Lankov convinced me that this simply wouldn’t work. For one thing, a North Korean collapse would be intolerable to China – likely giving it a flood of refugees and the loss of a “buffer state,” replaced by an enlarged U.S. ally next door. So toughness by the U.S. and friends would be negated by stepped up Chinese support.
Moreover, even a total quarantine of North Korea wouldn’t likely do in the regime. It did survive economic collapse and famine in the nineties. The repression is that strong; and the starvation even of millions wouldn’t faze the regime – with the guns to tough it out.
Lankov also clarified some realities about North Korea. America’s chief concern has been the nuclear issue, and for two decades we have unsuccessfully tried to cajole the North to denuclearize. They never will. Because nuclear blackmail is all they’ve got to extort goodies from other concerned nations. Without nukes, North Korea would have nothing. And the Kim regime believes that denuclearization would leave it naked to U.S. military force. They think Saddam would still be in power if he’d really had
WMDs; as would Khadafy if he hadn’t given up his nuclear program. Maybe true.
A second reality is that Kim and his regime are not crazy
, much though it may appear so, from their utterly dysfunctional economic policies and provocational bellicosity. Rather, Kim and his ruling elite are hostage to the remorseless logic of the cul-de-sac into which they’ve gotten themselves. They’re riding the back of a tiger and know they’d better not fall off. So if the warmongering seems risky, it is a risk calculated with extreme rationality. Kim and company understand that a real war is the last thing America and South Korea want, so they can get away with a lot of provocation without triggering Armageddon – while the true purpose of the behavior is to complement the nuclear blackmail, making North Korea look like a threat that we’ll pay to pacify.
The Kim regime is stuck with the economic system it’s developed over decades, and can’t change it. Westerners seeing reform just around the corner are always wrong. As Tocqueville said, revolution happens not when the commoners are most downtrodden, but when they can glimpse a better life. What finally brought down Soviet Communism was Gorbachev’s attempt to reform it. North Korea won’t make that mistake.
Tocqueville again: “a sovereign who seeks to relieve his subjects after a long period of oppression is lost unless he be a man of great genius.” Kim Jong Un must be smart enough to know that, contrary to their boastful propaganda, his is not a dynasty of geniuses. And that his fate in a post-Kim North Korea won’t be pretty. Any “reform” would risk that prospect.
So, what is the answer? This tough-minded commentator is almost embarrassed by it, but Lankov convinced me that only a soft approach makes sense. The North Korean system cannot endure forever, as the contrast with the prosperous South inexorably widens and becomes more known, despite the regime’s best efforts to tar the South as a hellhole of poverty and oppression.
And while spontaneous revolt from below can’t be expected, evolution in the thinking of the elites is inevitable. Its hastening should be our aim, simply doing all we can to expose North Korea’s intelligentsia to truth and reality. Sooner or later, something is bound to give. It may be (as Hemingway famously described going broke) gradual – and then sudden.