17 December 2004

North Korea's Hard "Soft Landing"

NKZone's Andrei Lankov posts a link to an analysis he presented in New Zealand last year raising doubts "about the now so fashionable ideas of North Korea's 'soft landing'"--the idea that it can reform its way into less-than-catastrophic unification with South Korea.

Lankov's talk, entitled Soft Landing: Opportunity or Illusion (viewable in IE, but not Firefox!), emphasizes the uniqueness of the Korean situation relative to that of Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, and China.
Assumptions based on the Chinese, East European or post-Soviet experiences are not applicable to the North. The "market" or capitalist reforms in those countries were indeed beneficial to the former Communist elite or at least for more flexible and better-educated parts. Even a cursory look at the biographies of post-Soviet tycoons and top politicians confirms that the so-called "anti-communist revolutions" of the early 1990s often boosted the standing of those who were prominent apparatchiks in the 1980s. The first two presidents of the supposedly anti-Communist Russia were Yeltsin, the former Politburo member and Putin, the former KGB colonel. The same is true of other post-Soviet states and China.

However, North Korea is dramatically different from other former members of the Communist bloc. Its major problems are created by the existence of a democratic and prosperous "alternate Korea" just across the border, a mere few hundred kilometres away from even the remotest North Korean village.

The economic gap between the two Koreas and the corresponding difference in living standards is huge, far exceeding the difference which once existed between East and West Germany. The per capita GDP of the South is approximately 10,000 USD, while in the North it is estimated to be between 500 and 1,000 USD. Obesity is a serious health problem in the South while in the North the ability to eat rice every day is a sign of unusual affluence. South Korea, the world's fifth largest automobile manufacturer, has one car for every four persons, while in the North a private car [is] less accessible to the average citizen than a private jet would be to the average American. South Korea is the world's leader in broadband Internet access while in the North only major cities have automatic telephone exchanges and a private residential phone is still a privilege reserved solely for cadres.

The survival strategy of the North Korean political system has been based on the combination of three important strategies: intense police surveillance, harsh suppression of even the slightest dissent and maintaining a strict information blockade.

The last factor is especially important.... Economic reforms are unthinkable without large-scale foreign investment and other types of exchange with overseas countries (what is known in China as "openness"). However such "openness" would mean a decisive break with this system of self-imposed isolation. Under the present circumstances both investment capital and expertise are likely to come largely from South Korea.

The influx of foreigners, especially South Koreans, will however undermine one of the pillars of the regime's political stability, namely the system of information isolation. Even if these visitors carefully avoid everything which could upset their minders, the sheer presence of strangers will be disruptive. This was not such an issue in China or Vietnam where the visitors came from alien countries whose prosperity was seen as generally irrelevant to the local situation. It is likely to be a problem in the North, however, where a large proportion of foreign investors and experts will come from another half of the same country and will speak the same language.

Thus, any wide-scale cooperation with the outside world remains a dangerous option. Its obvious economic benefits do not count for much, since the associated political risks are prohibitively huge and the Pyongyang elite will not take chances....

If the populace learned how dreadful their position was compared to that of the South Koreans, and if the still-functioning system of police surveillance and repression ceased to work with its usual efficiency, then the chance of violent revolution or at very least, mass unrest would be highly likely. The proponents of a "soft landing" believe that the collapse of the regime (be it violent or otherwise) would not mean an end to a separate North Korean state. However, it is difficult to see how the North Koreans could possibly be persuaded to remain quiet if they knew the truth and were not afraid of immediate and swift retribution for their dissent.... In other words, the attempts to promote reform and liberalization are likely to lead to the exact opposite--to political instability, regime collapse and a subsequent "hard landing." ...

In Eastern Europe and the former USSR it was the second and third tiers of apparatchiks who reaped the greatest benefits from the dismantling of state socialism. Their skills, training and expertise, as well as their connections allowed them to appropriate sizeable chunks of the former state assets. They then used this property to secure dominant positions in the new system and quickly re-modelled themselves as prominent businessmen or even "democratic politicians." The North Korean mid-level elite does not have access to such an attractive option. Once again such a scenario is rendered unlikely by the existence of South Korea with its highly developed economy, large pools of capital and managerial skills. If the collapse of Kim's regime spells an end to the independent North Korean state which is a very likely option, the local elite would stand no chance of competing with the South Korean companies and their representatives. Capitalism in post-Kim North Korea would be constructed not by former apparatchiks who some day declare themselves the born-again enemies of the evil Communism, but by resident managers of Samsung and LG. At best, the current elite might hope to gain some subaltern positions, but even this outcome is far from certain. Something analogous to the "lustration policy," the formal prohibitions of former Party cadres and security officials from occupying important positions in the bureaucracy of post-Communist regimes, is at least equally likely. Some ex-apparatchiks might even face persecution for their deeds under the Kims' rule. Facing such dangers, the lower strata of the ruling elite is showing no signs of dissent and prefers to loyally follow Kim Jong Il's entourage....

This does not mean that the regime will last forever. However, its transformation is unlikely to occur according to the "soft landing" scenario. If the elite resists change for too long an implosion will be unavoidable and if it initiates reform now, the result is likely to be the same or perhaps only marginally less dramatic.
I suspect relations between the two Koreas after unification will soon evolve into a fierce antagonism between a North Korean colony offering little more than unskilled labor and raw materials, and a South Korean colonial occupation force that quickly loses patience with its helplessly dependent cousins. Fierce South Korean classism (and impatience) will soon overwhelm the abstract sympathies so many South Korean citizens now feel for their North Korean compatriots. North Korea will be like Yankee-occupied Mississippi during Reconstruction after the U.S. Civil War. Tough times for all, for at least a generation or two.

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