Kim Jong-il died a year ago today, but the breathless rush of anticipated changes, instability, and chaos that many expected have not materialized. That the North Korean state has survived two decades of predictions that it would collapse illustrates just how poorly external observers understand what makes North Korea tick. There is a wide variation among the views of the most experienced of American North Korea specialists, from those who see the system as durable, even if embattled, to those who see the system as bankrupt and ripe for instability and collapse. The full range of views is represented in a new volume I edited with Park Kyung-Ae, entitled North Korea in Transition: Politics, Economy, and Society. These assessments were completed last spring as the transition to the rule of Kim Jong-un began to unfold along lines that had already been put into place by Kim Jong-il prior to his death.
One factor that accounts for the divergence of views regarding the regime’s durability revolves around whether North Korea’s political system is rigid, and therefore likely to break because it cannot bend, or whether it is flexible, with the capacity to adapt and muddle through despite facing unprecedented challenges. The level of political control, reinforced by party and military institutions, remains extensive, but it is an open question whether those institutions are able to adapt to changes going on within North Korean society. Military leaders may be replaced inexplicably, but thus far these changes appear on the surface to be evidence of leadership consolidation rather than a sign of leadership fraying.
The book also illustrates the difference in perspective over North Korea’s prospects depending on the focus of analysis. An examination of the party and military’s institutional roles and top-down political control argues the state’s durability. However, a study of the economic and social changes that are bubbling up from the bottom of the North Korean system suggests a different fate for the North Korean government. The penetration of South Korean culture and its effects on North Korea and the pervasive spread of the market economy at the grassroots level inside North Korea suggest that irreversible changes are underway that ultimately will lead to North Korea’s demise. But the absence of a viable opposition in North Korea means that grassroots-level changes do not pose an immediate political threat to the leadership.
North Korea’s satellite launch provides the latest test of North Korea’s long-standing capacity to exploit differences among its neighbors, context for which is provided in chapters on North Korea’s relations with China, South Korea, and the United States. Authors of each of the respective chapters attempt to place themselves into North Korea’s shoes by analyzing North Korea’s past objectives in managing each of these relationships. No doubt, a primary objective of Kim Jong-un in managing the aftermath of his satellite launch should be to expand North Korea’s maneuvering space by preventing alignment in the respective approaches of Presidents Obama, Xi Jinping, and South Korea’s president-elect.
One thing that is clear is that North Korea is in transition, but it is remarkable that two decades after the end of the Soviet Union and German unification, sixteen years after a devastating famine in North Korea, and twelve years after an inter-Korean summit that was expected at the time to herald great change in inter-Korean relations, there remains such a wide divergence of views regarding the future of the North Korean system and the direction of its transition. Only time will tell how these debates are finally settled.