The Long History of (Wrongly) Predicting North Korea's Collapse

Since the early 1990s, Pyongyang-watchers have insisted the country's demise was just around the corner. That they've been so consistently wrong might say as much about the outside world as it does about North Korea.

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North Korean war veterans greet Northern leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang. (Reuters)

It turns out that Kim Jong Un, the doughy ex-playboy and Disney enthusiast-turned hereditary neo-Stalinist overlord, is hardly as feckless or as cartoonish as he may appear, according to a new report from the International Crisis Group. "When it comes to institutions usable for social control, the [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] is a hyperdeveloped state," announcesNorth Korean Succession and the Risks of Regime Stability. "Kim is young and inexperienced, but the instruments of control have been established by his grandfather [Kim il Sung] and father [Kim Jong Il], and he has pledged to adhere to their policy line. This means reform prospects are dim. He could well be around for decades -- and with a growing nuclear arsenal."

There's no immediate way of knowing whether the report will turn out to be right or wrong, but it breaks with a decades-old tradition of predicting or at least assuming North Korea's impending demise. Since the early '90s, around the time of both the fall of the pro-North Korean Soviet bloc and Kim Jong Il's 1994 takeover, scholars and commentators have braced themselves for the coming collapse of the DRPK's political and economic system, if not the collapse of the country itself.

The fact that the Kim regime is still alive and thriving doesn't mean that these commentators were wrong, exactly -- much of their logic appeared sound at the time, and their work responded to the seemingly imminent crisis of North Korea's dissolution. But the fact that so many close observers could misread the country's future so widely speaks to both North Korea's unknowability and its uniqueness. It seems that the experiences of post-communist or reform-minded countries Romania or China don't actually tell us as much as we might think about the trajectory of North Korea, a place that plays by its own bizarre and totalitarian rules.

The world has treated North Korea's coming collapse as an inevitability for years. "In North Korea, the possibilities run the gamut from an implosion and collapse along the lines of Romania to an explosion," wrote Robert A. Manning, now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in the Fall 1993 issue of World Policy Journal. Twenty years later, respected North Korea scholar Andrei Lankov argued that an "inexperienced" Kim Jong Un might be unable to stave off his government's eventual downfall. To be fair, Lankov hasn't been proven wrong yet, and his predictions about the first months of Kim Jong Un's rule have been remarkably accurate. Still, the Kims have proven the naysayers wrong many times before.

In the early 1990s, North Korea faced a series of existential crises -- or what looked like existential crises from the outside, anyway. Global communism had fallen, along with the Soviet-led anti-capitalist, and anti-democratic political bloc. China and Russia opened up diplomatic relations with South Korea in the early 1990s, around the same time they halted subsidies for North Korea's once-formidable export economy. Kim Il Sung, the nation's founder and "eternal leader," died in 1994. Famine, economic crisis, and international sanctions in response to North Korea's nuclear weapons program wracked the country for most of the decade. The world foresaw doom.

"While North Koran military action can never be ruled out, a more likely scenario these days is a North Korean economic and political collapse," Leif Rosenberger, who is currently the chief economist at U.S. Central Command, wrote in the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies' journal in 1994, shortly after Kim Il Sung's death. In a 1997 article for Foreign Policy entitled "Promoting a Soft Landing in Korea," Selig Harrison, now a project director at the Center for International Policy, was somewhat less definitive in predicting the country's fall. "While the North Korean system is unlikely to implode or explode in the foreseeable future," Harrison wrote, "it could well erode over a period of five to ten years if the United States and its allies remain wedded to policies that exacerbate the economic problems facing the Kim Jong Il regime." That was in 1997, 15 years ago. That same year, the CIA determined that North Korea was likely to collapse within the next five years.

While some experts took North Korea's failure as a foregone conclusion, others argued that the country would be unable to survive as long as it remained an oppressive and self-contained pariah state. They argued that a reformist wing of the governing clique was acutely aware of this, and could attempt to transform the country. The consensus of the early '90s seems to have been that the North Korean system was destined for major, imminent changes, whether it wanted them or not.

A 1993article in the Asian Survey by John Merill examined North Korea's coming liberalization, predicting a "more flexible" and "cosmopolitan" leadership, which either never gained much power or never existed at all:

As the younger Kim has come into his own, he has put his stamp on North Korea's (DPRK) policies. Pyongyang's recent moves are not just random responses to outside pressure but a more carefully thought-out strategy for regime survival. The new style is that of a second-generation revolutionary leadership that is more technocratic, better educated, more cosmopolitan, and tactically more flexible than its predecessor.

China-style liberalization was seen as such an inevitability that Rosenberger's 1994 journal article even cited the need for "bankruptcy laws and anti-trust legislation" -- as if North Korea were already on its way to a quasi-capitalist economy. The Asian Survey's 1993 article even detected a new sensitivity towards human rights by Kim Jong Il's regime. "There were hints that Pyongyang itself realized a need to improve its human rights situation," Merill wrote, foreseeing a decreased emphasis on songbun (the hereditary North Korean caste system based on perceived loyalty to the regime) and a new openness towards citizens with family in South Korea or Japan. Needless to say, if Kim Jong Il was ever headed in that direction, he didn't get there. His rule was just as cruel as his father's or perhaps even crueler. Today, the North Korean gulag system has over 150,000 inmates.

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Armin Rosen is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Global channel.

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