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Analysis: Is North Korea's Collapse Imminent?

  • Jenny Lee

People watch a TV news program showing a file image of Thae Yong Ho, a high-profile North Korean defector, at Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Aug. 17, 2016

Despite a growing narrative that North Korea might be teetering on the verge of collapse, there is a lack of consensus among U.S. experts on the imminent downfall of the reclusive regime.

Talks of a possible near-term regime collapse resurfaced among North Korea watchers when Thae Yong Ho, a high-level defector, said recently that the influx of information from outside the country and expansion of market activities within it are sapping traditional structures of the North Korean system. The regime is “crumbling” and the days of Kim Jong Un's leadership are “numbered,” said North Korea's deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom, prior to defecting with his family to South Korea in 2016.

“Low-level dissent or criticism of the regime, until recently unthinkable, is becoming more frequent [among North Korea's elite],” Thae said at a news conference in Seoul last week. “We have to spray gasoline on North Korea and let the North Korean people set fire to it.”

Growing dissatisfaction

Following Thae's comments, a Wall Street Journal editorial suggested the Trump administration should “make regime change an explicit policy goal for North Korea.”

Joseph DeTrani, former U.S. nuclear envoy and intelligence official, said that while Thae's claims are “significant commentary” based on the diplomat's knowledge base, there is virtually “no indication that the regime's collapse is imminent.”

While saying that his views are based on limited information, DeTrani said he sees “a functioning government” in the North: private markets are functioning and people have access to food.

Ken Gause, who monitors the Kim regime, is also skeptical of Thae's prediction of regime change.

Notwithstanding increasing international sanctions, he says, Pyongyang's economy is faring relatively well. Even with its chronic food shortage, the country is “not as in serious situation as it was in the 1990s when there was mass starvation.”

South Koreans watch a TV news program showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's New Year's speech, Jan. 1, 2017, at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea.
South Koreans watch a TV news program showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's New Year's speech, Jan. 1, 2017, at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea.

Popular uprisings unlikely

Gause, director of the International Affairs Group at the Center for Naval Analyses in Arlington, Virginia added that due to an extensive surveillance network of informants that covers every North Korean citizen, it is highly unlikely that information that could lead to a popular uprising will circulate among ordinary citizens.

“If this regime is going to collapse, it will come from destabilization at the top of the regime,” Gause said.

Some experts, however, give weight to Thae's description of Pyongyang's political state.

Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at The Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Center in Washington, believes the Kim regime is being undermined significantly by disillusionment among North Koreans.

“Mr. Thae's comments show that there is growing disillusionment, that the hopes that people had for Kim Jong Un have not panned out, that he is no better than his father and his grandfather, not only the repression but the resistance to allowing outside information in and implementing necessary economic reform,” the former intelligence official said.

Increasingly isolated

Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California said there are a few signs of instability in North Korea. One example, he said, is the deteriorating ties between the North and its only ally, China.

“[South Korean] President Park has had eight summits with [Chinese President] Xi Jinping and [Kim's] had zero,” Bennett said.

Bennett also said Kim is “a little bit desperate to do things that are outlandish and appear to be strong,” and all of those things tend to point to him having a degree of weakness, adding “we just don't know how serious it is.”

“While you could say he's trying to refine his missile and nuclear programs, I think a significant reason why he did all of that [nuclear and missile tests last year] was to try to demonstrate to the regime that he was really powerful,” Bennett said.

Thae, the 54-year-old former deputy ambassador in London, defected to the South in August with his wife and two sons. He is the highest diplomat to defect to Seoul in nearly a decade.

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