Wall Street Journal
Kim Jong Il may be increasingly wizened and frail, with fingernails white from kidney disease, but his propaganda apparatus is as vigorous as ever. On a current wall poster a worker gestures toward the slogan, "A strong and prosperous nation is coming into view!" In the background, fireworks explode over brightly-lit buildings, a pile of rice and potatoes, three-spanking new missiles, and a bulldozer.
To North Koreans the weaponry must be the only part of the picture that doesn't look ridiculously optimistic. United Nations sanctions continue to take their toll on imports and exports alike. By most accounts, last autumn's currency reform did nothing but worsen an already rampant inflation. Over half the factories in the country remain idle. The food shortage is worsening; there are accounts of starvation even in major urban centers like Pyongyang.
As for tensions with the south, they rose again Friday with the sinking of a South Korean naval ship near a disputed maritime border with North Korea, although it wasn't immediately clear what had caused the sinking or if North Korean vessels were involved.
The latest incident comes days after a conference in which some experts described the Kim dictatorship as being in the first stage of collapse. Americans should be paying attention: If North Korea decides to go out in a blaze of nuclear glory—and its current penchant for kamikaze rhetoric suggests it might—the enormous number of casualties would likely include many of the U.S. troops stationed on the peninsula. But even a less-apocalyptic form of collapse could destabilize the entire region. Those South Korean experts might be wrong in their predictions, but the regime seems increasingly unlikely to last out the decade, even if the planned hand-off of power to the Dear Leader's son Kim Jong Eun goes off without a hitch.
The economy is only part of the problem. North Koreans endured far worse deprivation during the 1990s famine without flagging in their support for the regime. This brings us back to that wall poster, and to the regime's real crisis, which is more ideological in nature than economic.
The information cordon that once encircled North Korea is in tatters. Police in the northern provinces try in vain to crack down on the use of Chinese cellphones; citizens circumvent tracking devices by making brief calls from mountains and forests—sometimes to defectors as far away as the U.S. In provinces along the demilitarized zone, many citizens watch South Korean television. Even in Pyongyang, people listen to BBC or Voice of America radio, or view online news surreptitiously at companies with Internet access.
What the masses are learning is incompatible with their decades-old sense of a sacred racial mission. They have known since the 1990s that their living standard is much lower than South Korea's. The gap was explained away with reference to the sacrifices needed to build up the military. What the North Koreans are only now realizing, however—and this is more important—is that their brethren in the "Yankee colony" have no desire to live under Kim Jong Il. In 2007, after all, they elected the pro-American candidate to the South Korean presidency. Why, then, should the northerners go on sacrificing in order to liberate people who don't want to be liberated? Unable to answer this question, the regime in desperation has resorted to the most reckless propaganda campaign in its history.
This "strong and prosperous country" campaign is nothing less than an effort to persuade the masses that economic life will change drastically by 2012, the 100th anniversary of the birth of Great Leader Kim Il Sung, the father of Kim Jong Il. The official media have dubbed 2010 a "year of radical transformation" that will "open the gate to a thriving nation without fail in 2012." On TV news shows, uniformed students smile into just-delivered computers, and housewives tearfully thank the Leader for new apartments. The media predict even greater triumphs "without fail" for next year. The Juche calendar—which starts with Kim Il Sung's birth year of 1912, from one and not zero—numbers 2011 as year 100, and thus hugely significant.
Yet while posters show soldiers and workers arm in arm, refugees describe a sharp rise in public resentment of an army that often steals from farms and factories to feed itself. Refugees are just as credible when they report of a severe fertilizer shortage. The party has responded by demanding that apartment blocks deliver ever more human waste. Alas, the residents don't eat enough to meet the demand.
Such misery prevailed in the mid-1990s too, but at least then the regime admitted an economic crisis, even as it mostly blamed the Yankees. Now it talks of a country transforming itself from one year to the next. No dictatorship can afford to lie so stupidly to its people, or to raise public expectations that will be dashed in a matter of months.
Unlike the East Germany of old, North Korea lacks the high walls, incorruptible border guards and surveillance technology needed to keep an entire populace in lockdown. Reports of demonstrations against the currency reform may have been exaggerated, but the belated decision to increase the amount of exchangeable currency shows there must have been unrest of some sort. It also indicates that the regime lacks the will to crush it in Tiananmen-style fashion. Kim Jong Il must either find new ways to inspire his people or watch ever more of them cross into China.
But this isn't the only domestic crisis facing the Dear Leader. An increasingly infirm 68 years old (69 according to some outside experts), he is already way behind schedule in preparing his son's takeover. It was hard enough for the masses to accept the last hereditary succession in 1994; the official media must still hammer home the message that the Dear Leader was his father's only choice for the post. It will be infinitely harder to install Kim Jong Eun, who even now could walk down a Pyongyang street without being recognized. So the succession process will have to start in earnest by 2012, just as the "strong and prosperous country" campaign is falling on its face.
How will the regime try to survive this looming "perfect storm" of ideological crises? Likely by seeking to ratchet up some diversionary tension with the outside world. Making this especially probable is the nascent glorification of Kim Jong Eun as a general in his father's image. He thus needs a perceived military triumph of his own. (Kim Jong Il came to power in 1994 as the hero whose show of nuclear resolve had brought Jimmy Carter on a surrender mission to Pyongyang.) Last year's nuclear and ballistic provocations have set the bar higher for the regime, perhaps too high. This is the problem with deriving national pride almost exclusively from a nuclear program: The saber can only be rattled, and rattling gets old.
Whether the leadership opts for a bigger military provocation, and pushes its luck too far, or just tries to muddle through, with an inexorable decline of public support, the outlook for the country's survival has never been bleaker. Regime change? Out of the question. The Kim clan is inextricable with North Korean identity. A homegrown Gorbachev would find it impossible to shift focus from the military to the economy. Why should people toil under the North Korean flag in the hope of attaining a lifestyle that South Koreans enjoyed a quarter-century ago? Why not unify at once, and live in the system that has already proved itself?
In view of all this, one can only hope that the region's main powers are making more serious and thorough preparations for a North Korean regime collapse than they have so far let on. The effort to downplay the relevant contingency planning is of course understandable. It is hard enough for the Americans to get North Korea back to nuclear arms talks without admitting that they are readying for its demise. (Kim Jong Il can't have forgotten that Washington once promised him light-water reactors in the confidence that he wouldn't be around long enough to get them.)
As for the South Korean government, it doesn't want to frighten its own people, who seem reluctant even to discuss the possibility of German-style unification. Leaks about official contingency plans—refugee camps safely removed from Seoul, for example—seem intended to reassure everyone that unification will proceed almost imperceptibly slowly. The Chinese, for their part, have no choice but to deny that the thought of regime collapse in Pyongyang has even crossed their mind.
And yet if Western press reports are any indication, it is Beijing's future role that most troubles American planners. In 2007, a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the U.S. Institute of Peace warned that "if the international community did not react in a timely manner as internal order in North Korea deteriorated rapidly, China would seek to take the initiative in restoring stability.'' The possibility has Seoul worried too.
In reading about these contingency plans, one senses a general optimism that North Korea will not go down fighting. Here, too, as so often in the world's dealings with Pyongyang, there is a strong tendency to extrapolate from late Cold War history—to presume that these "hardline Stalinists" will be rational enough not to do anything suicidal. But this has never been a Stalinist state. The orthodox worldview is a paranoid, race-based nationalism with intellectual roots in fascist Japan.
Since the East Bloc crumbled away in the early 1990s, North Korea has shown its true ideological colors ever more clearly. Last year it even deleted the word communism from the national constitution, elevating "military first" socialism to the country's guiding principle instead. At the same time it has made ever more extensive use of kamikaze terms and slogans ("Let us become human bombs in defense of the leader") taken almost verbatim from Pacific War propaganda. The official media routinely mock the leaders of the old East Bloc for giving up "without firing a shot," and vow that "there can be no world without [North] Korea."
The possibility of a violent, potentially apocalyptic regime collapse in North Korea within the decade is one that all countries with an interest in the region should keep in mind. They should also be more conscious of the internal ideological contradictions that make the country's long-term survival impossible. If North Korea must collapse anyway, it makes no sense for China to prolong things; the leadership will only go out with a bigger bang when the day finally comes. As for Americans, we should focus our contingency planning on a worst-case nuclear scenario instead of fretting about Beijing's role on a post-Kim peninsula. A Chinese occupation of North Korea should be the least of our worries.— B.R. Myers is a professor at Dongseo University in South Korea and author of "The Cleanest Race."