September 4, 2012

Andrei Lankov is the author of five books on North Korean history and a professor at Kookmin University in South Korea.

Reports of unusual activity have been emerging from North Korea. Farmers were told in early July that going forward the state would take not their entire harvest but only 70 percent, and they would be allowed to keep the rest. The military’s economic role was partially curtailed last month when some military-managed companies were transferred to civilian control.

Meanwhile, the nation’s young hereditary dictator attended a concert of American pop music — something unthinkable until recently, as the Western mass culture was, for decades, officially considered an embodiment of decay and immorality.

All these actions reflect a dramatic shift from the policies of Kim Jong Il, the longtime dictator who died in December. It appears that Kim’s young heir, Kim Jong Eun, hopes to transform his destitute country into a “developmental dictatorship,” more or less similar to present-day China, where a market economy coexists with an authoritarian political system.

These changes should be welcomed, as such a regime, despite its numerous shortcomings, is still preferable to the dictatorship that North Korea has endured for several decades. Unfortunately, Kim Jong Eun has little chance of succeeding.  

North Korean reformers face dual dangers. First, efforts toward change might be stopped by a conservative backlash. Second, reformers will soon discover the difficulties in containing popular expectations and restiveness.

Kim Jong Il was wary of imitating Chinese ways. He feared — with good reason — that reform could be destabilizing. The major challenge is the existence of a rich South Korea whose population speaks the same language and is officially considered part of the same nation. The difference in per capita income between the Korean states, based on United Nations statistics, is at least 15-to-1, the world’s largest gap between countries that share a land border.

North Korean authorities have gone to great lengths to keep their public isolated from the outside world, banning Internet access unconditionally for all but the most senior officials and making it a crime to own even a tunable radio. Their major goal has been to hide the scale of economic gap between the Korean states. In recent years, a growing number of North Koreans have begun to suspect that the South is affluent, but only a tiny minority realizes how much richer the South is.

If the North undertook reforms to become more of a Chinese-style state, social controls would need to be relaxed. This would create manifold opportunities for North Koreans to access uncensored information, and they would soon learn the extent of the South’s prosperity. Diminishing fear of the state — the unavoidable result of liberalization — will make North Koreans more willing to share these doubts among themselves.

North Korea’s leaders face a different dynamic than do China’s leaders. Chinese people are well aware of the prosperity of the modern developed world. For them, the success of, say, the United States, Japan or Germany is a success of foreign countries; it cannot be perceived as some sort of evidence of Communist Party inefficiency. And, critically, China obviously cannot unify with the United States or Japan.

But if North Koreans learn the extent of South Korean success, they are likely to see the hardships and deprivations they have endured as proof of the regime’s inefficiency, for which the current ruler’s father and grandfather are largely responsible. The North’s population is also likely to assume that all of its problems could be solved overnight through unification with the rich South.

This is a recipe for discontent and even a revolution, somewhat similar to the recent events in Tunisia or the events of 1989 in Romania and East Germany.

Alas, a North Korea in the throes of reform would not become immediately more stable but would become less stable than the ossified state of the Kim Jong Il era. It is possible, though unlikely, that the regime would find a balance of fear, economic incentives and propaganda that would allow it to keep the populace under control.

An implosion of the North Korean state is likely to be far from peaceful: If a revolution were to arise, the North’s elite, assuming that it stands to lose everything if its country is swallowed by the victorious South, would probably fight it. This means chaos and anarchy in a presumed nuclear state. Such a crisis also has potential to complicate the relations between the United States and China, as the latter would not remain idle when faced with such an eruption on its border.

It is good that changes are finally coming to North Korea. But no one should not entertain the simplistic notion that reforms would bring a painless and gradual solution of the North Korean problem.