When will North Korea collapse?

Will North Korea collapse? When will it collapse? Questions North Korea researchers hear all the time, and given a recent boost after comments from President Obama mentioned Pyongyang’s collapse, followed quickly by an article and mea culpa from well-known, long-time Korea specialist Aidan Foster-Carter. Foster-Carter’s article lays out the general lines of the debate, ‘collapsism’, and 20+ years of poor policy choices by the U.S. and other governments based on the idea that “the North is going to collapse … any day now … Any. Day. Now.”

Plenty of Korea specialists have taken a stab at this parlor game of predicting Pyongyang’s fall: Foster-Carter, per above; Victor Cha, current Georgetown professor and former Director for Asian Affairs at the NSC in his 2012 book; economic specialists (e.g. Haggard and Noland). Intelligence analysts and foreign policy specialists have filled entire servers (and before that, file cabinets) with studies on when the North will collapse. Here’s one from the CIA circa 1997/98 (also here) that featured a majority of Korea specialists convened by Langley doubting the regime could last another five years (we’re coming up on 20).

Not to begrudge anyone their game, but what’s the point?

No one, other than perhaps a few folks in Pyongyang, is even close to knowing the answer – you may as well spend your time forecasting lottery numbers. For every list of indicators some genius has dreamed up, or for every Significant Event sure to topple the regime, the ruling Kim finally has had the same answer – existence. Trying to select a date from the limited information available on the North, even on the classified side, is a make-work, fantasy exercise. Sure, someday someone somewhere will get it right, just as someone eventually picks the right lottery numbers, but does that make them a good analyst, or simply lucky? I argue strongly in favor of the latter.

Korean history is not measured in years or decades; it’s measured in centuries. Unlike China’s roughly 300-year cycles, Korean dynasties have lasted for over 900 years (Silla) and ruled nationally for 600 years (Choson/Joseon). While I doubt North Korea lasts for centuries, after two successful familial successions there is no reason to believe the North is not a dynasty, so why the focus on near-term collapse? It might happen, it might not. Far better to prepare for it, or, depending on your political milieu, try to hasten its arrival.

Recently, but by no means always, the South’s approach has focused on preparations: eventually the North will collapse, or wither away, and Seoul is going to get stuck footing the bill. Depending on which party is ruling in the South, this leads to greater or lesser investment in the North, with the left (e.g. former president Kim Dae-Jung) spending more and the right less (occasionally, far less). Among the reasons given by Seoul for investing in the North is simply cost – any infrastructure built now is one less thing to buy at unification. This amortizes reunification costs over the longest possible period, somewhat lessening the future financial shock.

A growing subset of this reasoning is to try and prevent Chinese investors from gaining ‘too much’ control over the North’s resources. The last thing Seoul wants to deal with post-reunification is getting stuck with China owning much of the North’s resources, or angering Beijing by taking over those same Chinese investments.

Outside policymakers and analysts, with far less skin in the game on post-reunification economic and social issues, perhaps feel freer to indulge in crystal-ball gazing. While the predictions can be interesting, they are largely beside the point. What to do once the North collapses is the more important issue. Beware buying a lottery ticket from anyone telling you otherwise.

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