The North Korean state is increasingly an anomaly in the world today, a throwback to some of the most egregious authoritarian regimes of the 20th century. The regime prevents any political dissent through collective punishment in political prison camps for not just the offending individual, but also their whole family. This means there are no known dissidents or human rights activists inside the country; no North Korean Aung San Suu Kyis or Liu Xiabos, and therefore no leaders for alternative domestic political forces to organize around.
If North Korea falls, the ruling elite fears it will be absorbed into the larger and richer South Korean system, where anybody who is anybody -- in the military, internal security forces, the party, government officials, even the new economic elites -- could lose their jobs to their counterparts from the south and see the system they rely on for power and wealth disappear. Former officials could find themselves on trial or even suffer reprisals from citizens who have been oppressed for so long.
North Korean refugees have reported evidence of several long-term, significant, irreversible social trends that will eventually lead to their country's transformation.
This uncertainty heightens the ruling elite's fear of instability and makes them averse to any kind of change that may accelerate their loss of control.
But wait, there's hope.
North Korean refugees have reported evidence of several long-term, significant, irreversible social trends that will eventually lead to a transformation of North Korea.
The trigger for these social changes was the collapse of the state-socialist economy in the 1990s, which led to a famine that killed up to one million North Koreans. Out of that tragedy emerged the survival mechanism of grassroots marketization, which enabled people to provide for themselves and others with food, goods and services that the government could not or would not provide. In this changing North Korea, we have identified six reasons why the North Korean people will drive a transformation of their country in our lifetime.
Here are the reasons North Korea is unsustainable.
1) Economic Divergence
Reliable data on North Korea's economy is unsurprisingly hard to come by, but the simple truth is that the current system is unable to foster economic development. This is primarily the result of the regime's absolute prioritization of political control. The obsessive effort to micromanage society stifles the people's potential, holding them back and effectively enforcing poverty on them.
By contrast, over the past 50 years South Korea has gone from being one of the poorest countries in the world to sitting between Israel and New Zealand in per capita GDP (see above chart). The difference between North and South Korea's economies is already the biggest of any two neighboring countries in the world. Just 30 years ago, China was poorer than North Korea; now North Koreans who manage to travel to China (or even just look across the river) are amazed at the bright lights and development they see there. As the rest of the region races ahead, the regime's strategy of obstinately denying change will become incrementally more difficult, especially as this economic discrepancy becomes increasingly obvious to the people.
2) Grassroots Glasnost
The regime has traditionally denied free speech and isolated its people from the outside world in order to maintain its monopoly as the only source of information inside the country. There is no Internet access for all but a select group of officials, and every newspaper and TV station is a mouthpiece for the regime.
However, this information blockade is crumbling, and increasing numbers of refugees report watching South Korean dramas and Hollywood (and even Bollywood) movies that are smuggled in on DVDs and USBs from China. There is also a growing number of Chinese cell phones that are used in border regions to call contacts in China and South Korea -- highly illegal but massively lucrative. Many North Koreans leaving the country more recently report having a much better awareness of the reality of the outside world -- including the relative advancement of South Korea -- than those who left 10 or even five years ago.
The spread of new technologies and information cannot be stopped, and as the information flows increase the regime will be faced with a simple choice: either align their narrative about their country closer to reality, or watch as their traditional narrative becomes increasingly hollow and powerless.