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.

North Korea has not imploded, and it has not reformed. There has been no "soft landing," no quick collapse, no confederation with the South. There has been no successful food-for-peace program with the U.S., as Seligson implied there could be, and no rapid, Iraq-like disintegration of the Korean peninsula, a possibility that The Atlantic's own Robert Kaplan discussed in a 2006 print article. To be fair, it's entirely possible that any number of these things could still happen, and these predictions have had plenty of evidence to support them: the 1994 nuclear agreement, the North-South peace process, and the somewhat-recent collapse of global communism, among many others. Everything from domestic Pyongyang politics to the political and historical arc of the 20th century informed against North Korea's survival.

So how, apparently against all the odds and so many theories and understandings of how the world is supposed to work, has North Korea continued to hang on? According to Jay Ulfelder, a Washington, DC-based political scientist and blogger who studies regime stability, North Korean-style one-party dictatorships are adept at insulating and perpetuating themselves. "These really closed authoritarian regimes that don't have a history of recent coup activity stick around for a long time," Ulfelder told me.

For such a unique system like North Korea's, the recent history of apparently similar countries (remember Manning's reference to Romania?) has little predictive power. Take, for instance, the belief that North Korean reformists were capable of changing the character of the regime. "The whole body of theorizing about democratic transitions from the late '80s and early '90s made the claim that those transitions always began because of splits between hardliners and soft-liners," says Ulfelder. "People took that as a predictor when in fact it really was just descriptive." Even the most authoritarian governments have reformists somewhere in their ranks. But, for Ulfelder, "the question is what are the conditions under which that reform-minded group becomes powerful enough to win the eternal fights and enact reform-minded changes?"

The consequences of North Korea's collapse would be incredibly messy, possibly even catastrophic. As Kaplan explained, it would mean integrating 25 million very poor North Koreans into much richer South Korea, winding down decades of propaganda that told North Koreans to hate and fear the world, dismantling one of the largest political prison systems in the world, and liquidating an enormous, nuclear-armed military. Perhaps, Ulfelder suggests, analysts might be unintentionally inflating the chances of North Korea's collapse precisely because its consequences would be so severe -- a feedback loop that psychologists refer to as an "affect heuristic."

"With North Korea, we're so scared of the country falling apart that this 'affect heuristic' drives people away from a more data-based forecast," Ulfelder says. "They make the mistake of treating their level of uncertainty as the level of probability of the event happening ... we have a tendency to substitute how scared we are of that happening with an estimate for how likely it is of that happening."

If this is in fact what's happening, then couldn't that actually be a good thing? Had the worst-case happened and North Korea actually fallen in the mid-'90s, the world would have been that much more prepared, thanks to the scholarly literature and expertise fueled by the the world's fears. The "effect heuristic" might partially explain the many false (or maybe just premature) predictions of North Korea's doom, but it also means we'll all be a lot readier if and when it actually happens.

But this is North Korea, and there isn't really such thing as a best-case scenario. For now, those 25 million North Koreans are still living in an impoverished totalitarian state, and the millions more in South Korea and Japan have still got a twitchy, nuclear-argued rogue state next door. As the Crisis Group report makes clear, North Korea is a regional and domestic catastrophe whether it changes or not.