Just when you thought it was safe to ignore the mad Stalinists of Asia…DUN DUN DUN!  Executions!  Purges!  Is North Korea dying?  (No it’s not!)  Let’s time travel to 1960 and pretend that the internal wranglings in Pyongyang could suck us into World War III!

Of course, it’s not all fun and games for those in the Politburo who are being shot.  What in the hell’s going on?  Let’s size North Korea up.

You should know your Korean history by now

If you’re here, chances are you good you paid attention in high school when somebody mentioned there was a war in Korea in the 50s.  So there’s no need to rehash all that.  Instead, the specific execution of a man once regarded as North Korea’s #2 is what’s getting everything oh-so-curious as to what those crazy Kims are up to now.

Wrong leader, right slogan.

The problem with second-guessing North Korean elite is that nobody, probably including the elite themselves, have any clue as to what’s going on.  North Korea is every leader’s dream – a system predicated on the words of a  single personality, worshipped cult-like for all time, whose word is law, whose face is beautiful, whose country is best, etc., etc., etc.  So the ultimate decider of the system’s actions are Kim Jong Un himself, and without mind reading technology, nobody can for sure know what’s going on.

This dearth of information leads to rampant speculation – ‘cuz what else is a DPRK analyst to do?

In the past sixty years since the end of the war, North Korea’s threatened to finish the job once and for all so many times that people have lost count.  You can’t read their government the way you could other systems – mass military mobilizations are often just for show, threats of nuclear war are fodder for satirical news shows, even actual military assaults on neighboring countries become little more than “clashes” that feel a great deal like a feral child throwing his shit into your yard.

What’s for certain is this – no North Korean leader has yet found a way to suicide himself.  In spite of attacking American allies more than once, in spite of running their economy into the ground, in spite of famine, purges, demoralized populations, and basically being the poster boy of bad governance, North Korea still stands.

You can thank geography for that

Topographic map of North Korea. Created with G...
Easy to close the door. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The DMZ is relatively short and easily fortified – no U.S.-Mexico border holes here!  Water on two sides and China’s border to the north seal the Hermit Kingdom into its time capsule.  With short, easily sealed borders, North Korea’s leaders have managed to run the world’s worst government for two decades.  The alliance with China provides Pyongyang with a nuclear umbrella, raising the stakes for any war and deterring either South Korea or America from putting an end to their nuisance once and for all.

The isolation has also enabled North Korea’s leaders to permanently and effectively brainwash just enough citizens to keep power.  It’s impossible to know how many North Koreans actually believe the bullshit of the central government; evidence is mounting that they’re increasingly having access to outside information.  But without proper surveys, without leaks from North Korea’s government, nobody knows if people are listening and understanding or just listening.  What we do know is that the social contract between the governing and the governed is still holding.  For now.

Time is not on their side

Alas, for the elite of Pyongyang’s ritzy apartments (“ritzy” meaning have electricity for most of the day), it’s probable they’re going to lose everything when things change because the system is beyond saving.  The current social contract is underpinned by the belief in the infallibility of the ruling regime.  To reform the ruling regime means admitting to past mistakes, which would invariably destroy that social contract.  This is pretty much what happened in the Soviet Union – glasnost opened a door which could not be shut.

It’s also probable that at least some members of the elite are aware of this impending doom.  They might have plans for themselves (helicopters to China, maybe?), or they might not, but either way, they know they can do nothing to save North Korea’s horrible government.  Some sort of crisis will eventually happen; that crisis will snowball into a crisis of faith in the government; that crisis will result in an unravelling.  North Korea’s been through a lot and survived; much of that has to do with its effective cultural reprogramming of its people.  But humans are humans; push them far enough and they will push back.  When will that happen in North Korea?  That, too, is impossible to know.

The decay of state machinery means the death of the regime

Like their rusting tanks, the psychology that holds together the regime is probably also rusting.  There are no doubt officers, secret police, and party officials who know their whole system is worthless and self-serving on its best days.  Many of them are probably bribed to keep going along (and some of them are likely imprisoned, exiled, or executed to keep the rest in line).

But the efficacy of such a way of life is unsustainable. Those talented in the arts of suppression likely find themselves on the receiving end after a time; their example would put fear into other talented individuals within the system, who, over time, would be less likely to cooperate with a system that’s destined to go after them.  This means replacing such talented individuals with loyal but stupid flunkies, who won’t be able to do the job as well.  Eventually, this batch of retard-secret policemen would degrade the state’s capabilities so much that it would cease to function.

The future of North Korea’s security services.

It’s telling that the executed General Jang was himself born and raised in North Korea’s heyday, back when one could actually believe that Korean communism was a better alternative to South Korea’s status as American satrap.  But South Korea is now a powerhouse free of dictatorship and American control; with North Korea’s population being about 45% under the age of 30, fewer and fewer over time will have a living memory of such a heyday.  This is the generation that will likely carry the spark.

Unlikely to be a clean affair

In overly centralized systems based on cults of personalities, social contracts are rarely modified or discarded peacefully.  The first step towards reform is the removal of those personalities, which negates the whole contract to begin with.  Then the killing starts and doesn’t stop until a new contract is written.

In North Korea’s case, it’s unlikely the North Koreans themselves will be part of that process, minus the initial chaos.  It’s reasonable to assume an invasion by China, South Korea, and the United States will take place to carve up the graveyard, each one hedging bets to gain as much power as possible from the anarchy.  The best case scenario is a partitioned North Korea, with most coming under South Korean domination, and with the rest coming along later once China’s security needs are addressed.  The worst case scenario is a massive war and lots of death.  Nobody wants to fight World War III over the place, but history has proven one doesn’t need  to destroy the planet when trying to conquer Korea.

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