Transformation is one of the most inevitable facts of the human condition, but North Korea is a case study in change-resistance. Now, with the seismic after-effects of the Singapore summit continuing to reverberate, hopes are high in Washington and Seoul that North Korea is, at last, ready to come in from the cold.
Economic enrichment and integration with the global community, along with security guarantees, are the rewards offered to North Korea if it denuclearizes.
But such offers may not resound with North Korea as they would with other, more normal states. While to the outside world, much about the isolated, totalitarian, post-communist, hyper-militarized neo-monarchy appears outdated and bizarre, none can deny its remarkable longevity.
Does a regime with systems and practices that are so at odds with global norms – but which have survived despite all global predictions to the contrary – have the willingness or even the capacity to change? Could North Korea integrate its society with the global community and its economy with the global economy, and still remain North Korea?
There are critical questions – possibly even life-and-death questions for Kim Jong-un and his immediate family and circle.
Resisting odds, defying predictions
The Kimdom has survived a war which leveled virtually the entire nation; sweeping systemic changes which ended European communism; murderous famines that killed perhaps 10% of the population; and enormous external pressures now manifested in UN resolutions, which make it the most sanctioned state on earth.
Collapsists who predicted an endgame following the death of state founder Kim Il-sung in 1994, and the economic implosion and famines that followed – known to North Koreans as “The Arduous March” – no longer have a voice.
None of the key external players – Beijing, Seoul or Washington – are demanding regime change. But all hope for a more normalized country, which would cease to pose threats to regional peace and offer its citizens prosperity.
Moreover, a North Korea integrated into the regional economy would be much more than a new emerging market.
Economically, it would fill a black hole at the heart of Northeast Asia, enabling upgraded economic ties and infrastructure links between China, the Koreas, the Russian Far East and Japan. Politically, a key source of regional instability would fade away.
Prosperity – including concurrent engagement with the global economy – was the carrot dangled in front of Kim’s nose by both South Korean President Moon Jae-in and US President Donald Trump to urge denuclearization.
At their April summit, Moon gave Kim a USB containing plans for inter-Korean infrastructure and economic projects, including road and rail re-connections and joint tourism ventures. In Singapore, Trump played Kim a video showcasing the riches that could be North Korea’s if it denuclearizes. And Washington reportedly chose Singapore for the summit venue so Kim could see a successful, prosperous Asian city up close and personal.
One change has already happened.
Kim – who last year was totally isolated, having never met a fellow world leader – has, in only three whirlwind months, met Chinese President Xi Jinping twice, South Korea’s Moon twice and Trump once. The last summit was historic: No North Korean leader had previously met a sitting American president.
Yet, these maneuvers were simply about breaking diplomatic isolation. Can North Korea change its long-established systems and open up?
Kim’s priority is not prosperity
The US wants denuclearization and the region wants stability. North Korea’s priorities are more opaque. Experts are cautious – if not outright downbeat – on any potential for openness.
“The ultimate aim of the regime is different from other countries,” said Go Myong-hyun, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Asan Institute. “The regime goal is self-preservation, so opening up might not be the best course of action.”
Choi Jin-wook, a North Korea watcher at Japan’s Ritsumeikan University, suspects that Kim is making tactical, not strategic moves, in order to harness the unpredictable Trump and alleviate international pressures.
“I don’t think they have a long-term plan, they are trying to survive and make a deal with the US,” he said. “It does not mean they will make a transition.”
Another expert is blunter.
“Anyone who thinks there’s a radical opening up of North Korean society on the menu is dreaming,” said Craig Urquhart, a graduate student at the University of Toronto who studies North Korea’s social evolution and ideology. “Opening up would be a direct assault on the regime’s social legitimacy, and given how brittle this already is, opening up could shatter it.”
Dictatorships can collapse in fire and ruin. The deaths of Germany’s Hitler, Italy’s Mussolini, Rumania’s Ceausescu and Libya’s Gadaffi were either caused by, or enabled by, outside actors and factors.
There appears to be no appetite for such a risky solution to North Korea, even in Washington.
Precedents also exist for less apocalyptic regime change. The USSR changed course of its own internal volition, igniting the end of communism in Eastern Europe. Asian fellow travelers China and Vietnam both transitioned their economies while maintaining party control. Right-wing regimes such as Franco’s Spain, Pinochet’s Chile and Chun’s South Korea transitioned to democracies.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, during talks with his counterpart Kim Yong-chol in New York, assured him that North Korea could maintain its “cultural heritage” – a term assumed to refer to the Kim dynasty.
However, the core problem facing North Koreas’ leadership is that it does not exist in a national vacuum. There is another Korea – South Korea.
If North Korea opens its doors to the world – and its southern neighbor and competitor – the legitimacy of three generations of Kim leadership would come under pressure.
“The existence of South Korea – filthy rich, very free – is highly attractive, so to prevent a collapse, they have to keep the existence of a more successful brother-state quiet and that makes the situation for North Korean highly risky – much more than for China or Vietnam,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kookmin University. “Their people know this truth only in the abstract; if they open the country, the people will see it, and it will be a challenge.”
Questions raised relating to their southern neighbor could require the regime to ramp up its already formidable level of internal repression, Lankov said.
North Korea’s one and only bottom-up change
Even so, top-down North Korea has managed to encompass one massive, bottom-up change: the marketization of its economy.
Survival markets from the famine period of the 1990s morphed into consumer markets and spread nationwide. Following the implosion of the socialist state distribution system, most North Koreans are now believed to rely on markets for their everyday needs.
Efforts by Pyongyang to reign them in – notably, with a currency reform in 2009, and closures during the mourning period after second-generation dictator Kim Jong-il died in 2011 – failed. The regime changed course and now leverages the markets: allowing them to operate, while controlling access and exit and extracting resources.
“The regime has been reduced to reacting to organic changes in North Korean society instead of leading them,” said Urquhart.
“The pattern in North Korean behavior is that it is willing to make changes, but on its own terms,” added Rob York, a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii. “Opening to the concept of black markets required no compromises in its Leninist political structure or Great Leader power system.”
A byproduct of semi-legal marketization is widespread corruption.
“People use parasitic corruption to bypass the state,” Urquhart added. “Ostensibly ‘public’ companies or economic units have often long since been hijacked by well-connected families for their own personal gain, and [businesspersons] can dispense with rules so long as they have officials on their payrolls.”
All this means that while Pyongyang no longer has the absolute control over the economy it once did, its polity remains as ossified under Kimian control as it was when the state was created in 1948.
“They are maintaining their system and ideology, even though it is getting weaker,” Choi said. “They have never discussed a path to change.”
Still, the acceptance of marketization shows that there is some flexibility, and Kim – his country’s young, third-generation leader, whose main policy line has been “byungjin”, or dual track development of the economy and nuclear weapons, may be prepared to try something new.
What would signal change?
“It’s a new era with a new leader, new aspirations amongst the populace and a new emerging geopolitical dynamic,” said Andray Abrahamian, a research fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS. “It’s worth trying.
“North Korea faces more constraints because they’ve created a more rigid system and face a more potent external threat than most other authoritarian states, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have the capacity to change,” added Abrahamian, who has made multiple trips to North Korea to teach business skills.
“At this moment, I think it’s really important for other actors, particularly South Korea and the US, to be thinking through ways they can encourage positive changes in North Korea, despite the challenges.”
If – a very big “if” – substantive change took place, what would be the signal? Experts suggest both political and economic harbingers.
“The biggest glasnost would be allow people to have property rights and to allow North Korea people to own their own businesses, and this would be protected,” said Go. “Make it official!”
Key policies for North Korea are captured in policy “lines” such as Kim Il-sung’s “juche” (self reliance), Kim Jong-il’s “songeun” (military first) and Kim Jong-un’s “byungjin.” A new line would be made very public.
“If there is a policy change or different direction, they would be announcing it like when Gorbachev came out with glasnost and perestroika, or like in 2013 when North Korea came out with the byungjin line,” said Daniel Pinkston, who watches North Korea from Troy University in Seoul. “They would issue a declaration and would pass a statute or law about this new line. They have mechanisms to do that. We will know.”