High noon in East Asia: the coming implosion of North Korea
By Michael Lee, author of Codebreaking our Future
There is more to the current war of words between North Korea and the US–South Korea alliance than sabre-rattling. After its northern neighbour conducted its most powerful nuclear test yet, triggering a magnitude 5.3 earthquake in the process, South Korea promised to ‘annihilate’ Pyongyang if there is even a hint that its neighbour is about to begin a nuclear war. A tense and beleaguered South Korea is now preparing for what it calls a ‘worst case’ scenario. But how realistic is this potential future?
North Korea seems to be edging ever closer to its long-term goal of mass producing nuclear warheads. A deadly cat-and-mouse game is underway, one which is starting to resemble the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. But the Korea crisis of today seems even more dangerous, because we’re talking about the potential for both nuclear and conventional warfare. The border between the two Koreas is the most militarised place on earth, heavily lined with missiles. In addition, the United States Forces Korea (USFK), under the United States Pacific Command (USPACOM), has about 28,500 American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines stationed in South Korea. This situation could get very messy indeed. A confrontation could easily be triggered. Once again, the world is on edge as it was back in 1962.
From our vantage point in the West we can see that North Korea is trapped in a time-warp, a kind of living museum of 1950s style Cold War socialism. I believe that North Korea is a state on the edge. Its collapse is almost inevitable, but the form it will take is less clear.
The current dictatorship cannot last, in fact, I see North Korea becoming a colony, or puppet state, of China (more on that later). This colonisation could prevail until the new Asian superpower has evolved into a freer civilisation and ceases to see the US as a major strategic rival in East Asia. When this region is no longer the flashpoint of economic and ideological competition between a waning but powerful global empire – the USA – and the rise of China, the two Koreas will finally be reunified like Germany was in 1990.
Korea will then be truly free for the first time since Japan annexed it in 1895.
So where is the evidence for this scenario? The idea of North Korea imploding is plausible. In fact, the country almost collapsed completely in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union. It only survives today because it offers a convenient buffer state for China against American military presence in South Korea, Japan and Australia.
By looking at Korea’s history we can get a glimpse into the future of the country. At the time of the partition of Korea into North and South Korea, the former was largely industrial and the latter agrarian. While South Korea advanced in the intervening decades into a leading Asian Tiger economy, its northern counterpart descended into a dystopia begging to be captured on celluloid. It is a story of two Koreas: to the north, economic decline of an industrial society brought about by an energy crisis coupled with ecological degradation, and, to the south, economic prosperity and technological innovation catapulting an agricultural society into the twenty-first century.
The fact that North Korea fell so hard after the collapse of communism shows the extent to which this small nation has relied upon foreign supplies. Since the Korean peninsula as a whole has little oil and gas of its own, communist North Korea depended upon the Soviet Union for its industrial energy needs until that Union broke up at the end of the 1980s. Then North Korea lost the bulk of its supply of energy to run its industries. In 1990, for example, it had imported 18.3 million barrels of oil from Russia, China and Iran. Then, abruptly, its imports from Russia fell by 90%,  a catastrophic depletion.
Then floods in 1995 and 1996 washed away precious topsoil, damaged and silted dams and flooded coal mining shafts. These natural disasters were followed by a massive drought in 1997, and then by a tsunami. It is difficult to survive twin energy and environmental challenges of this magnitude. The country’s ageing economic infrastructure and systems faltered and fell under the burden. A dangerous feedback loop was created between industrial and ecological decline as the government began burning biomass to create heat and energy to compensate for its meagre supply of oil and gas: ‘North Koreans turned to burning biomass, thus destroying their remaining forests. Deforestation led, in turn, to more flooding and increasing levels of soil erosion. Likewise, soils were depleted as plant matter was burned for heat, rather than being mulched and composted … Biomass harvesting reduces ground cover, disrupts habitats and leads to increasing soil erosion and siltation.’
Since modern agriculture depends upon fossil fuels almost as much as modern industry does, North Korea’s energy crisis was bound to lead eventually to a food crisis. Famine struck the country in the second half of the 1990s. During this period, mass starvation literally decimated the population – about 10 per cent died. This must have been a terrifying time for the nation. Even today, around 6.5 million of the state’s 23 million people are dependent upon food aid from the UN’s World Food Program (WFP). The agency reports that 37 per cent of children and 32 per cent of women in the country are badly malnourished.
So behind the façade of television broadcasts of military pomp and power, North Korea is, in reality, a depleted society unable to properly feed its own population. It is at least half-way along the road to destruction. It has undergone an industrial and agricultural collapse from which it will never fully recover unless it modernises its society and economy. The dilemma for the authorities in Pyongyang is that such a modernisation process would lead rapidly to the demise of its totalitarian political system.
The CIA World Factbook places North Korea 194th in the world according to its GDP – per capita (PPP) of $1,800. It also has a high external debt rate and very weak domestic energy stocks and production. With industrial energy being a driving force of long-term economic growth, the chances are very low of the country undergoing a strong enough economic recovery to buy the time needed to break out of its current political time-warp.
Politically isolated and cut off from modern society and from globalisation, as well as from the world’s considerable knowledge base, North Korea’s economic prospects are, indeed, poor. Veiled in secrecy, the country, tightly controlled by a dictatorship backed by the military, is in chronic lockdown mode.
Looking at North Korea’s current situation I am reminded of how the Maya civilisation declined as a result of a combination of energy shortages, food crises, natural disasters, ecological deterioration and a political vacuum. Inappropriate, rigid leadership, which was unresponsive to the root-causes of its national crisis, played a significant role in the Maya collapse. It is going to be a key element of North Korea’s future fall. The country’s totalitarian military dictatorship, which hosts about 200,000 political prisoners, seems more interested in developing its nuclear weapons programme than in feeding all of its people. The state first allocates fuel to the military and then lets the other sectors – agriculture, transportation and industry – compete for the remainder of the limited fuel supplies available to the country.
Economic progress in today’s highly competitive global world is impossible under such repressive conditions, as China discovered. Pyongyang’s inverted logic shows there is a vacuum of leadership in the country. This is a major factor in collapses of social systems, from the Maya society to modern-day Egypt and Libya during the recent Arab Spring.
Kim Jong Un, portrayed by the Western media as an ‘atomic crackpot’, is incapable of reforming the North Korean state. His brand of totalitarianism relies upon indoctrination and keeping the public ignorant to perpetuate the dynasty’s absurd state personality cult. This, in turn, makes education and information the true enemy of his state. Governance based on public ignorance cannot be sustained indefinitely in an era of globalised internet and mobile communications. The government has been known to mete out severe punishments for citizens using mobile phones or making unauthorised international phone calls. However, as evidence from former communist European states demonstrates, information, from radio, internet and books and magazines smuggled into the country, will invade North Korea. Education will infiltrate North Korea. Freedom will conquer North Korea. This small state cannot hold indefinitely against the forces of global technology revolutionising society across the planet.
Furthermore, when leadership is so globally isolated, it cannot solve global problems like climate change, environmental degradation, famine, disease and, of course, recession and government debt. This produces paralysis in the face of these borderless crises. So often, it is the failure of leadership which allows economic, environmental and social decline to tip over into outright disorder and bankruptcy.
The Mayan civilisation broke down as a result of its over-consumed, exhausted resource base, which increased competition for resources and created internal conflict. Degraded, deforested land such as we see in North Korea, becomes more vulnerable to climate change, which, in turn, further damages the soil and its fertility, leading to worsening droughts and decreased food production. This, in turn, further aggravates competition for resources, leading to social conflict. Social conflict then makes it harder for the kind of collective, co-operative action required to solve the deep-seated socio-ecological dilemma. Decline then slides down into disintegration. From a systems point of view, such destructive feedback loops are difficult to solve even by governments with high competence levels. This kind of collapse is what happened to the Maya. Unfortunately, this is likely to happen to the North Koreans, too.
To understand how this might unfold, it is important to list disaffected groups and ‘voiceless’ citizens who might take part in any Korean Revolution.
- The unemployed and unemployable;
- The poor and hungry masses;
- Workers on farms and in factories dissatisfied with top-down management and lack of labour rights;
- Political prisoners;
- The youth, who are largely in favour of modernisation and modern technology;
- Factions within the echelons of power in Pyongyang;
- Criminal gangs;
- Underground activists and those yearning for freedom and a modern education;
- Thousands of North Korean defectors in China and South Korea itself (it is estimated, for example, that there are about 23,000 North Koreans who have made it via China to South Korea).
Data is not available regarding the numbers of all these groups but it seems reasonable to assume there will be hundreds of thousands of North Koreans, perhaps as many as a million or more, willing to take part in any storming of the Bastille-style political uprising.
It would only take some catalytic force, possibly the next inevitable famine or a leadership power struggle, to release the pent-up, long-repressed anger of these masses and groups.
Which brings me to my concluding question: what effect will North Korea’s collapse have on the rest of the world? Will the regime go quietly or try to take others down with it?
I strongly expect social, economic and environmental problems to escalate in North Korea until the country reaches breaking-point. Either this tipping-point will prompt war against an external enemy, since there’s no stronger unifying force for a failing nation-state than to fight against a foreign threat, or it may prompt some woefully belated economic reform measures from its rulers. As in Russia in the 1980s, when glasnost and perestroika increased, rather than deflated, the revolutionary fervour of the Russian people, such desperate North Korean reforms will only serve to release repressed, large-scale social tensions and the population’s widespread yearning for freedom. At that point, well before 2030, a groundswell of opposition will build, spurred on by the North Korean underground liberation movement and other alienated groups, as well as by the international community. As the state begins to collapse, China, pre-empting the UN and the USA, is likely to intervene from the North, in the guise of a peace-keeping force, to end North Korea’s revolution. A new era will begin of the military occupation of the country as it becomes a colony of the Asian super-power for the following few decades. The upside of this occupation is that it will inaugurate an overdue modernisation process analogous to China’s own economic revival.
At this stage, it seems more probable that North Korea would opt for war as a strategy for holding itself together rather than reform. If a war does, indeed, unfold it would become clear at some point to the generals and soldiers of this tragic nation that they were facing certain defeat. Then a revolution could break out aimed at toppling the country’s government to stop the national suicide.
Despite this bleak outlook for North Korea, there is space, in the long-term perspective, to dream as well. For the likely time-scale for a joyous reunification of a free and democratic Korea is sometime between 2050-2120.
CIA World Factbook. Central Intelligence Agency. Washington, D.C. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/kn.html
Diamond, Jared. 2005. Collapse. Allen Lane, Penguin Group, Victoria, Australia, 2005.
Eberstadt, Nicholas. 2016.’Kim Jong Un Is Hell-Bent on a Nuclear War with the U.S.’ – http://europe.newsweek.com/kim-jong-un-hell-bent-nuclear-war-us-497511
Fox News. 2007. ‘150,000 Witness North Korea Execution of Factory Boss Whose Crime Was Making International Phone Calls’. http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,313226,00.html
Haupt, A and Kane, T. 2004. Population Handbook, 5th Edition. Population Reference Bureau. Washington, D.C, 2004.
Pfeiffer, D.A. 2006. Eating Fossil Fuels. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.
Ryall, J. 2012. ‘North Korea threatens to punish mobile-phone users as ‘war criminals’‘. The Telegraph – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/northkorea/9040152/North-Korea-threatens-to-punish-mobile-phone-users-as-war-criminals.html
Spodek, J. 2011. Understanding North Korea: Demystifying the World’s Most Misunderstood Country.
 See, for example, an astute and sobering analysis of this situation by Nicholas Eberstadt, entitled ‘Kim Jong Un Is Hell-Bent on a Nuclear War with the U.S.’ – http://europe.newsweek.com/kim-jong-un-hell-bent-nuclear-war-us-497511
 At the end of World War 11, North Korea and South Korea were partitioned by the victorious Allies to suit their strategic plans.
 Eating Fossil Fuels, by Dale Allen Pfeiffer (New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, BC, Canada, 2006, p.43.
 Ibid, p.44, 49.
 World Factbook, Central Intelligence Agency. Washington, D.C. 20505 https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/kn.html
 ‘150,000 Witness North Korea Execution of Factory Boss Whose Crime Was Making International Phone Calls’ November 27, 2007 – FoxNews.com http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,313226,00.html
‘North Korea threatens to punish mobile-phone users as ‘war criminals’‘ – Julian Ryall, Tokyo 26 Jan 2012