Zachary Keck

In Asia, Fears of North Korea’s Collapse Grow

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Zachary Keck

In Asia, Fears of North Korea’s Collapse Grow

A number of signs suggest that South Korea and China believe the risk of North Korea’s demise is growing.

Predicting the collapse of the North Korean regime is a fool’s errand for at least two reasons. First, for decades now (mostly Western) pundits have predicted the regime’s imminent collapse. And yet, despite two leadership successions and a devastating famine, the North Korean regime is still standing (though greatly changed in many ways).

More generally, it is nearly impossible to predict when large scale political upheavals will occur with any type of precision. Scholars have spent decades studying revolutions and other types of sudden massive political transformations, and this has enabled them to identify some of the underlying factors that make societies ripe for revolutions. Still, these findings have limited utility for predicting precisely when massive change will occur. That’s because the underlying conditions are usually necessary but insufficient for large scale upheavals to occur. Often times, seemingly random events are needed to spark the upheaval in societies already ripe for change.

For example, many of the underlying factors for revolution were present in Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa for decades, yet these regimes remained remarkably stable. Then, one day, a fruit vendor in a rather marginal country lit himself on fire and with him much of the Arab world went up in flames. Predicting when a fruit vendor’s frustration will push him to ignite himself, and when an act like this will resonate with people across an entire country or region, is beyond the capacity of mortals.

These caveats aside, there are a number of signs which suggest that some Asian nations see a growing risk of North Korea collapsing in the near future.

The most notable instance of this is in South Korea, which has a far better understanding of North Korea than any other foreign country with the possible exception of China. At the beginning of this year ROK President Park Geun-hye launched a campaign to sell South Koreans on the benefits of unification. This campaign has by now gone far beyond the attention any of her recent predecessors paid to the issue.

“People would even sing, ‘we dream of unification even in our dreams,’” Park told Bloomberg News back in January. “Unification will allow the Korean economy to take a fresh leap forward and inject great vitality and energy.”

Around the same time, she gave a speech explaining, “We will also work to make more widespread the shared recognition on the need for unification…. There’s no knowing when unification will actually take place, but we will do our best to hasten the day.” One South Korean academic pointed out, “The worry over costs has long dominated debate on unification. Now that’s changing.”

Park’s desire to change the narrative on unification is understandable, especially if South Korean intelligence sees the risk of North Korea’s collapse growing. Although a slight majority of South Koreans still support unification, their numbers have been dropping off fairly sharply. And the reason for this decline is that opposition to unification is strongest among younger South Koreans. According to a 2013 Seoul National University poll, while 54.8 percent of South Koreans support unification, that number drops to just 40.4 percent among those aged between 19 and 29.

Bloomberg quoted one 25-year-old South Korean as saying of unification, “We’d have to bear the burden of the North Koreans’ poverty…. I’d be happy to see one Korea, but I absolutely oppose unification that raises my taxes too high.”

It’s difficult to understand this campaign to re-sell South Koreans on reunification except in the context of Seoul judging that the risk of North Korea collapsing is rising. After all, this PR campaign has taken place alongside renewed North Korean belligerence and provocations.

Moreover, South Korea and the U.S. have reportedly been devoting more time to jointly planning for Pyongyang’s demise. In January, for instance — the same month Park launched her PR campaign — South Korea’s foreign minister held separate meetings with Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that reportedly focused on how to deal with the aftermath of North Korea’s collapse.

Although less definitive, there have also been signs that could be interpreted as China believing the risk of North Korea’s collapse is growing. For instance, last month Kyodo News reported that it had obtained a People’s Liberation Army internal document from last summer outlining a contingency plan for dealing with North Korea’s collapse. China vehemently denied the authenticity of the leaked documents, and to be fair certain aspects of the supposed plans did seem a little far-fetched (such as that China would set up refugee camps inside its borders for North Koreans).

Moreover, even if the contingency plan is authentic, that in and of itself is not a sign that China sees the risk of North Korea’s collapse as growing. After all, nearly by definition militaries doing a lot of planning for a lot of different possible contingencies. The U.S. military, for instance, has plans for how to deal with a zombie apocalypse. It’s absurd to think that the PLA didn’t have a plan prior to last summer for dealing with a North Korean collapse, especially given the immense consequences this would have for China.

Still, the leaked document, if authentic, does strongly hint that China is growing more concerned about the North Korean regime’s stability. For one thing, even if the PLA always had a contingency plan to deal with North Korea’s collapse, it seems notable that it decided it needed to write a new one last summer. Perhaps it just hadn’t done so for a while, or it updates the plan at regular intervals (such as yearly or every two years). It seems at least as likely though that the plan was updated because of growing concern it could be needed soon. This is especially true because the new contingency plan reportedly called for increasing PLA surveillance and other capabilities at the border.

Moreover, the leaked document cannot be seen in isolation. Rather, it must be seen in the context of China’s growing discontent and impatience with North Korea.  There have also been fairly frequent reports in recent years of massive PLA military drills along the North Korean border. Similarly, the leak comes at a time when China and South Korea have been strengthening ties significantly, and Seoul is claiming that China has been playing an increasingly constructive role in dealing with North Korea. For its part, Chinese leaders this week stated that Sino-ROK ties have never been stronger. Even more revealing, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi openly endorsed “peaceful reunificiation” on the Korean Peninsula while in Seoul this week. As South Korean media noted, “It is rare for the Chinese government to refer openly to Korean reunification since North Korea is a close ally.”

Additionally, earlier this year reports emerged saying that the U.S. and China held discussions in 2009 to discuss how to deal with a North Korean collapse. The reports were not able to determine if these talks were still ongoing, but it seems quite possible they were (at least before the leaks). Moreover, an unnamed South Korean official told the press that China was open to joining the ongoing joint U.S.-ROK planning for North Korea’s collapse, which (if true) strongly suggests Beijing is growing more and more concerned about North Korean stability.

Thus, while it’s impossible to know with any degree of certainly, many signs suggest that South Korea and China believe that the potential for a regime collapse in North Korea is growing. This is notable given that these are the two countries with the greatest understanding of North Korea. They are also the ones that likely have the best intelligence assets in the North Korean regime. Moreover, while plenty of people have been predicting North Korea’s demise for decades, this has been far more common in the U.S. and the West.

Nonetheless, some caveats are in order. First, it bears repeating that humans are just incapable of predicting large scale upheavals with any precision, given that they are usually sparked by a seemingly random event. South Korea and China are no exceptions to this rule. Thus, at best they believe that the underlying conditions that make North Korea ripe for instability are rising.

Second, assuming China and South Korea do believe the risk of North Korea collapsing is rising, it’s quite possible that this is due to specific events rather than an intensification of its structural issues. For example, the growing concern could merely reflect the fact that North Korea recently underwent a leadership transition, or that Kim Jong-un has accelerated purges of regime officials. In the case of the latter, for instance, China and South Korea could correctly assess that the purges increase the risk of instability in the short-term. However, if Kim successfully carries out these purges — as he appears to have done in the case of his uncle — then he will actually be strengthening regime stability over the long-term.