The End of North Korea

By Davis, Carmel | Naval War College Review, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

The End of North Korea


Davis, Carmel, Naval War College Review


Eberstadt, Nicholas. The End of North Korea. Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute Press, 1999. 191pp. $14.95

The End of North Korea provides a nuanced and accessible, if wordy, analysis of North Korea's economic situation and political behavior. Nicholas Eberstadt, a visiting scholar at the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and a visiting fellow at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, has been watching North Korea for many years. He has written a timely book that will be of particular interest to the policy community.

One of his major themes is that politics decisively dominated economics in North Korea in the past and continues to do so today. Historically, this is visible in North Korea's ambition to unify the Korean Peninsula under its domination, and in the development of a unique form of socialism and a self-reliant economy (juche). Eberstadt argues that until the late 1970s North Korea could reasonably think that an opportunity to unify the peninsula would come its way. South Korean economic growth did not take off until the mid-1960s, its politics were not stable until after 1979, and the U.S. commitment to its defense varied significantly. By the 1970s Kim Il Sung believed that after the unexpected failure of 1950, he had missed a chance to unify the peninsula in 1960; vowing to be ready next time, he tripled the size of the army and devoted much of the nation's resources to the military. The North Korean economy could not sustain this program of war mobilization without external support; the withdrawal of Soviet and Chinese aid in the early 1990s created a trade shock to which North Korea has not adjusted.

The economic collapse has precedents. Eberstadt examines North Korea's current economic situation by comparing it with the shorter but more intense mobilizations of the combatants in World War II; the trade shocks experienced by the American Confederacy, South Africa, Vietnam, Cuba, and Iraq; and the famines early in the communist regimes of the Soviet Union, China, North Vietnam, and Cambodia. In most cases, economic problems either were shorter in duration (war mobilization) or could be addressed by policy changes (trade shocks and famine).

What is different about North Korea is that its leadership has chosen not to make the policy adjustments that would generate economic growth and feed its people, for fear that economic changes would be politically fatal. …

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