No Way Out: North Korea's Impending Collapse

By Kim, Kyung-Won | Harvard International Review, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

No Way Out: North Korea's Impending Collapse


Kim, Kyung-Won, Harvard International Review


FOR THE FIRST TIME IN A HUNDRED YEARS, all the major powers in Northeast Asia, including the United States, are at peace with one another. With the end of the Cold War, the century of turmoil that began with a war between China and Japan in 1895 seems to have come to an end. But the peace in Northeast Asia today is not necessarily secure, nor is it clear that the region is free from the dynamics of power struggle which led to the conflicts and confrontations of the past hundred years.

Geography may not drive events in international relations, but it certainly affects calculations in the relations among states. The Korean peninsula, interposed between the Chinese continent and the Japanese islands, cannot but affect the strategic calculations of China and Japan and, less directly, of Russia and the United States. Historically, the Chinese saw Korea as the corridor to Japan, while the Japanese saw the Korean peninsula as a dagger pointed at their nation's heart. Given Korea's geography, it is hardly surprising that most of the conflicts and confrontations in Northeast Asia for the last hundred years involved Korea. For the same reason, the future of security in East Asia is closely linked to the fate of Korea.

Tensions remain high on the peninsula, as heavily armed forces face each other across the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. But the international environment surrounding Korea has undergone a profound change. The Soviet threat has completely disappeared as a factor in the region's security equation, and China is no longer considered a "card" to be played against its neighbor to the north. Both Moscow and Beijing have established full diplomatic relations with Seoul. However, for a complex set of reasons, neither the United States nor Japan has yet extended diplomatic recognition to Pyongyang.

The North Korean regime, the last unreconstructed Stalinist regime in the world, is under severe strain. The sudden and dramatic collapse of communism around the world raises the question of whether North Korea can remain an exception to this worldwide trend. The problem of North Korea's uncertain future gains urgency because stability on the peninsula depends on what happens in North Korea, and stability in Northeast Asia depends on what happens on the Korean peninsula.

Winston Churchill once confessed: "I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." Compared to North Korea, however, Russia under Stalin was a model of transparency. Isolated and paranoiac, North Korea turns even ordinary facts about itself into classified state secrets. The enigma surrounding North Korea has become deeper following the sudden death of "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung in July 1994. Circumstances of the death itself remain a mystery. Even more mysterious is the fate of "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung's son who was groomed for succession for more than 20 years, the only known case in which a Communist state tried to establish a hereditary dynasty. But so far Kim Jong Il has not taken over his father's titles of President of State and Secretary General of the Party. Understandably, questions are being asked about Kim Jong Il's grip on power. Is he in control, or is he being controlled by other, more powerful figures?

Two opposite interpretations are offered by North Korea watchers. Some maintain that Kim Jong Il, who was already managing the daily business of the government before his father's death, is firmly in control. All potential sources of opposition to him had been eliminated long ago, and all the critical levers of power, both in the military and the party, are in the hands of those who are loyal to him. Furthermore, in the nuclear negotiations after Kim Il Sung's death, North Korea showed the government machinery was functioning without any indication of a breakdown. As for Kim Jong Il not assuming the titles of President or Secretary General, those who believe Kim Jong Il is in control argue that accession has not taken place because Kim does not need those formal titles to exercise power.

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