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DONG Yong-Sueng

Five Reasons Why North Korean Regime Is Unstable

DONG Yong-Sueng

Oct. 6, 2008

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International speculation about North Korea has swelled since reports began to surface that Kim Jong-il is seriously ill. His absence at the Stalinist country's 60 th anniversary celebrations on September 9 lent credibility to the reports. However, the idea that prolonged incapacity of Kim will destabilize the North is too narrow. Other internal factors as well as external circumstances threaten the stability of the regime if left unchecked.

First, North Korea lacks the groundwork for an orderly power succession. Kim benefited from a long period of being groomed to succeed his father, starting with the 6th National Convention of the North Korean Workers' Party in 1980. When the "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung died in 1994, a ready transfer of authority to the "Dear Leader" occurred, and he has defied initial predictions that the North Korean regime would collapse quickly under his leadership.

But the situation today is completely different; there is no established power-transfer mechanism. Unlike his father, Kim has not publicly groomed any of his three sons to succeed him. Consequently, there has been no display of support for any son akin to the support Kim received from his father whenever he was caught in a messy power struggle. If the process of power-transfer starts only now, multiple power struggles will be inevitable.

Second, both planned and market economies exist in reclusive North Korea . Free markets were implicitly permitted many years ago but were regarded by officials as a temporary means to overcome shortages and to complement the state-controlled economy. But since the early 1990s, the role of the market economy has outstripped the planned economy. Enough people have accumulated wealth to even prompt guesses about the richest person in the regime. And economic empowerment is suggesting vested rights. With the government clinging to a communist economic model, conflict with purveyors of a market economy is likely due to animosity toward those vested rights.

Third, relations between North Korea and the United States are shifting again toward diplomatic brinkmanship. Although progress on ending the North's nuclear program had been made through the six-party talks, the process has broken down over the removal of North Korea from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism and inspecting the North's nuclear facilities. That has prompted the North to begin moves to renew activity at its Yongbyon nuclear installation, which processes plutonium for use in nuclear weapons. Obviously, relations between Washington and Pyongyang are an important gauge of the state of the Korean Peninsula. The strained relations will likely destabilize external conditions of the North.

Fourth, relations between North Korea and China have changed. They forged a "blood alliance" in the Korean War but China seems to be loosening the ties. It is worth noticing that rumors of Kim Jong-il's health began to surface as a Chinese medical team was dispatched to North Korea to treat Kim. Although Chinese officials have opened their doors to the world, their grip on information is as tight as ever. The leak of information about the Chinese doctors' mission cannot be seen as accidental. It suggests a Chinese government distancing itself from the unpredictable North.

Finally, the conservatives' return to power in South Korea casts in doubt the decade-long "Sunshine Policy" of the liberal administrations. Although the Lee administration appears to have softened its hard-line policy on engaging the North, most experts still expect deadlocked relations in the foreseeable future. For the North, accustomed to steady material assistance from the South during the past 10 years, the deadlock will likely have a disruptive effect.

None of the above-mentioned factors are directly destabilizing the North today. But collectively, they can roil the North if fully unleashed. The danger to the North is to itself. What makes the regime unstable is the fact that the North is not even aware of the problems. North Korea is like a huge dam that is eroding little by little, and current negative conditions are like fissures, making the regime more and more susceptible to debilitating internal and external pressures building up.

To avoid a sudden collapse, the Pyongyang regime will have to depart from digging in and reinforcing its confrontational posture toward the world. It will need to seek better relations with the United States by completely giving up its nuclear ambitions and it should seek a helping hand from the South Korean government. Time is now an enemy against North Korea, which had mastered the art of stalling for time to keep international demands at bay. It is too late for North Korea to adhere to its own way.

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