Second, North Korea’s economic problems have become extremely serious due to its progressive loss of vital sources of foreign aid, an inability to abandon economically harmful but politically stabilizing policies, widening income disparities, and perennial food and health care shortages that threaten to degrade North Koreans’ human capabilities. The result of all these economic problems is an impoverished and increasingly disenchanted population, as well as hordes of refugees fleeing to neighboring countries.
Third, North Korea’s long-standing policy of brinkmanship no longer yields major concessions; they do however increasingly risk provoking a major war. Pyongyang’s outrageous provocations against South Korea last year have so antagonized South Korean public opinion that vigorous retaliation to any further provocations has become much more likely since President Lee Myung-bak would find it difficult not to strike back. South Korean military doctrine now emphasizes the need for a prompt and vigorous response to future provocations.
These problems have created a fourth, existential, crisis in which North Koreans have increasingly lost faith in their regime even if they lack the means to depose it. The incongruence between the North Korean regime’s proclaimed successes and its genuine failures will become increasingly evident in 2012 due to its pledge to create a “strong and prosperous nation” that year, the centennial of the founding father’s birth. The recent upheavals in the Arab world are a welcome reminder that even the most long-lasting dictatorships cannot last forever.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The best outcome would be a “soft landing” in which the weight of North Korea’s problems gradually saps its strength and North Korea no longer threatens other countries. At some point, this process could lead to intra-Korean reconciliation and the gradual integration of the two Koreas. Unfortunately, fundamental change isn’t visible on the horizon, while even a more mellow North Korea would have good reasons to keep its nuclear weapons, especially if the regime’s other support props no longer work. A German-style reunification through absorption, along with the North Korean regime’s voluntary collapse, is extremely unlikely due to the regime’s ingrained militancy.
All of this means that a violent and abrupt collapse is a more plausible scenario. This could be sparked by a major internal challenge, perhaps from a dissatisfied general or from a popular uprising, or from a confrontation with South Korea that escalates out of control. For example, the North Korean leadership might take provocative action assuming that its nuclear deterrent would avert military retaliation, only to be proved wrong about its presumed “escalation dominance.” North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons could present real problems here, as does with the fourth “nightmare” scenario, namely reunification through war, in which South Korea would intervene to occupy North Korea.
This scenario also runs the significant risk of Chinese military intervention to preserve a sphere of influence. After several years of reassessing their Korean polices, Chinese leaders have most recently resolved to prevent regime change no matter how much they dislike the Kim dynasty. Chinese leaders see a unified Korea under Seoul’s leadership and allied to the United States as a threat to its fundamental interests. Since mid-2010, then, China has increased its assistance to North Korea, including by providing more diplomatic support and economic aide.
The difficult nature of the North Korean regime, combined with the general lack of trust among those countries involved, have meant the prospects for the success of the Six Party Talks have always been poor. But the magnitude of the danger – the increased risks of nuclear proliferation, nuclear terrorism, and nuclear war – mean that those involved have no choice but to keep on trying.