Academic journal article Harvard International Review

Downfall Delayed: Endgames for the North Korean Regime

Academic journal article Harvard International Review

Downfall Delayed: Endgames for the North Korean Regime

Article excerpt

"Predicting the future is risky business. But fundamentals are not too
difficult to recognize. The most fundamental fact concerning the Korean
peninsula is that North Korea cannot remain as it is. The only question
is whether it will change suddenly and abruptly or gradually and
incrementally. In either case, Korea will be unified. To maintain peace
and security in the region, it is essential that the process of Korean
unification remain a peaceful one. With luck, a unified and robust Korea
will contribute to the creation of a stable multipolar equilibrium in
the Northeast Asian region."
"No Way Out: North Korea's Impending Collapse"
Spring 1996

Nine years ago, I wrote "that there is a real possibility that Kim Jong Il may find himself on the way out in the next few years." Yet Kim Jong Il still rules in Pyongyang, and no sign of "impending collapse" is visible.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

What happened? Why did my "prediction" go wrong?

First of all, mine was not exactly a prediction. In the 1996 article, I stated that the collapse of the Kim regime was a real possibility, implying there was also a real possibility that the collapse would not come to pass. The title "No Way Out: North Korea's Impending Collapse" is strongly predictive. But the title is a product of the editing process, not my own creation.

It is, however, true that the flow of my argument strongly suggested the possibility that Kim Jong Il may lose power. After protecting myself with cautious disclaimers, such as "predicting the future is a risky business," I nevertheless went on to say that "fundamentals are not too difficult to recognize. The most fundamental fact concerning the Korean peninsula is that North Korea cannot remain as it is. The only question is whether it will change suddenly and abruptly or gradually and incrementally." This is clearly a predictive statement, but one qualified by the suggestion that it is impossible to predict whether the future will be one of sudden or gradual change. Clearly, profound skepticism about man's ability to predict the future runs throughout the entire article.

Should we, then, give up entirely the ambition to decipher the future? Perhaps the more appropriate question is whether it is possible to do without assumptions about the future. A man crosses a road, and we know he is able to do so because he assumes no moving vehicle will enter the space he will occupy at that time. In fact, every move we make is based on an assumption about the future. Prediction, in other words, is not a matter of choice. It is a necessity.

But how do we predict the future? What is the premise on which one's conclusions are based concerning relative likelihood of alternative scenarios? In my 1996 article, I assumed that Kim Jong Il's political fate would depend on his economic performance, which was a disaster. North Korea was clearly a failed state, unable to feed its own people. Since 1987, North Korean gross national product has been steadily declining, with grain production falling even faster. The collapse of communist regimes meant the loss of trading partners for North Korea and the disappearance of foreign friends who used to provide North Korea with its needs at what used to be called "friendship prices," meaning subsidies. The choice facing Kim Jong Il today is this: should he go for "reform and opening" or stick to the status quo? If economy has higher priority than politics, the reform option is the obvious one to choose. What North Korea can expect from reformist policy in economic terms has been dramatically demonstrated by the Chinese example. But on the other hand, economic reform can be politically destabilizing. From the viewpoint of Kim Jong Il's interests, the survival of the regime comes before economic improvement. That is why we should not expect North Korea to adopt serious structural market-oriented reforms anytime soon, which means that the North Korean economy is highly unlikely to improve anytime soon. …

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