The Koreas

The Long History of Predicting North Korea’s Collapse 

Outside analysts frequently opine that the end is nigh for the Kim regime. They’ve always been wrong.

The Long History of Predicting North Korea’s Collapse 
Credit: Flickr/ (stephan)

Since defecting from his post at the North Korean embassy in London last summer, Thae Yong-ho has become the go-to source for media seeking hard-won insights into his secretive homeland. Thae, the former deputy ambassador to the U.K., has offered a bold prediction: Kim Jong-un’s regime would collapse, and possibly not before long.

In a series of interviews in Seoul, Thae said North Koreans were becoming increasingly aware of the deficiencies of their nominally socialist system as the leadership lost its stranglehold on information — paving the way for an inevitable popular uprising.

On Wednesday, Thae said at a press conference for foreign media that “Kim’s days are numbered” due to a growing flow of outside information into the isolated country. He said the regime was doomed as there was no obvious candidate to continue the hereditary dictatorship after Kim.

Earlier in the week, the career diplomat, who has vowed to become a relentless critic of Pyongyang, told South Korea’s English-language broadcaster Arirang that he was working to bring about reunification of the two Koreas within five years.

Predicting the end of North Korea has a long history marked by countless false dawns. Claims of impending collapse gained prominence after the death in 1994 of North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung, the current leader’s grandfather, only for his son, Kim Jong-il, to smoothly take the reins of power. Former President Bill Clinton was reported to have agreed to an ill-fated denuclearization deal with Pyongyang that year largely out of a belief the regime’s end was near. Nearly a decade and a half later, Kim Jong-il’s sudden death again sparked predictions of regime implosion, only for his son to successfully assume power and keep the system intact.

“Analysts have been saying since the early ’90s that North Korea would collapse soon,” Robert Kelly, an associate professor of international relations at Pusan National University, told The Diplomat. “Many of our theories about states in the social sciences predict that a country like North Korea would either change or collapse. Hence the repeated assertions. North Korea has some hidden source of strength we don’t fully understand. I take Thae’s comments as typical of the wishful thinking that infects so much of our North Korea analysis.”

Jieun Baek, the author of North Korea’s Hidden Revolution, said she would like to believe Thae’s assessment — but warned against assuming anything about the country’s internal stability.

“Previous predictions about regime collapse or regime change were not straw-in-the-wind guesses either; they were made on intelligence, defector testimonies, and careful political estimations of the regime’s stability,” Baek said. “Much of the media is quick to adopt shocking narratives about predicted collapse scenarios because shocking stories get more views. I can’t blame them. But just like any other subject matter, readers, including myself, ought to be careful in believing what headlines state about one of the least understood countries in the world.”