North Korea in transition

20 December 2011

What is going to happen to North Korea after the death of Kim Jong-il? No one seems to know. I do not understand how this regime and this state have managed to survive since the late 1990s, given the dire state of the economy and ecology, and the population living under a constant threat of starvation.

North Korea is now more unfathomable and unpredictable than before, even if it’s a question of degree, as the country and its leadership have always been a mystery to most outsiders. The experts and analysts of North Korean politics seem to be divided in their opinions as to the likely course of events. Some think that the young leader Kim Jong-un will assume power relatively seamlessly, while others think that there is a period of increased instability during which a sort of regency council will take control. North Korea is no ordinary state, and in actual fact it is very weird, even among the weird state systems of the world. The state looks like an anachronism: an absolute monarchy, without an established law of succession, but with an arsenal of nuclear weapons. A period of transition, a kind of interregnum, is fraught with danger.

No one seems to be predicting an imminent collapse of the regime. It’s too solidly entrenched, the army seems to be loyal, and the people oppressed, powerless to rise against it. It has survived isolation, natural disasters and starvation so far, and other regimes have survived after doing tremendously bad things to their people, including for example, Chairman Mao’s China. The experts and analysts remind me, in a strange way, of the Kremlinologists before 1989, who were very good at decoding the intricacies of the Politburo, but were really not able to foresee the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is not to say that I think the regime will disappear soon, but it ought to be considered as a possibility, and the neighbouring countries will need contingency plans.