Academic journal article Policy Review

The Persistence of North Korea

Academic journal article Policy Review

The Persistence of North Korea

Article excerpt

CAN THE Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, aka North Korea) survive--as a distinct regime, an autonomous state, a specific political-economic system, and a sovereign country?

Can it continue to function in the manner in which it has been performing since the end of 1991--that is to say, since the final collapse of the Soviet empire? Or is it doomed to join the Warsaw Pact's failed communist experiments in the dustbin of history? Or might it, instead, adapt and evolve--"surviving" in the sense of maintaining its political authority and power to rule but transforming its defining functional characteristics and systemic identity?

Back in 1994, I would not have expected to be writing an article on this particular theme a decade hence. My own work on the North Korean economy has generally been associated with what others have termed the "collapsist" school of thought, and not unfairly. As far back as June 1990, I published an op-ed essay titled "The Coming Collapse Of North Korea"; since then, my analyses have recurrently questioned the viability of the DPRK economy and system. (1)

It is perhaps especially fitting, then, that having imagined the odds of the DPRK's post-Soviet survival to be very low, I should be charged with explaining just how the North Korean system has managed to survive these past 13 or 14 years--and to speculate about the possibility of sustainable pathways that might permit regime, state, and system to endure that far, or further, into the future.

The epistemology of state collapse

ALTHOUGH MAJOR EFFORTS have been undertaken to systematize the study of state failure, the simple fact is that the modern world lacks anything like a corpus of science by which to offer robust predictions about impending episodes of social revolution, systemic breakdown, or state collapse. At the very best, the anticipation of such dramatic political events might aspire to art rather than science--just as the technique of successful stock-picking (or short-selling) has always been, and still remains, an art and not a science. A common set of factors almost necessarily consigns both of these endeavors to the realm of art: the extraordinary complexity of the phenomena under consideration, the independent and unpredictable nature of the human agency at their center, and the ultimately irresolvable problem of asymmetries of information.

All of this is to say there is no reason to expect that students and analysts should be able to predict in advance the breakdown for political systems with any degree of accuracy on the basis of any regular and methodical model. Indeed, predicting breakdown for communist systems is arguably even more difficult than for open societies, insofar as the problem of asymmetries of information is--by systemic regime design--that much more extreme.

If anticipating state collapse is--at best--a matter of art, it is an art whose most obvious failures might be classified into two categories of error. First, there are the failures to predict events that did actually take place: The 1989-91 collapse of all the Warsaw Pact states--an upheaval that caught almost all informed Western observers unawares--is certainly the most memorable recent example of this type of error. Second, there is the error of predicting upheaval and abrupt demise for states or systems that do not end up suffering from such paroxysms: This category of error would encompass, inter alia, the past century of Marxist-Leninist prognoses for Western Europe; the apocalyptic assessments from the 1970s and 1980s on the future of South Africa, the premature predictions of the fall of Soviet communism--and, of course, at least to date, the presentiments of the collapse of the DPRK.

These particular types of mistakes can be likened to "Type I" and "Type II" errors in statistical inference--but for our purposes here, we should emphasize that the family of analytical errors that can attend assessments of state failure or collapse is not dichotomous. …

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