North Korea Welcomes Great Power Rivalry

The peninsula could succumb to traditional greater power rivalry before democracy has a chance to emerge in the North.

As democracy sweeps the streets of the Middle East, will the Arab Spring move east and repeat itself in the last vestige of Stalinist communism that is North Korea?

The Institute of World Economy and International Relations, a Russian think tank, expects that it will. Their analysts predict that the regime in Pyongyang will collapse within the next two decades and that the two Koreas will ultimately be reunited. That may even be a cautious prediction given that the Arab Spring managed to depose of longtime dictators in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia in a matter of months if not weeks.

That a Russian think tank should anticipate the demise of Kim Jong-il’s authoritarian state is ironic given that the North Korean leader visited Russia in August of this year to meet with President Dmitri Medvedev there. The trip was seen as an attempt on the part of the Koreans to fend off any Western hopes of intervention in the peninsula.

Although China, a veto-wielding United Nations Security Council member, could prevent international military action against Pyongyang, it does fear an Iraq-style “coalition of the willing” strike against its nuclear bases. By inviting China and Russia to compete for a sphere of influence in the Korean Peninsula, the regime could hope to keep the Americans at distance. If their two main rivals decide to embroil themselves in the delicate balance of power of northeast Asia, there is no reason for the United States to get involved as well.

China historically enjoys considerable sway in Korean affairs. The peninsula was under Chinese influence for much of its modern history until 1895 when Japan conquered it. Japanese control didn’t end until after the Second World War in 1945 when Korea was split into two occupation zones with the Soviet Union administering the northern half and the United States the south. A joint American-Soviet trusteeship government never came into full effect. When the UN Security Council recognized South Korea but not the North in 1950, hostilities quickly ensued.

The North still relies heavily on Chinese support while nearly 30,000 American troops are permanently stationed in the South up to this very day.

The Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean gas pipeline, which transports natural gas from Russia’s Irkutsk Oblast to Daqing in northeast China, gives Moscow a clear strategic interest in the area which, in turn, enables the North Koreans to balance against American and Chinese interference.

The question now is whether the Korean Peninsula will succumb to traditional great power rivalry before a democratizing “spring” has a chance to blossom there.