Regime Change in North Korea?: Economic Reform and Political Opportunity Structures

By Park, Kyung-Ae | North Korean Review, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Regime Change in North Korea?: Economic Reform and Political Opportunity Structures


Park, Kyung-Ae, North Korean Review


Introduction

The issue of regime change in North Korea began to draw international attention after the fall of the communist regimes in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Many analysts predicted that North Korea would have followed Poland and Czechoslovakia in their abandoning of communism. However, North Korea has successfully kept its political system intact. Throughout the 1990s, North Korea intensified its ideological campaign to prevent "unhealthy bourgeois culture and ideology" from infiltrating the society and "contaminating" the youth and intellectuals.

However, since the U.S. military action in Iraq in 2003, policy discussions on preemptive strikes and regime change in North Korea have been abounding in Washington. In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration in its 2002 National Security Strategy unveiled that one of its main security schemes would include a preemptive strike strategy. Washington's aim was to destroy any threats from terrorists and rogue states before they could ever reach U.S. borders, with or without the support from the international community.

Although the act of war can be clearly viewed as one of the pathways to regime change as witnessed in Iraq, in the case of North Korea, such an option seems to remain only a remote possibility. Rather than through war, many argue that North Korea's regime change could be brought about through an implosion. Recent North Korean efforts to liberalize its economy through experiments with bold economic reforms have led some analysts to assert that its civil society may eventually experience ascendance, or even exercise a similar kind of power against its state as witnessed in Eastern Europe.

The purpose of this article is to analyze the prospects for regime change through civil society mobilization in North Korea. It offers an analysis of North Korean exceptionalism in regard to its economic crisis and economic development theories of regime change. It argues that several components of political opportunity structures salient to North Korea work as constraints on regime change, which could be triggered by either economic crisis or economic development. The article first examines existing theoretical frameworks for regime change, probing the theses that both economic crisis and economic reform give rise to political pluralism, activate civil society, and thus lead to regime change. This section is followed by an analysis of the changes in North Korea's economic policies. The article then explores the relevance of political opportunity structures in accounting for regime change in North Korea. Finally, it offers an assessment of prospects for activation of North Korea's civil society and regime change.

Theoretical Frameworks for Regime Change

Regime denotes more permanent forms of political structures than government and refers to "a government or sequence of governments in which power remains essentially in the hands of the same social group."1 The governments formed within a particular regime embody a common set of norms and procedures, and, on this account, a change of government does not necessarily involve a change in regime.2 Regime change pursues fundamental alteration of the norms and principles, while change within a regime involves "alterations of rules and decision-making procedures, but not of norms or principles."3 North Korea experienced a change of government when Kim Jong Il came into power after the death of his father, Kim Il Sung. However, the regime remained in place, as the junior Kim adhered to the fundamental norms and values of his father's government. Therefore, any efforts to change the North Korean regime should involve attempts to destroy the fundamental values and structures of Kim's government, and alter the governing principles and norms, including the socialist values and the Juche (self-reliance) ideology.

The structuralist perspective of regime change views economic constraints as the principal explanatory variable of a regime collapse. …

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