The wave of revolutions sweeping away authoritarian regimes in northern Africa and the Middle East has unwittingly caused many experts in international affairs (especially those not very familiar with the specifics of the two Koreas) to ask whether such events could take place in North Korea. The debate has gone into high gear: what if the world’s most odious, totalitarian and closed country is on the brink of turmoil and revolt? What if people tired of decades of poverty and iron rule eventually topple the dictatorship? Comprehensive foreign support is more than guaranteed as a strong and prosperous South Korea is eager (and even required, according to its constitution) to provide assistance to “insurgents” with full and effective support from the U.S. and bring the North under its control. A spontaneous achievement of unification – South Korea’s long-cherished national goal – apparently will not be opposed or condemned by the international community. Even China, a supporter of North Korea, is unlikely to resist the “will of history” in a situation like this.
The necessary element in such speculations is the hope that the regime in Pyongyang will no longer be able to maintain stability nor force people to toe the line, let alone develop and achieve economic growth. Forecasters take for granted that political instability will increase due to the worsening economic situation, as well as the fact that Kim Jong-il, who has kept his iron grip on power for years, has had health problems recently.
The train of thought among globalization specialists is as follows: the country is stagnant and some of its regions are literally starving. The people have lost faith, foreign propaganda has done its job and the list of defectors has been growing. A government crisis is looming: the 29-year-old son of the “Supreme Commander,” Kim Jong-un, who was hastily appointed Kim’s “successor” in September 2010, does not yet have the necessary experience. He does not have support among the leadership or the military, despite his promotion to General of the Army. There will likely be a struggle for power inside the country’s leadership after Kim Jong-il dies. There has been speculation that Kim Jong-un may face a real challenge from the husband of his aunt, influential party and state functionary Chang Sung-taek. Amid constant economic turmoil all this may lead to a Jasmine Revolution.
But even if the transfer of power is smooth, the ruling regime is not immune to problems, say Korean experts. The old elite are departing – the average age of the Politburo members is 80. Only a few hundred people are really in the know, many of whom were directly involved in the Korean War and the liberation of Korea. They have many years of government experience, and, in addition, they are also members of the Kim clan. A new nomenklatura is now being formed that comprises the military, technocrats and party functionaries who were promoted under Kim Jong-il. Many of them came out of the regional elites and most of them have never been abroad. They have received a Juche-type of education and undergone aggressive indoctrination; therefore these officials are simply incompetent in the realities of the modern world. These “Young Turks” could go too far in their provocations and misjudge the limits of their opponents’ patience.
There also may be a split in the new leadership, especially if the government tries to “modernize” the system. Reform without addressing the issue of external security may bring about the collapse of statehood.
WISHFUL THINKING AND ILLUSIONS
Everything looks logical, but is it really true that the likelihood has increased of regime collapse in North Korea and of spontaneous reunification of Korea, in the context of inter-Korean confrontation and escalation of the nuclear issue that followed the conservatives’ rise to power in Seoul in 2008? In the United States and South Korea, which have been waiting for this moment for more than two decades, experts repeatedly predict that now, at another critical stage, the regime will certainly collapse.
Let me say outright that I am not a proponent of this point of view. Over the past twenty-five years I spent a lot of time and effort in discussions with South Korean, U.S. and Japanese politicians and experts, trying to explain to them how unfounded their expectations really are that the North Korean regime “is about to collapse.” So far, reality has confirmed my predictions. However, I would like to make myself clear. It would be wrong to utterly rule out the possibility of a crisis in North Korea (some powerful external forces have been working hard to trigger such a crisis), which could be the result of an external conflict or internal factors. However, let us stop and consider how this might happen and what it will result in.
The probability of a full-scale war that no one wants is still slim, but one cannot rule out an unplanned local conflict and its escalation. Unfortunately, history provides many examples of wars that no one wanted to fight. There still remains the risk that in this case the North Korean leadership will finally decide to “slam the door with all its nukes.” From that moment, Korean studies would be the exclusive job of historians.
Even if developments follow a peaceful scenario, the logic of strangling North Korea could exacerbate the economic crisis (especially if North Korea is denied support from China), lead to chaos and ultimately to the regime’s downfall. In addition to the nuclear nightmare scenario, only two are somewhat realistic: a takeover by South Korea or a drift towards a more or less soft control by China. In contrast to what happened to all other former socialist countries, the fall of North Korea would not mean a change of elites, but the disappearance of North Korea’s statehood.
Around 2009 it dawned on some hot heads in Seoul that the “time is ripe for unification” and that the North Koreans are just dreaming of “liberation from the yoke of dictatorship” and “will welcome the South Koreans with flowers.” The reality, however, may not be so bright.
Unification achieved through a takeover of the North by the South could result in dire consequences – not only for the Korean nation, but for the entire region. Some of the “old-timers” – supporters of Juche nationalism – could launch an armed struggle against “invaders and compradors.” According to our estimates, the “servants of the regime” in North Korea number several hundred thousand (including family members), and even if active fighters constitute five percent, it would still be a dangerous force. They will have nothing left to lose: the South Korean public, as we know from experience, will not likely agree to pardon “functionaries of the bloody regime” and even their descendants from responsibility for past crimes. I have no doubt that plans for guerrilla warfare in North Korea have been developed and the required bases in the mountains and below ground are in place and equipped, including with weapons of mass destruction (not necessarily nuclear warheads, but chemical and biological agents with a high degree of probability). The new government would face not just subversive activities similar to what is taking place in Afghanistan, but a civil war with the possible use of WMD – and not only on the Korean Peninsula.
Even if such a dramatic development of events can be avoided and the North Korean ruling class and the military accept their fate, the North Korean population, who are not ready to plunge into the capitalist economy and would be angry with the inevitable role of “second-rate citizen” in a united Korea, would be in constant opposition to the central authorities. A mixed middle class of nomenklatura-based private businesses (see below) has already emerged in North Korea. There are intellectuals too. These people – and there are a lot of them – will not like the idea of being thrown overboard or living a squalid second-class life under the heels of the South Koreans. Indeed, a majority of defectors from the North have been unable to adapt to life in South Korea. It will take workers accustomed to hard labor a long time to cope with the modern industrial world (I do not rule out that South Korean businesses would initially have to bring in guest workers to work in the north of a united Korea). The South would not agree to let the northerners in, so there would be widespread unemployment. This would create prolonged instability in Korea.
Chinese intervention is an alternative to the South’s takeover of the North in the case of an emergency, which also cannot be ruled out altogether. For China, the Korean Peninsula is a “dagger aimed at the heart of China.” Beijing is keenly interested in maintaining stability in its “soft underbelly” and in preventing the disruption of the military-political balance, which would be inevitable should U.S. allied forces approach its borders. In a crisis situation Beijing may try to plant a pro-Chinese regime in North Korea or transform the existing one. In doing so it may resort to diplomatic support in the UN Security Council and veto foreign intervention. The North Korean ruling class would prefer to surrender to China, rather than the South. A cynic would say that rational behavior for the North Korean elite in a “last ditch situation” would be to sell itself to Beijing for the sake of preserving North Korean borders, statehood and their own government posts. However, this sort of regime would be ostracized and subject to Western pressure. This would result in an extended headache for China and hurt its position in the region, where fears of Chinese hegemony would return.
Whatever the case, even if the situation in North Korea develops according to the scenario that South Korea and the West hope to see (a smooth fall of the regime), it would take a very long time to restore calm on the Korean Peninsula.
THE ROLE OF THE U.S. AND SOUTH KOREA
Are Seoul, Washington and Tokyo, their supporter, aware of the risk of counting on regime change? It looks like there are still some naïve people who expect a “peaceful takeover” of the North and its “soft landing,” while others are eager to “make hay” during the crisis in a variety of ways, including the geostrategic containment of China. Speculations about the “imminent collapse of the regime” have been especially popular in South Korea in the last two or three years (these sentiments have gained a new popularity among U.S. conservatives). The reason for the upsurge in debates about the imminent fall of the regime is not some signal from North Korea, but a profound misunderstanding of the nature of its state system and the peculiarities of North Korean mentality. Fortunately, these expectations are not grounded in reality.
Ever since South Korean President Lee Myung-bak took office in 2008, the tone in matters relating to North Korea has been set by a team that Andrei Lankov, an expert on Korean affairs, aptly described as “paleoconservative;” i.e., people from the former regimes who were on the sidelines during the liberal decade when President Kim Dae-jung and his successor Roh Moo-hyun pursued the conciliatory Sunshine Policy towards the North.
Just one glance back is enough to acknowledge that, in spite of the aggravation of the North Korean nuclear issue and the confrontation with the U.S. which began in 2002, the situation on the Korean Peninsula was much more peaceful and predictable than it is today. The two nations started to cooperate and thousands of South Koreans visited the North for the first time. Certain evolutionary changes took place inside North Korea, although the content and tone of the propaganda support for military and one-party rule did not change. This, together with the country’s seclusion, did not always allow outside observers to see the depth and scale of these changes.
However, the policies of South Korea’s liberal government towards North Korea was the focus of criticism by South Korea’s conservative opposition, for which slogans against the “appeasement of the North” proved to be a great help in winning the electorate’s votes. South Korean society is tired of North Korea’s parasitic attitudes and the lack of visible returns from assistance (impatient South Koreans had thought that just several years of the Sunshine Policy could bring about a radical transformation of the northern regime). Therefore, Seoul’s renewed hard line against the North (starting in 2008) and cancellation of almost all inter-Korean accords and “liberal period” projects (except, perhaps, for the Kaesong Industrial Region, beneficial for a number of small and medium-sized companies) caused only minor opposition in South Korean society. As new generations of people born after the war emerge on the historical scene, South Korean society is becoming more concerned that the problems of the North and the North-South relations do not affect their daily lives.
A “game of aggravation” in relations with Pyongyang is no good, for the North Koreans can easily be provoked into an inappropriate response. Seoul’s decision to terminate cooperation and its obviously unrealistic demands for “preliminary denuclearization” in fact played into the hands of Pyongyang’s “hawks.” It is very easy to kickstart military hysteria and quite often innocent people fall victim to it. A South Korean female tourist, who got lost in North Korea’s Diamond Mountain Resort in July 2008 and wandered into a forbidden zone, was shot and killed by a North Korean female border guard. The incident drew an extremely negative response from South Korea and led to a further exacerbation of the situation.
Seoul’s tougher policy coincided with administrative change in Washington. Pyongyang, without agreeing on anything concrete with the outgoing Republican administration, despite its own concessions (including the beginning of the dismantling of nuclear facilities in 2007), has lost interest in compromise. After Kim Jong-il’s illness (presumably a stroke or a diabetic crisis) in August 2008, which scared the ruling elite, the conservatives in Pyongyang persuaded him that a dialogue with the West could not achieve the goal of regime security and survival, whatever the concessions, and that the country’s enemies should be talked to “from a position of strength.”
The North’s new power politics now rested on a refusal to compromise with the U.S. and a course towards confrontation with Washington and, especially, with Seoul. The goal of this policy was to gain a firmer foothold vis-à-vis opponents and achieve internal consolidation, restore Kim Il Sung-style order and do away with “deviations from socialism.” A contributing factor for such a “conservative counterrevolution” was undisguised malicious joy from the regime’s opponents, who after the illness of the “Supreme Commander” in fact began open preparations for the regime’s downfall. This had a psychological impact on North Korean leaders and their readiness to display goodwill and make concessions. Later, the Libyan lesson played a certain role as well. In North Korea it was interpreted as an example of Western perfidy and proof of the absurdity of voluntary disarmament.
In early 2009, Pyongyang made a threatening statement, which was followed in April by a test missile launch. North Korea used its condemnation by the UN as an excuse to withdraw from six-party talks on its nuclear program. North Korea carried out a second nuclear explosion in May 2009 (after the first one in October 2006), conceived as a strong message to its opponents. UN sanctions followed, supported even by China, and attempts at an external blockade.
However, the worst was yet to come. In 2010, the Cold War nearly became “hot” after the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan in the disputed waters of the Yellow Sea. South Korea (relying on an investigation by its allies) blamed North Korea for the incident. A group of Russian experts, sent to South Korea by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the request of Lee Myung-bak, did not support this conclusion, while China ignored the arguments of the international commission altogether.
This was a tragedy of course, but, unfortunately, not a unique one in the long-standing territorial dispute in the Yellow Sea (the dividing line was drawn unilaterally by the U.S. and South Korea after the war; it was not agreed on with North Korea and is not recognized by that country). Skirmishes and conflicts occur from time to time. Just six months before the loss of the Cheonan, the South Korean military opened fire on a North Korean ship, which, according to their official report, “retreated, enveloped in flames” (that incident was probably not without casualties either).
However, it was the incident with the Cheonan that was used to exert unprecedented pressure on the Pyongyang regime. It seems that the U.S. and South Korea sincerely believed that this regime was about to fall, and that it would take only one little push from the outside, plus denying North Korea support from China, to get things going. For the refusal to condemn Pyongyang in this particular case, the United States addressed China with direct threats of “consequences,” including a build-up of military presence near the Chinese border. This produced the reverse effect: China explicitly strengthened its support for North Korea, as seen by the North Korean leader’s three visits to China over the past two years.
The Pyongyang regime used the confrontation for an internal crackdown and for mobilizing the nation because of the threat of war, which suddenly became real. The “raving of the puppets” proved that the Songun (“Military First”) policy was correct and gave the authorities additional legitimacy. The North Koreans not only refused to keep a lower profile, but, on the contrary, they stepped up pressure on their opponents without worrying about the methods.
Tensions culminated in the shelling of the border island of Yeonpyeong in November 2010, the first such incident after the Korean War that resulted in casualties. The behavior of the North Koreans in this incident is inexcusable, even though they claim they were provoked by the South Koreans, who, despite warnings, could find no better place for artillery firing practice. This time the South Koreans decided to show their military muscle. They said they were ready to respond with “merciless retaliation” and began almost daily joint exercises with the U.S. In December, the scale of exercises south of the demilitarized zone possibly made Pyongyang strategists suspect that real preparations for an invasion were underway. The North Koreans refrained from an escalation in response to yet another clearly provocative exercise, thereby causing Seoul strategists to jump to the utterly false conclusion that they were really scared, and that Seoul had finally found a lever to pressure the unruly North. This misconception is very dangerous and could still lead to more unpredictable consequences.
Nevertheless, the situation calmed down somewhat in early 2011. Having realized that North Korea’s “doomsday” had been postponed once again, the U.S. and South Koreans (the latter, to a certain extent, under pressure from the former) began looking for an opportunity to meet Pyongyang halfway without losing face in its desire to negotiate a mode of further existence. The U.S. started to think about whether it should revise its policy of “strategic patience” (its refusal to conduct a dialogue and the launch of sanctions) and raised the subject of the need for a return to a direct discussion of the nuclear issue. The resumption of food aid was a symbolic gesture of goodwill. South Korea was forced to seek an opportunity, without abandoning the basic demands addressed to the North (apologies for military actions in 2010 and unconditional denuclearization, which looks absolutely unreal), to change its position of utter rejection of the North’s initiatives.
However, the main question that has not been resolved either in Washington or in Seoul is whether the two countries should continue pinning their hopes on regime change in Pyongyang or whether they should agree to co-exist with it, at least temporarily. Therefore, there is simply no unequivocal answer yet to the question about the future of the Korean Peninsula.
A WIND OF CHANGE OR A SLOW TIDE?
So how do the chances for changing the status quo look today? Are there any prerequisites for change inside North Korea and what are their possible scenarios?
Before we analyze the prospects for change in North Korea and changes on the peninsula as a whole that greatly depend on the former, it is necessary to understand that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPPK) is a unique state entity, perhaps unparalleled in the modern world. It is a kind of feudal-theocratic, oriental despotism, based on an ideology of national exclusiveness, a country organized as a paramilitary Order of the Sword, with an administrative command economy. In the latest edition of the North Korean Constitution, adopted in April 2009, there is no concept of Communism, and Juche Songun is the fundamental state ideology.
This is not just propaganda: Songun, or the militarization of the country, reflects the views of the Pyongyang leadership regarding the future of the state. It takes strength to overpower someone else’s strength, North Korea believes, and so it keeps building up its military muscle. After Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and the recent U.S. raid into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden, such views no longer seem disastrously wrong or extremist.
Therefore, possible change in North Korea is unlikely to resemble the traditional glasnost and perestroika in East European socialist countries, or Deng Xiaoping’s reform in China. In recent years the leadership has had to pay more and more attention to building a “prosperous nation” and raising living standards, although the most important thing for the government is to prevent its authority from weakening and protect the regime from external forces. This goal may even entail forced liberalization in the economy, which is very important for the majority of the people. The general public may be skeptical about it, but the search for a North Korean path has begun, albeit inconspicuously. For the time being it has been two steps forward, then one step back.
Surveillance has shown that modern North Korean ideology is becoming more and more detached from real life. Bombastic propaganda has not changed since the 1960s, but is increasingly being seen by the man in the street as “white noise,” soothing evidence that life in the country is following the usual routine. Most people, with little knowledge of the outside world, do not think of challenging the dictatorship, and the few dissenters are quickly tracked down and neutralized, sometimes physically.
One should remember that North Korea was founded on the basis of a traditionalist society, on the ruins of Korea’s feudal political system, which had long suffered under the brutal Japanese colonial regime, and in strict compliance with Stalinist templates. People are not perceptive to liberal values in a closed society. Furthermore, life is actually changing at the grassroots level, at the microeconomic and individual household level, but modernization of the political system is not an imperative yet.
However, the process is not evolving in a straight line. The history of the post-Soviet era shows that after the country’s breakup and the cessation of aid, and in the wake of several natural disasters, the distribution-based, planned economy collapsed. In North Korea, a spontaneous market economy began to emerge as a way out of the famine of the 1990s. The repressive and controlling regime started to falter too. Not only imported goods started flowing into the country (showing the North Koreans the degree of their economic backwardness), but also Western ideas and mass culture (including South Korean culture). The Chinese lessons, too, are dangerous to the regime – they show the detrimental effect of lifting tight controls from society and of abolishing the leadership’s monopoly on political truth.
In the 1990s, amid an unprecedented crisis, the North Koreans struggled for survival on their own and in their own ways (unfortunately, not everyone succeeded). The authorities simply turned a blind eye to “violations of socialist principles” by virtue of unprecedented corruption at the lower and middle levels of the state machinery. However, at a certain point the aging leadership felt a growing threat to its authority. When the crisis of external security, due to the loss of the Soviet nuclear umbrella, was overcome with the creation of a nuclear deterrent, Pyongyang focused on domestic stability. The elite, above all the military who had gained unprecedented strength, was unprepared to share power with the emerging, non-public, “grey” sector of the economy and wanted only tight control and “monolithic unity” over the country.
The policy of backtracking from reform (weak attempts at legitimizing market realities were made in 2002) gained momentum around 2005. Kim Jong-il’s failing health and the growing hostility of South Korea in 2008 fomented hawkish moods in North Korean politics and enabled its supporters to have a say in decisions. The spearhead of the attack was directed against “bourgeois tendencies.” The “decisive attack” was mounted with a currency reform launched in November 2009, when old banknotes were replaced with new ones and restrictions were placed on how much one person could exchange. Foreign analysts unanimously slammed these measures as “predatory” and said they were aimed at eliminating the “middle class;” that is, people who in the hungry 1990s and later learned how to make money outside of the paralyzed public sector. The reform stripped the more or less wealthy individuals of their savings and cut the ground from under the private sector of the economy.
The results were disastrous: faced with an economic shut down and mass protests, the authorities were forced to backtrack. The attempt to “set the clock back” has failed miserably. However, liberalization is still taking place behind the scenes as no one dares say a word about reforms. Senior ideologists are unable to produce a sensible strategy, even if they really wanted to. There is no desire to do anything – the fear of throwing the political system off balance freezes initiative.
Nevertheless, the clock will not run backwards. The market sector and free-market relations not only have regained their positions, which the conservatives encroached upon last year, but also have made significant new gains. The economic reality in North Korea today is quite different from the distribution and leveling system of the last century. It seems that the country has passed the “point of no return.” Public industries (except perhaps the defense sector) are almost idle. Factory workers are doing anything to make a living: some people trade at bazaars; others have become shuttle traders or make and sell handicrafts. Some people have even started serious businesses. A sufficiently large class of merchants and logistics infrastructures has emerged made up of systems of wholesale purchases abroad, semi-smuggling exports, delivery services, retail trade at bazaars and private services.
Evidence from inside the country shows a merging of the “New Koreans” with mid-level functionaries and law enforcement officers. A system of bribery allows movement around the country, creating and running businesses, leasing facilities and buying motor vehicles, equipment and even real estate. The main difference from the post-Soviet period in Russia, for which North Korean businessmen should be grateful to totalitarianism, is the government’s all-out war against organized crime. North Korean officials do not want to share their racketeering opportunities with anyone else.
Simultaneously, state property is undergoing a slow privatization. Right now this is happening on behalf of organizations associated with the party authorities, central and local authorities, military agencies and special services. In North Korea, where entire units of the Central Committee, the armed forces and the intelligence service have for decades been engaged in all sorts of dubious transactions on an international scale – from the arms trade to drugs and financial fraud all over the world – this is not a great heresy at all. All sorts of businesses and offices are being created under all kinds of agencies and organizations, which do a very real market-type business – from foreign trade to consumer services (the number of very good restaurants, shops and boutiques, hair salons and saunas in North Korea has been growing rapidly, especially after the failure of the monetary reform). Both U.S. dollars and euros are in circulation, and the national currency, the won, has somewhat stabilized and is also used as a means of payment.
It is clear that people in North Korea live better today than in the 1980s and, especially, in the 1990s. However, stratification has increased dramatically. Along with very wealthy citizens, large groups of outcasts have appeared and there are entire regions where people are literally starving to death (especially in the north, where agricultural conditions are not very favorable, and in depressed industrial centers). The problem is not a lack of food, but a lack of money to buy food. In this respect North Korea has begun to resemble the poorest African countries.
Stories told by desperate people fleeing hunger often become the main source of information about North Korea in the outside world, thus becoming the basis for apocalyptic expectations. Of course, almost no one would want to change places with the North Koreans because the country lives in fear and poverty. Nonetheless, there are no more reasons now than before to believe that the regime in North Korea will soon collapse, especially because China will simply not let this happen.
What is to be expected? If the above-mentioned catastrophic scenarios are ruled out, power will remain in the hands of the vast Kim clan and its entourage, even if the mechanism of direct succession fails. All those who aspire to power will have to reckon with the multilayered hierarchy of the ruling class, kept together by thousands of kindred and friendly bonds, even if the possibility of replacing the top of the regime is on the agenda. Any new government will be forced to rely on the nomenklatura, which numbers in the thousands and has been cultivated for decades on “blood lineage.” The nomenklatura is not accepting newcomers. Due to its very specific access to information and the system of education, it has no alternative.
A variety of options are possible for the future, all of which will depend not on the emergence of a Korean Gorbachev, but on external circumstances, such as whether the reformatted regime is recognized internationally, or whether the confrontation will continue.
In the case of a deepening nuclear crisis, tougher international sanctions and a harsher isolation policy, North Korea will remain closed and continue its policy of confrontation with the outside world. It has a unique experience of prolonged existence in isolation of varying degrees of severity. Its creed is not to change anything. Market relations will not disappear, but there will be no progress. There is no reason to count on an internal opposition movement in North Korea, as all dissent is brutally suppressed and there are no conditions for such a movement to develop. This stagnant situation is the safest for the elite.
The hope still remains, albeit very slim, that realism will prevail in the capitals of North Korea’s adversaries and that the next generation of North Korean leaders will be able to compromise with the world community. After all, unlike the Islamists, with whom the West is at war and is getting ever more involved in it, the Pyongyang regime is no longer a real threat to anyone except to its own people. If there is reconciliation with the U.S. and South Korea, the lives of North Koreans will get easier.
The theoretical possibility exists of phased economic reforms towards an evolutionary transformation model and state capitalism, provided that foreign policy is stable. This is the Chinese way, with allowances made for the importance of keeping the system closed (to avoid unrest) even if market economy mechanisms are allowed (tacitly at first). A market economy, although defective in a sense, can work even without external liberalization. As a result, the country may build a relatively competitive mixed economy, based on the international division of labor (with reliance on natural and human resources), and with minimal encroachments upon “sovereign autocracy.”
But what about ideology? Juche (incidentally, this term was coined not by the Communists, but by Korean nationalists) is a fairly flexible doctrine; it maintains that everything should be done on one’s own, without relying on others. The ideas of Communist egalitarianism were introduced later; however, the people know that such ideas have always remained on paper. So, the way I see it, a remodeled regime is capable, in principle, of self-modernization on the basis of Korean nationalism and restoration of contacts with South Korea. The business class that is emerging from career functionaries (through the transformation of the nomenklatura into an oligarchy) could become an engine of economic change if it is loyal to the political leadership. In ten to fifteen years North Korea will be capable of moving along the path of reform, probably as far as Cambodia or Vietnam.
Furthermore, one might imagine a day when the world community will agree (despite the discontent of South Korea and the United States) to extend security guarantees to Pyongyang, which would make its nuclear weapons and other WMDs redundant. A future North Korean leadership might follow in the footsteps of South Africa and give up WMDs altogether. But for that to happen, the international community must make the first move – it must give the current regime a chance by providing it with guarantees of security and non-intervention, and encouraging reforms in the country.
Even without looking that far ahead, it is quite clear that it would be counter-productive for Russia to quarrel with its neighbor, let alone to press for its downfall, no matter how much the public might not agree. The bloodshed and misery that the unification of Korea in this way would entail will hardly be excused by North Korea’s far-off future prosperity, or even by Russia’s cooperation with a friendly, neutral and influential country (which, incidentally, could counterbalance China and Japan). Not to mention the possibility of a unified Korea entering into an alliance with the U.S. and the deployment of U.S. troops near the Korean border with Russia (and China, which is concerned about this threat to a far greater extent).
I believe that Russia should continue a policy of maintaining stability and promoting North Korea’s reconciliation with South Korea, the U.S. and Japan for the sake of normalizing the situation in the region and creating opportunities for bilateral and multilateral economic projects. Recently, the North Koreans (in contrast to two years ago, when they demonstrated how “very insulting” they found Russia’s participation in the sanctions) have been willing to improve relations with Moscow, because they view Russia as an influential player and a counter-balance in relations with the U.S. and China. Quite revealing in this respect was Kim Jong-il’s meeting with the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, Mikhail Fradkov, in May 2011, after he refused to receive Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Russia should be more persistent in communicating this understanding to the South Koreans. After all, the South Koreans are not going to risk their hard-won prosperity for the sake of ephemeral ideas.