April, 2016: Once more, North Korea finds itself in the international news cycle with threats of thermonuclear obliteration. Once more, experts, scholars, and enthusiasts alike muse about the anomaly that is the North Korean state and the circumstances that surround it. Inevitably, the discussion turns to the question of the endgame: how the North Korea situation could – or should – end. This question has been the subject of much active debate and discussion and has, to its credit, a multitude of related theories.
These theories tend to find guidance in what I prefer to call fundamental understandings of North Korea. These understandings are essentially a set of basic facts and patterns that lay the foundation for later theories and conjectures about North Korea – a big picture concept, so to speak. In this vein, most empirically different views of North Korea tend to stem first and foremost from differing fundamental understandings.
In the vast array of North Korea-related theory and extrapolations, however, two general themes emerge. It is possible to categorize most, if not all rational hypotheses into one of two distinct fundamental understandings:
The first holds that the North Korean situation is salvageable; that the Kim regime, if given the correct incentive and economic, political, and military security (i.e., the regime stays in power), may make movements towards reform, democratization, and perhaps even eventual reunification. Proponents of engagement-oriented policies towards North Korea tend to have this fundamental understanding.
The second understanding believes the opposite: that the North Korean situation is not salvageable, that the regime cannot and should not be expected to voluntarily reform and liberalize, and that attempts to spur such actions – including negotiations, foreign aid, and other concessions – are doomed to fail. Those who favor sanctions and a more hardline stance toward North Korea tend to work through this fundamental understanding.
The question then remains: which of these two understandings is the more correct and accurate model? Though the two rely on different interpretations of the same evidence rather than contrary evidence (and are thus not necessarily mutually exclusive), the two are inherent opposites: for the regime cannot be both in favor of and opposed to reform. The root of this question then lies in whether the situation is truly salvageable, or not.
In frank, it is my opinion that the situation is, indeed, unsalvageable, though this belief does require further framing. For one, the term “unsalvageable” is somewhat misleading. It implies that the situation was salvageable at one time. On the contrary, the situation was likely unsalvageable from the very beginning – and this is due mostly in part to the consistent threat of regime change to the North Korean government.
The concept of the regime change, though most often associated with more hardline stances, may also be closely associated with engagement-oriented activities – and this is why the belief that such activities are likely to fail has rational merit. Take the following circumstances, for example:
The regime’s current hold on and claim to power relies in part on a number of “truths” fabricated by the regime. These truths include the belief that South Korea started the Korean War, that Kim Il-sung then went on to defeat the South Korean puppets and the US Imperialists, that North Korea is a socialist paradise on Earth thanks to the wisdom and guidance of the great leader Kim Il-sung and the Korean Worker’s Party (KWP), and that the country’s hardships and hard policies are necessary and due to US aggression towards the DPRK. The regime has been frighteningly efficient in fermenting this narrative over the past 60 years but, in the face of reforms and democratization, one must consider what might come of this narrative in a more open society.
In a more open society, particularly one in which information flows freely, the North Korean people will gain a better understanding of their current situation and history. They will learn that the Korean War, which resulted in the unnecessary deaths of millions of Koreans, was started by their own government. They will understand that the great leader and party, instead of bringing prosperity and strength, instead instituted oppression, torture, imprisonment, famine, economic gridlock, and a multitude of human rights abuses. The people will come to see the government narrative for what it truly is: a set of lies used suppress and abuse the populace for the political and economic betterment of the Kim regime, the KWP, and the regime elites.
It is not difficult, then, to construe what might likely happen to the current government in a more open and truly democratic system. The current regime simply cannot survive in such a system so long as the people have a free and fair say. The result? The people will not have a say, and the people will likely never have a say. For the preservation for the regime, there will be no democratization nor opening, significant reforms or free flow of ideas. As far as the Kim regime is concerned, this is just another form of regime change – a course which threatens the regime’s survival just as other, more hawkish scenarios do. In other words, the status quo, not reform or prosperity, is the regime’s best and only apparent course of action.
Returning to the original question of which fundamental understanding is more applicable to the current state of affairs, the example should speak for itself. If one accepts that all roads – including engagement – lead to regime change of some sort, then one ought to understand that the belief that the North Korea situation is salvageable is poorly rooted at best – seemingly more
characterized by wishful thinking than a practical understanding of what the Kim regime perceives as threats. In the same way, arguments against hawkish policies seem to be more rooted in a fear of inter-Korean conflict than in an understanding of whether or not North Korea would actually voluntarily enter open hostilities, the likelihood of which is discussed here.
This is not to take a side for or against engagement or hardline stances, but to simply identify which train of thought appears more applicable to the current situation. Indeed, more hawkish stances, almost by definition, invoke a regime-change endgame as well. This article has identified why hawkish policies make more sense theory-wise, but as for which option is the most beneficial or cost effective, this is another question altogether.