However, the absence of public friction should not lead us
to believe that serious disagreements do not exist in private. If the Chinese
model is any guide, the question of reforms has most likely been simmering for
years, waiting for an opening like the one provided by Kim Jong-il's death.
A North Korean opening in the near future is probable for
two reasons. First, it can be done. When Deng initiated his reforms in 1978, he
was grasping in the dark. It wasn't known how market economics would affect the
communist monopoly on power. In 2012, the verdict of history seems clear.
China's three decades of economic growth and relative political stability have
embarrassed more than a few Western Cassandras. If North Korea were to engage
in a Chinese-style opening, it would have the entire Chinese experience as a
road map, as well as an eager mentor and trading partner.
Second, Chinese pressure for an opening has increased
powerfully in the last few years and likely will intensify with the new
leadership. In his twilight, Kim Jong-il took numerous trips to China, and he
wasn't just visiting the Great Wall. He was there to see the fruits of China's
economic miracle. Beijing would stand to gain the most from a North Korean
economic opening. Access to markets, cheap labor and investment opportunities
are all tantalizingly within grasp just beyond the Yalu River. China would also
benefit from the stability of having its neighbor not perennially on the brink
of bankruptcy and famine.
Who could play the role of Deng? The most obvious candidates
are those dubbed by The Economist "the troika of regents." They are Kim Jong
Eun's aunt Kim Kyong-hui, her husband Jang Song-taek, and Army Chief of Staff
General Ri Yong-ho. Their conspicuous presence behind the new king attests to
their potential role in shaping the future. But there is room for skepticism.
At the time of Hua Guofeng's elevation to the top job, Deng
Xiaoping had been stripped of all leadership posts within the party and had
come within a hair's breadth of being expelled. Hua too had "guides," such as
Marshal Ye Jianying and Wang Dongxing, Maoists who helped him solidify his
position. Though Deng had previously been in positions of prominence, few could
have predicted his Phoenix-like return to power in 1977. In assessing North
Korea's future, we should be mindful of how little we know. If there is a North
Korean reformer waiting in the wings, he may still be invisible to us now, like
Deng was in 1976.
North Korea isn't likely to collapse anytime soon. Too many
actors, foreign and domestic, have vested interests in preventing that. Nor
will North Korea face an internal rebellion such as those presently convulsing
the Middle East. North Korea's communication and transport systems are too
primitive for effective mass mobilization. Democratic reform will also remain
an "End of History" liberal pipe dream. The Chinese economic model should serve
as abundant evidence that economic reform and political reform do not
necessarily go hand in hand. Yet despite these factors, which would seem to
favor stagnancy, change could be afoot. If history does indeed repeat itself,
North Korea could be moving toward a new era.
This article originally appeared at NationalInterest.org, an Atlantic partner site.