRK, the South would of course try to help resolve it, but it is unlikely to play a leading role.
A no less fantastic scenario is that the DPRK manages to turn the situation around. Accepting the North into the nuclear club would reduce tensions and be a step toward solving the problem. However, the international community considers the main aspect of the Korean Peninsula’s nuclear problem to be the North’s desire to become a recognized nuclear power. Since this destroys the existing model of the world order, based on the authority of the UN and nuclear weapons as a tool of the chosen ones, this option is also unlikely. It is possible that this model will soon start to show signs of crisis, but for now the Security Council, despite major internal differences, unanimously supports sanctions initiatives in response to Pyongyang’s nuclear (and some missile) tests.
As can be seen, some scenarios seem to follow from previous ones, but if we rank them according to degree of probability and assign them a very conditional percentage, then the status quo, in our opinion, has a probability of about 50%. The probability of Sinicization can be estimated at about 15%, aggravation – 10%, and a new arduous march – about the same. Other options are significantly less likely.
Thus, in the short and medium term, the authors rather highly estimate the degree of the DPRK’s stability in its current form due to a combination of internal and external factors. Nuclear weapons play the role of a deterrent against external threats. Domestic risks have also so far been kept under control. The global confrontation between Beijing and Washington increases the strategic importance of North Korea for China as a buffer and requires maintaining its stability. In this context, cooperation with the PRC may allow the DPRK to compensate for the lack of domestic resources and maintain an acceptable level of economic development without risky market reforms.
1. 김정은원수님께서조선 로동당제6차세포비서대 회에서하신페회사 [Speech by Kim Jong-un at the closing of the 6th Congress of Party Secretaries]. Chosun Sinbo. April 9, 2021, https://www.chosonsinbo.com/2021/04/9-34/ (Retrieved on July 19, 2021.)
2. Victor Cha, Opinion: North Korea could become one of Biden’s biggest challenges – and not just because of its nukes. The Washington Post. January 17, 2021. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/01/15/why-north-korea-could-become-one-bidens-biggest-challenges/ (Retrieved on July 19, 2021.)
3. Future of North Korea. Expert Survey Report. July 2014. Ilmin International Relations Institute, p. 4. Available at: https://www.ncnk.org/resources/publications/IIRI_Expert_Survey_Report_-Eng.pdf (Retrieved on May 08, 2021.)
4. Strategicheskiy global’niy prognoz do 2030 goda. Rasshirennayaversiya [Strategic global forecast 2030. Expanded version]. Ed.: acad. A. A. Dynkin. Magistr Publishers, Moscow, 2011, pp. 389, 390.
5. Bruce W. Bennett, Preparing for the Possibility of a North Korean Collapse. RAND Corporation. Available at: https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR331.html (Retrieved on July 19, 2021.)
6. Gian Gentile, Yvonne K. Crane, Dan Madden, Timothy M. Bonds, Bruce W. Bennett, Mchael J. Mazarr, Andrew Scobell, Four Problems on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea’s Expanding Nuclear Capabilities Drive a Complex Set of Problems. RAND Corporation. Available at: https://www.rand.org/pubs/tools/TL271.html (Retrieved on July 19, 2021.)
7. Eberstadt N, The End of North Korea. AEI Press, 1999.
8. Kim Ki Ang, Choi Eun-ju, The Fallacy of North Korean Collapse. 38NORTH, February 1, 2021. Available at: https://www.38north.org/2021/02/the-fallacy-of-north-korean-collapse/ (Retrieved on July 19, 2021.)
9. Tullock, Gordon, Autocracy. Springer Media, Dordrecht, 1987, pp. 9, 10.
10. Tullock, Gordon, Autocracy. Springer Media, Dordrecht, 1987, pp. 10, 35.
11. Svolik, Milan, Power Sharing and Leadership Dynamics in Authoritarian Regimes. American Journal of Political Science 53, No. 2 (2009), pp. 477-494.
12. Lenin V.I., Detskaya bolezn’ ‘levizny’pri kommunizme [Childhood disease of “leftism” in communism]. Lenin. Full edition, Vol. 41, pp. 69, 70.
13. Lobov R., Noviy povorot na Koreyskom poluostrove: dver’zakryta, no ne zaperta [A new twist on the Korean Peninsula: the door is closed, but not locked]. RISS, January 16, 2020. Access mode: https://riss.ru/article/12356/ (Retrieved on July 19, 2021.)
14. Proshlo zasedaniye tret’yego dnya III Plenuma TsK TPK [The meeting of the third day of the III Plenum of the Central Committee of the WPK was held]. KCNA. June 18, 2021.
15. Konstitutsiya Respubliki Koreya. St. 3-4 [Constitution of the Republic of Korea. Art. 3-4]. Vsyo o Koreye [All about Korea]. https://vseokoree.com/vse-o-koree/zakony-i-normativnye-pravovye-akty/konstituciya-respubliki-koreya (Retrieved on July 19, 2021.)
16. Baunov A., Otkrovenniy razgovor s severokoreyskim biznesmenom [Open conversation with a North Korean businessman]. Slon, November 19, 2011, http://slon.ru/world/otkrovennyy_razgovor_s_severokoreyskim_biznesmenom-586903.xhtml (Retrieved on July 19, 2021.)
17. Note that 1994-1995 was a time of a leap of such illusions, when during the “arduous march,” few believed in the stability of the regime: Kim Jong Il was also considered an “incompetent playboy,” unable to lead the country in such difficult conditions.
18. Lankov A., Another Myanmar? Why there won’t be a military coup in North Korea any time soon. NK News, February 3, 2021. Available at: https://www.nknews.org/2021/02/another-myanmar-why-there-wont-be-a-military-coup-in-north-korea-any-time-soon/ (Retrieved on July 19, 2021.)
19. FAO and WFP, 2019. FAO/WFP Joint Rapid Food Security Assessment – Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Bangkok, p. 26. Available at: http://www.fao.org/emergencies/resources/documents/resources-detail/en/c/1192517/ (Retrieved on June 28, 2021.)
20. 2016 북한대외무역동향 [North Korea’s foreign trade trends in 2016]. KOTRA 자료 18-038, 2017, p. 3.
21. Choi, Ji Young., The North Korean Economy based on the Market Price and FX Rate. 2020/2021 the DPRK Economic Outlook. Ed. by Suk Lee, Korea Development Institute, pp. 108-137.
22. The 3rd Plenum of the 8th Central Committee of the WPK was opened. KCNA, June 16, 2021.
23. Yang Moon-Soo, The Economic Reform of North Korea in the Kim Jong Un Era: Status & Evaluation. Korea Development Institute. Working Paper. June 2021, p. 2.
24. On the report of the distinguished top leader Comrade Kim Jong-un to the VIII Congress of the WPK. KCNA, January 9, 2021.
25. Dukalskis A., North Korea’s Shadow Economy: A Force for Authoritarian Resilience or Corrosion? Europe-Asia Studies, 2016, 68:3, p. 489.
26. Dukalskis A., Joo Hyung-Min, Everyday Authoritarianism in North Korea. Europe-Asia Studies, 2021, 73:2. DOI: 10.1080/09668136.2020.1840517.
27. Tolstokulakov I.A., Religiya v sisteme tsennostey severokoreyskogo obshchestva [Religion in the value system of North Korean society]. Report at the IV International Conference on Korean Studies, October 4-7, 2010, Vladivostok.
28. Asmolov K., Net perspektive denuklearizatsiyi KNDR [No Prospect for Denuclearization of the DPRK]. RIAC, April 20, 2021, https://russiancouncil.ru/analytics-and-comments/analytics/net-perspektivy-denuklearizatsii-kndr/ (Retrieved on July 19, 2021.)
29. Haggard S., Noland M., Hard Target: Sanctions, Inducements, and the Case of North Korea. Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 2017, p. 235.
30. Tat Yan Kong, How China views North Korea’s readiness to reform and its influence on China’s North Korea policy in the post-Cold War era. The Pacific Review, 2021, 34:1, pp. 85-112, DOI: 10.1080/09512748.2019.1651384.
31. Communist China and the Free World’s Future. US Department of State, July 23,
2020. Available at: https://www.state.gov/communist-china-and-the-free-worlds-future-2/ (Retrieved on July 19, 2021.)
32. Yang Moon-Soo, The Economic Reform of North Korea in the Kim Jong Un Era: Status & Evaluation. Korea Development Institute. Working Paper. June, 2021, p. 21.
33. Alexander Solov’yev, Nekotoriye osobennosti evolyutsiyi politicheskogo mifa KNDR: opyt konstruktivistskogo analiza [Some features of the evolution of the DPRK’s political myth: the experience of constructivist analysis]. Report at the conference “Modernizing Korea: Past and Present,” April 8-9, 2021. Zoom.
33. Polenova A.L., Lobov R.N, Sovmestniy situatsionniy analiz IDVRAN i ISAA MGU [Joint situational analysis of RAS IFES and MSU ISAA], Far Eastern Affairs, # 5, 2017, pp. 168-171.
34. For more about the term, see: Konstantin Asmolov, Koreyskiy poluostrov: krolich’ya voyna? [Korean Peninsula: Rabbit War?]. Novoye vostochnoye obozreniye, March 14, 2016, http://ru.journal-neo.org/2016/03/14/korejskij-poluostrov-vojna-iz-za-krolika/ (Retrieved on July 19, 2021.)
35. [Interview] Defector groups get paid to launch propaganda balloons, former N. Korean soldier says. Hankyoreh, June 15, 2020. Available at: http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_northkorea/949419.html (Retrieved on July 19, 2021.)