Imagining the End Game: How North Korea May Collapse

The unfinished Ryugyong Hotel building in Pyongyang, North Korea, September 5, 2010
The unfinished Ryugyong Hotel building in Pyongyang, North Korea, September 5, 2010 (Roman Harak)

There are few things that touch off more firestorms than speculation. Speculation is easy; any drunk hanging out in front of a local Dunkin Donuts can do it.

But that shouldn’t automatically invalidate all speculation. You can, for instance, look at the clouds in the evening and guess you’ll need an umbrella in the morning. That’s not the mad-cap rantings of a person ideologically committed to morning umbrellas but the rational thought process of someone who’d rather not get wet on the way to work.

You can apply such rationality to geopolitical speculation as well. It’s important not to get too specific — assigning timelines and trying to foretell specific events is invariably doomed to failure. Just as you might guess the next morning will have rain based on the clouds in the evening, you also probably know better than to go bandying about how rain will arrive at 7:13 AM. You know a general forecast; that’s good enough to make a rational decision.

But we have a great deal of difficulty doing this with countries

And that’s because we keep thinking countries are like the people we know.

We all make the mistake of thinking countries act like the people they’re consist of. After all, our leaders are sometimes dismayingly human: they lie, cheat, have affairs, and make all sorts of bad decisions that make us very upset. It’s their bad decisions that makes us think countries have complete command of their fate: When our Masters of the Universe financiers helped lead us to the financial collapse in 2008, it seemed like the crisis was caused by the bad decisions of Wall Street and the financial sector in general. They kept on double downing on risky transactions, which one day came home to roost.

Thus it seems that if we’d only had better leaders, we might have avoided the Great Recession.

But I’d say that’s missing the point, especially when thinking geopolitically.

When viewing the financial collapse as financiers leading us over a cliff, focus on the cliff. Because if there had been no cliff, there would have been no crisis.

And that’s why environment matters and how we can speculate about the fates of nation states responsibility

Think of good leaders as those who see such cliffs and take the right action to avoid them. Think of bad leaders as those who don’t or, worst of all, won’t. Neither of them control the cliff; it exists regardless of what they think or do. They have presented with a choice of how to solve the problem it presents and the divide between good leadership and bad leadership is driven by the results of said choice.

Geopolitical conditions are such physical limits. The American president may be the most powerful man on Earth but geography prevents him from being able to conquer the world. He must measure his power carefully, use it when it will be most effective, or he will be consigned to electoral defeat or the dustbin of history. He must, in other words, find creative solutions to the many, many cliffs that he encounters.

So when we think about the destinies of countries, we must think about their physical limits

Last week North Korea threatened to wage open war on South Korea, which makes just about every Korea watcher ever so tired. The North keeps talking the talking but failing to walk the walk and in each of these crises, one begs the question, how does this end?

To understand, we must think of North Korea’s limits and how they will define North Korea’s eventual demise.

First off, why must North Korea die off? Well, because it’s a buffer state and buffer states only survive as long as someone sees reason to prop them up

North Korea was a base for the Soviet Union to conquer the whole of Korea which would have been a fine base to threaten American-occupied Japan. But when overt conquest failed, the USSR and China decided to turn North Korea into a well-armed and fortified buffer state separating American power from Chinese and Russian borders. (North Korea has a very small border with Russia which in Cold War days would have been a strategic goldmine).

When the Soviet Union collapsed, most of its buffer states went with it. But not North Korea; unlike the Warsaw Pact, China didn’t want Korea united under what might well have been a pro-American state. So instead of letting the End of History take its course, Beijing provided Pyongyang with life support. This didn’t allow North Korea to prosper as it did in its heyday in the 1960s and 70s but it did give the regime the ability to survive the famine of the 1990s.

So long as there is a rivalry between the United States and China, North Korea has value to the Chinese. But if the United States and China go from rivals to allies, or if China bungles it rises to superpower status and succumbs to the rules of dynastic cycles, North Korea will lose strategic value and collapse.

One of those scenarios must come true: a permanent rivalry between China and the United States is impossible. Such rivalries are expensive and dangerous and therefore often short; we’re not talking about another hundred years of North Korea. Either one side will collapse (and the smart money remains on China, though that’s a different article) or both sides will realize geopolitical competition doesn’t serve their interests.

The two historical models are the Cold War and the Anglo-American relationship; in the former, the Soviet Union and the United States competed until the Soviet Union exhausted itself and fell apart. In the latter, the United Kingdom and United States competed until it became clear they had more to gain from cooperation.

Regardless of the outcome — nice or nasty — like the two halves of Germany and Vietnam, it will collapse once its foreign sponsor no longer sees need for it.

But that’s not the only thing that could happen and here’s where things get ugly

Nobody should count out North Korea’s bad leaders from making disastrous decisions.

In neighborhood terms, this is like the old resident who absolutely refuses to evacuate before a hurricane and drowns predictably. Should Pyongyang’s leaders fail to read the tea leaves appropriately, they could well drown as well.

Some of those tea leaves are obvious. North Korea can’t wage a war with South Korea and its allies and win. North Korea’s army is still largely Soviet in make-up and we know that Soviet strategy hinged itself mostly on the Soviet Union being huge in both land and population to make up for its shortcomings. North Korea can’t hope to wear down its enemies through attrition; its small size means its a monthly conquest for the superpower.

Nor can North Korea lose Beijing’s favor. This is where things are getting wobbly: it’s not wholly clear the young Kim Jong-un understands just how key China is to his survival. He’s tested nukes against China’s wishes and the People’s Liberation Army has deployed troops to his border.

In 2009, WikiLeaks even reported that China was trying to convince the United States it was prepared to push a coup to remove the Kim dynasty should they get too erratic. That may have been to placate the Americans but it’s also a solid strategy for a genuine need.

Thus the analogy of a madman driving a rusty, old truck is apt

On a long enough timeline, the truck will break apart from abuse at the hands of such a madman. That is assuming, however, the madman doesn’t drive it over a cliff or into a tree first. This is a worrisome destiny for North Korea: Is the regime still dominated by rational people? Or are the purges carried out by the young Kim Jong-un rendering it an increasingly bizarre place full of extreme yes men? Is the emperor, in other words, still wearing clothes?

This is a deep and troubling unknown. We can only guess from the regime’s actions where its thinking still lays. Thus far, it’s been willing to ratchet up tensions in exchange for negotiations, even at the expense of relations with China. Such bluff can’t last forever. Invariably, a government in South Korea will tire of those kinds of antics and refuse to respond. That will be a critical moment for the regime: will they be willing to start a war they can’t control or will they suddenly implode under their own ineptness?

Within North Korea, there are doubtless forces that understand the country’s position and future. Some of them may be close to the regime, others may dream of replacing it. Should they try to remove the Kim government, they could spark a civil war or revolution that might easily go nuclear.

With the Kim regime growing increasingly willing to risk alienating China, it seems likely the collapse scenario is the most likely one. As China now experiences its own economic downturn, Beijing may not be able to afford the necessary subsidies for North Korea. That could force the Kim regime into a crisis: Should they make the right decisions, they’ll go the way of East Germany, peacefully reuniting with the South. Or they could go the way of Yugoslavia or Syria, with rebellions turning to civil war and genocide.

Peacefully or not, the Kim regime won’t be around much longer.

This story first appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, August 24, 2015.

Japan’s Economy Shrinks as Abe Puts Off Reforms

Night falls in Tokyo, Japan
Night falls in Tokyo, Japan (Unsplash/Simon Launay)

Japan’s economy shrank at an annualized pace of 1.6 percent between April and June of this year, calling into question Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s commitment to controversial but pro-growth reforms.

Exports fell, as did consumer spending, depressed by a sales tax hike.

The Bank of Japan’s weakening of the yen has also made imported foods more expensive, putting further pressure on households. Read more “Japan’s Economy Shrinks as Abe Puts Off Reforms”

Disenchanted Japanese Give Abe Another Chance

Japan’s ruling conservative parties were on track to win another majority in snap elections on Sunday but low voter turnout reflected rising disenchantment with Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s economic reforms.

Japanese media projected Abe’s Liberal Democrats and their socially more conservative coalition partners in the Komeito party would win more than 317 seats in the country’s lower house of parliament, a loss of under ten seats but enough to maintain a comfortable majority.

However, barely one in two eligible voters turned out compared with almost 60 percent turnout in the last election in 2012.

Abe called early elections last month to seek a fresh mandate for his economic policy when the country slipped back into recession.

Key parts of the reform agenda have stalled. Read more “Disenchanted Japanese Give Abe Another Chance”

Japan’s Abe Calls Snap Elections as Reforms Stall

Japan’s prime minister, Shinzō Abe, called a snap election for the lower house of parliament on Tuesday to seek a fresh mandate for his stalled economic reforms. The announcement came a day after data showed the country had slipped back into recession.

Abe also said he would delay a planned sales tax increase to 10 percent. His earlier tax hike, from 5 to 8 percent, is widely blamed for pushing the world’s third largest economy into negative growth.

The nationalist politician, who staked much of his political capital after returning to power in December 2012 on reasserting Japan’s regional influence, nevertheless insisted during a news conference in Tokyo that his economic program was working.

“I am aware that critics say ‘Abenomics’ is a failure and not working but I have not heard one concrete idea what to do instead,” he said. “This is the only way to end deflation and revive the economy.”

But key parts of his reform agenda remain stalled. Read more “Japan’s Abe Calls Snap Elections as Reforms Stall”

Abe’s Refusal to Shake Up Japan’s Labor Market Spells Decline

When Prime Minister Shinzō Abe finally unveiled his plans to make Japan more competitive in June, the proposals underwhelmed. While he promised to lower Japan’s corporate tax rate, currently the highest in the developed world, to below 30 percent, Abe shied away from comprehensive agriculture and labor reforms that could revitalize the island nation’s economy. The latter, especially, are sorely needed.

Japan’s rigid labor laws, which make it nearly impossible to lay off workers, have led many companies to limit hiring to part-time or temporary employees who are typically paid a third less. 17 percent of Japanese men aged 25 to 34 now hold such jobs. For women of all ages, the rate is a staggering 57 percent. 70 percent of Japanese women also still quit their job when they have children.

For both genders, regular jobs have fallen 3.1 percent in recent years. The average wage per worker in real terms has dropped 9 percent since 1997 and 2 percent since Abe took office just two years ago. Read more “Abe’s Refusal to Shake Up Japan’s Labor Market Spells Decline”

Xi Seen Distancing China from North Korea

Xi Jinping Barack Obama
Presidents Xi Jinping of China and Barack Obama of the United States speak at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California, June 8, 2013 (White House/Pete Souza)

Visiting South Korea on Thursday, China’s president, Xi Jinping, appeared to distance himself from his country’s longtime communist ally North Korea, telling his South Korean counterpart, Park Geun-hye, that China took an “impartial” view to situation on the peninsula.

According to Chinese state media, Xi said, “All parties concerned should jointly and properly manage and control the situation, avoid causing tension, prevent the situation from losing control and creating no more stirs.”

He added that China believes “all sides should be treated in a balanced way,” suggesting a shift away from Chinese support for the North Korean regime which just a day before Xi’s visit launched two rockets off its east coast in a show of force. Read more “Xi Seen Distancing China from North Korea”

Japan’s Abe Shies Away from Structural Economic Reforms

Japan’s prime minister, Shinzō Abe, finally unveiled the “third arrow” of his economic reform program on Tuesday but the measures hardly signified a decidedly more liberal policy.

The conservative leader promised to lower Japan’s corporate tax rate, currently the highest in the developed world, to below 30 percent. But he notably shied away from proposing agriculture and labor market reforms that could lift the island nation’s economy out of its long slump.

Abe has promised to revitalize Japan’s economy, the world’s third largest, after two “lost decades” that followed a deep recession in the 1990s. Read more “Japan’s Abe Shies Away from Structural Economic Reforms”

Chinese Aggression Could Be Informed by Domestic Policy

A Chinese junk sails past the USS Peleliu amphibious assault ship in the harbor of Hong Kong, April 18, 2013
A Chinese junk sails past the USS Peleliu amphibious assault ship in the harbor of Hong Kong, April 18, 2013 (See-ming Lee)

China’s revisionist maritime claims and aggressive policy toward its neighbors in Southeast Asia suggest the country’s “peaceful rise” has come to an end. If that is the case, America’s strategists would be wise to advice increased engagement — to reassure allies in the Pacific and prevent China from challenging its supremacy there.

However, China’s policy may not be a calculated one. If America “responds” with a show of military force, it could inadvertently exacerbate China’s sense of encirclement and encourage the sort of aggression it believes China started.

In recent months, China has moved a deepwater drilling rig into waters that are disputed by Vietnam, rammed Vietnamese fishing boats in the South China Sea and deployed three nuclear missile submarines to the same area, engaged in a standoff with the Philippine navy over the Scarborough Shoal and declared an Air Defense Identification Zone over Japan’s Senkaku Islands — which America immediately challenged by flying two bombers through it unannounced.

It is hard not to see a more belligerent China in these moves but Robert E. Kelly, who is an associate professor of international relations at Pusan National University in South Korea, cautions at The Interpreter, the Australian Lowy Institute for International Policy’s blog, not to “attribute to conspiracy that which can be just as easily explained by incompetence.” What looks like a larger plan to push the United States out of East Asia may be far less organized and coherent, he writes — “the outcome of a series of domestic factional battles in a new administration rushing to establish itself, control its military and legitimate itself to a cynical population.”

One explanation for recent Chinese behavior may lie in the leadership change that was finalized in March last year when Xi Jinping became president. Kelly believes he almost certainly made promises to the army as part of a factional power struggle within the ruling Communist Party — which “is arguably the most hawkish, anti-American faction in the government.”

Xi’s governing philosophy taps into a resurgent Chinese nationalism as the mere promise to deliver growth that was made by his predecessors no longer placates either the army or the population at large.

The Communist Party made a basic compact with the Chinese people: It would deliver growth while the people gave it a monopoly on power.

That compact has largely held up but could start to fray once growth inevitably slows down. What Kelly calls “naval nationalism” could be designed to maintain popular support once it does — and simultaneously keep the generals happy.

For now, the Communists have delivered prosperity and pulled China back to the global esteem it believed it enjoyed before the “century of humiliation” that began with the First Opium War in 1839 and only ended when they took over in 1949.

Ironically, the Communist Party “has succeeded to the point where it is longer necessary,” writes Kelly.

Specifically, China is at the point where single-party rule for developmental purposes can no longer be really justified. China is not really a poor country anymore. The “Asian developmentalist” argument that democracy obstructs growth no longer holds. China is either now, or will shortly, be ready for democracy: its citizens are educated and wealthy enough that paternalist arguments for party guidance no longer make sense (if they ever did).

This provides another possible reason for China’s behavior toward its neighbors. “Better tension than transition,” as Kelly puts it. The Communist Party’s priority is staying in power, even if it comes at the expense of scaring its neighbors and risking a standoff with the United States.

Putin at Ease in Asia’s Power Politics

Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping of China observe a military ceremony in Shanghai, May 20
Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping of China observe a military ceremony in Shanghai, May 20 (Kremlin)

There is an expression in Japan: kumo o tsukamuyou. It translates roughly into “like grasping a cloud.” We might call it “wishful thinking.” The proverb springs to mind when reading Japan’s former defense minister Yuriko Koike’s recent commentary.

In it, Koike presents her perspective of the challenges Japan has to face in East Asia. She believes these challenges are easy to enumerate for they all depend on one factor alone: liberal democracy. Those closest to it are under pressure by those farthest from it. China, Russia and North Korea are problems, Japan, the United States and their allies are the solution.

Koike’s is an ideal world in which the leader of the world’s biggest democracy could only possibly choose to ally with likeminded democratic powers and thus India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, is dutifully expected by Koike to team up with the alliance being formed to contain China’s assertiveness in the East and South China Seas.

Yuriko Koike, though, might have another thing coming. Not only is Modi not the obvious ally she believes him to be; the government in Tokyo itself may very well have other plans. Read more “Putin at Ease in Asia’s Power Politics”

Thai Coup Leader: Return to Democracy Will Take Year

Thailand’s army and coup leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha appealed for patience from the country’s population and its allies in a speech late Friday night, saying the return to democracy would take about one year.

Prayuth, who ousted the civilian government last week to end six months of deadlock between supporters and opponents of the Pheu Thai party, said a temporary constitution would be drawn up and an interim cabinet installed after three months of “reconciliation”. Read more “Thai Coup Leader: Return to Democracy Will Take Year”