Is North Korea About to Fall?

North Korea recently shelled Yeonpyeong island killing four people and raising speculation as to North Korea’s motives.   Few believe it was a response to South Korea firing into disputed territory (as they claim), but observers are unclear as to why North Korea would do something so provocative?

One error foreign policy analysts often make is to assume that a state’s actions on the world stage are to pursue a foreign policy objective.   When we look at foreign policy, it’s tempting to use what’s often called a ‘rational actor model,’ seeing a state as a kind of fiction-person who undertakes policies designed to achieve a particular goal.   The question then becomes:  Why did North Korea fire on Yeonpyeong island?

However, quite often actions are not the result of some choice by a leader to pursue a goal, sometimes they reflect internal political/bureaucratic dynamics within the country.  The purpose may be to bolster or undermine particular people or policy preferences within the government.    Rather than being a sign of external ambition or purpose, it may be a reflection of internal division and rivalry.

That is even more likely given the precarious situation in which North Korea finds itself.  The leader, Kim Jong Il, is reported to be sick and perhaps near death.   The recent promotion of his son, Kim Jong-un to a top military position appears to be an attempt to set the son up to succeed the father.   Kim Jong-Il, of course, succeeded his father Kim Il-Sung.  Kim Il Sung, whose attack on South Korea started the Korean War, handed his son a governmental empire with an extremely loyal bureaucracy and public when he died in 1994.

Kim Il Sung was a dedicated Communist who died just as the Cold War was ending.   Kim Jong-Il made fewer ideological pretensions, and instead focused on building a regime that would sustain itself through propaganda, patronage, force, and cronyism.   While the country was starving the leadership would use such things as illicit arms trade to maintain a very comfortable life style.  In short, North Korea under Kim Jong-Il went from being a communist dictatorship with a failing economy to becoming a mafia dictatorship with an economy set to service the elite.   Bluntly: the difference between organized crime and the Korean government is that the latter had the protection of sovereignty.

Kim Jong-Il’s son is young and untested.  If there is a chance that the “Supreme Leader” will pass, there is a real chance that there could be a coup or an internal uprising.   China’s displeasure with North Korea is now clear.   While they ardently protect the principle of sovereignty, the Chinese don’t want this corrupt regime to continue.  It is almost certain that China is trying to influence the upper echelons of North Korea’s government, and use any change in leadership is a way to push for regime change.

If a new regime came to power, supported by the Chinese, they’d move to normalize relations with the West and perhaps start unification talks with the South.   They would also untangle the web of illicit relationships the North Korean government is involved in, quietly pushing for a legitimate economic relations (centered around Chinese interests, to be sure).  They’d want to avoid a clear “victory” for the West or the US, but if the rogue arms traders of Pyongyang were shut down everyone in the West would breath a sigh of relief.  That would weaken Iran’s missile program and make it less likely that terrorists would get their hands on nuclear weapons or dirty bombs.

China would work to cement a tighter relationship with a unified Korea, perhaps setting the stage for its own unification with Taiwan.  Taiwanese investment in China is already soaring, and if meaningful autonomy is retained, the Taiwanese might find it useful to put aside the tension in the past relationship.   This would yield an Asia with less tension, and a stronger role for China.  It might also aid China in shifting its economic system from one focused soley on exports, especially to the US, to more diversity in its markets and more domestic consumption.

Perhaps those in the military, dependent on illicit arms trade, and fearing what will happen when Kim Il Jong dies or becomes too sick to rule decided tensions with the West might aid the regime’s staying power, and stymie any Chinese efforts to manipulate the situation.   In such a case, the West would be wise not to over react, and not to treat North Korea as stronger than it is.  It is a weak, fragile country with a corrupt criminal leadership waiting to be swept away.   The time may be near.   The US will then be able to leave South Korea, and reduce its presence in Japan.

Perhaps the nightmarish rule of the worst regime on the planet at this time is near an end.  One can only hope.

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