It is a word which one can hardly go a day without hearing and/or using in North Korea related dialog. Whether the discussion is about Human Rights, economics, or security issues, one can scarcely go a day without hearing the word “collapse” in some way or another. This word, in all of its universal use and commonality, is, to me, perhaps the most prolific pseudo-realistic concept in the field of North Korea studies – and one that we should, if not avoid using, take to the time to consider what it could or should mean in reality.
This article is the start of a series of editorials about common phrases and assumptions about North Korea. I have found that these ideas, logical in their conception (face value), tend to be so widespread and consistent that we tend not to think about or question them anymore – even when there is clear reason to do so. I have chosen the word collapse as the first example because it is, from my experience, the most common example of these – rest assured, however, that there are many more which will be covered in later articles.
So why should we stray away from using the word collapse? Put simply, the word collapse has come to assume an ideal meaning rather than a realistic one. Realistically, the term collapse should refer to just one of a number of scenarios that may result in the end of the North Korean state as we currently know it – not very different from a “revolution” or an “invasion” or “democratization.” As of late, however, collapse has come to serve as a sort of placeholder for the end of the North Korean regime. It represents an ideal scenario in which the situation simply resolves itself with little, if any, outside initiative and little to no problems (losses of life or capital) to speak of or worthy of mention. While individual conceptions of collapse may vary, this is how it is generally used – particularly in public discourse or lecture.
But why should we avoid this? After all, it is just a placeholder – used in general speech for simplicity. Normally, I would not take issue for such a trivial matter – but, in my opinion, its use represents a greater logical contradiction which we all ought to understand.
Among those who discuss North Korea issues publicly, there seems to be (reasonably, so) a tendency to leave out undesirable details – such as loss of human life and/or the use of military force in any regard. The reasons for these omissions is not something that I will discuss here, but it is here that we find the contradiction.
If we sit down and seriously consider what a North Korean collapse might actually look like, we might find that the resulting situation is far less than ideal. We can only imagine the social, political, or armed unrest that could have caused the collapse as well as the further complications that could arise from it – to include rogue military units, floating weapons of mass destruction pre-aimed at Seoul, and unaccounted-for nuclear devices in a would-be lawless country. Of course, what I have described here is fairly unideal scenario – but worth noting is the fact that regardless of how ideal or unideal the collapse, someone, preferably the ROK, will have to take the initiative to step in and keep the peace. Saving the topic of Chinese intervention into North Korea for a different date, the point is that, in a collapse scenario, whether it be for peacekeeping, aid distribution, or the securing of sensitive weapons, documents, and/or people, military movements and all of the possibilities that arise with them will be very likely in a collapse scenario.
It is my sincerest wish that the contradiction has thus become very clear. The ideal collapse scenario is one in which there is no need to mention or confront loss of life or military conflict of some sort – yet, as I have explained, unless my reasoning is quite off, the collapse scenario, by its own nature, almost guarantees that these things will happen in some form. It is for this reason that we might observe the rather curious situation in which an expert decries the use of military force in Korea (reasonably, so) but, in the same sentence, defers to collapse as a more ideal situation.
I am not proposing that we cease to use the term collapse. After all, it is one of many scenarios in the North Korea endgame and it is valuable in that regard. What I suggest, however, is that we take time to explore its use and implied meanings more before using it. The next time someone mentions a North Korean “collapse,” we should ask ourselves: What does that actually mean? What do they actually mean? Does that actually make sense?
If we did, I have little doubt that we would have more stimulating and interesting discussions about “collapse.”
About the Author: Shaquille James is an undergraduate student at Georgetown University and Co-President of Georgetown Truth and Human Rights in North Korea (THiNK)