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Week 3 Report: Andrei Lankov on Prospects of the Hereditary Succession in North Korea

June 4, 2012

On April 25, Andrei Lankov, professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, spoke on the prospects of the heredity succession in North Korea. The occasion was week three in NKnet’s recently concluded speakers series. Thank you to volunteer Nova Mercier for write the following summary of the contents of the talk and to Luc Forsyth for providing the photos below.


While the future is impossible to predict, it is still possible to imagine future scenarios regarding the North Korean regime. At present, the newly appointed Kim Jong Un represents the third generation of a heredity succession. Most media sources describe the regime as a Stalinst dictatorship, unpredictable, irrational, and ideologically driven. However, Lankov points out that this is a misconception. In fact, North Korea is rational, generally predictable, and in most regards can hardly be called Stalinist. The Machivellian leadership of the past 25 years have not only known what they were doing, but have managed to survive despite seemingly impossible odds. Indeed, in the 1980s, there was an almost unanimous expectation that North Korea would face certain collapse following the death of Kim Il Sung. The fact the regime remains has defied all predictions.

What can the strategic goals of the North Korean regime be said to be? Lankov believes the leadership simply wish to “die a natural death” – not in exile, but still in power over their own environment. While 20-30 years ago their goal may have been unification with South Korea, this is no longer the case. Similarly, neither can economic development be counted as a current strategic goal. While money is deemed important, development is not. With the core of the regime now in their 60s and 70s, retaining their power until their deaths is an attractive notion.

Lankov believes that for at least the first few years of his rule, Kim Jong Un is likely to follow the example set by his father Kim Jong Il. As Kim Jong Il’s policy worked perfectly well for the regime, retaining it would be a rational move. This is not to say that the young leader may not harbor doubts, but whether he likes or dislikes the situation is irrelevant. It appears he is surrounded by advisors old enough to be his father or grandfather. Coupled with no obvious signs of challenges to the leadership, the regime seems to be under control of things at present.

Survival strategy

How has the North Korean regime managed to survive? Lankov pinpoints four key strategies.

    No reforms

Ultimately, reforms would require the introduction of a market economy – something anathema to the current regime due to the belief that instability would necessarily follow. Lankov notes that while North Korea begins to slowly open economically through special economic zones and joint economic areas every four or five years, anything resembling Chinese-style reforms are unlikely.
The first reason for this relates to South Korea, as economic reform would allow North Koreans to view the enormous economic success of their southern neighbor. Indeed, the income gap between North and South Korea is the largest in the world between any two countries that share a land border. When China began to introduce reforms, the Chinese people also realized the extent of the wealth of the developed world. However, where the difference lies is that the Chinese believed the wealth of the developed world was the direct result of the success of foreign countries. On the other hand, it is probable that North Koreans will see the success of the South as a failure of its own regime. They may well begin to demand that responsibility be taken for the decimation of their country and that parity in living standards with the South be immediately provided. The regime realizes that even if they were to facilitate unusually high rates of economic growth, they will not be immune from popular discontent.

The second reason for shunning economic reforms is the belief that it would be subversive to the regime if North Koreans were to communicate and exchange ideas with the outside world. If economic reforms were to be introduced then domestic surveillance would have to decrease accordingly – something the regime does not believe to be in its interests. Reforms would undoubtedly prove ineffective in an environment where permission is required to travel, and economic partners are unable to be freely contacted.

Thirdly, the leaders of the North Korean regime believe that in the case of collapse the South Koreans will take over the country. While apparatchiks in ex-communist countries may have kept their positions of power and control over state property following the collapse of their respective regimes, the North Koreans harbor no such illusions. Lankov explains that the North Koreans know how they would treat the southerners should northern-led unification occur, and they do not expect to be treated any differently. Ultimately, to surrender would mean loss of power and privileges, discrimination, and perhaps imprisonment and even death.

Could there be a way to initiate reform where a narrow line is formed between growth and propaganda? Lankov notes that regime-sustaining reforms in North Korea can’t be ruled out completely. However, since reforms seem to be a life and death matter for those currently in power then it is unlikely they will take the risk.

    Keep nuclear weapons

The North Korean regime believes that nuclear weapons are necessary for two reasons. Firstly, nuclear weapons are an external and internal security guarantee. Their very existence means the country is less likely to be invaded. While some may accuse the North Koreans of being paranoid, they have kept a close watch on events in Iraq and Afghanistan and are well aware of what happened to the governments there. Furthermore, the regime does not take goodwill from the United States for granted as presidents change, as does American foreign policy. In terms of internal security they understand that the Libyan regime may have suppressed the insurgency had Libyan leaders had nuclear weapons, since the existence of such weapons would have made Western powers reluctant to provide the insurgents with military support. Ultimately, in the eyes of the North Koreans, a government without nuclear weapons is a vulnerable one.

Secondly, the presence of nuclear weapons is a means through which to garner foreign aid. The stagnant North Korean economy coupled with the inability to produce enough food for the population has created the need for an effective bargaining chip. As North Korea is viewed as a dangerous nuclear power, China, Japan, the United States and South Korea have all donated food aid over the last fifteen years at an average of 0.7 million tonnes a year.

    Kill all dissenters

At present, it is estimated that 150,000 people remain in the North Korean prison system. With the country facing an economic crisis, and with South Korea just across the border, the regime has zero tolerance for dissent. One of their key goals is that the population does not begin to form their own groups and organizations. Aware that Eastern European pro-democracy networks disseminated through non-political groups, the regime does not tolerate any form of gathering organized outside of the government.

However, contrary to common belief, the North Korean regime has become somewhat less repressive over the last 20 years. Actions that would have resulted in death under Kim Il Sung’s rule are now being punished somewhat less harshly. One example is the crossing of the border with China; if captured, North Korean interrogators demand only to know if border-crossers have made contact with South Koreans, Christian missionaries or other non-Chinese foreigners. If the answer is no, the prison sentence will be roughly two months to one year. Fifteen years ago, crossing the border into China would have meant a minimum of five years in prison and lifelong social discrimination. Another example relates to the imprisonment of entire families in prison camps. While it used to be the case that not only a political prisoner but all family members would be incarcerated, this now only occurs in special circumstances.

    Control the markets, but don’t over-control them

Lankov explains that economic life was dramatically different under the rule of Kim Il Sung than it was under his son, Kim Jong Il. The state distribution system overseen by Kim Il Sung provided free food and daily necessities. In contrast, North Korea under Kim Jong Il essentially transformed into a market economy. Indeed, Lankov notes that one of the reasons he does not subscribe to the common description of North Korea as a Stalinist economy is that the old state economy has now all but disappeared. The industrial output of North Korea is between one third and one half of what it used to be in 1990, and around 75% of the average family’s income is earned on the black market.

Despite black market activities remaining illegal, a sizeable private economy exists. This has negative consequences for the regime, as the younger generation are beginning to learn that it is possible to make a living outside of the government. However, the main concern regarding the black markets is that they provide an arena for people to meet and share information about the outside world. Government efforts to control markets have thus far ended unsuccessfully. The currency reform of 2009 was badly executed, and government regulations banning the private sale of grain are consistently ignored. Problems with controlling the markets are exacerbated by those in charge of law enforcement who make a profit accepting bribes from traders.

As private markets continue to grow, news from the outside world penetrates deeper into North Korea. Even though radios are fixed to an official channel, DVD players are legal. This has seen the rise in popularity of South Korean soap operas and movies. Although there is a danger that life in the South is not accurately portrayed, North Koreans understand that images like scenes showing the cityscape of Seoul are not able to be manipulated. The fact that South Korea is faring better than the North is now widely understood – even official propaganda has changed its focus. In the past, it was claimed that South Korean students were so poor they were forced to sell their blood in order to buy textbooks. Now, the official narrative has shifted to a portrayal of the North as a pristine paradise and of the South as an irresponsible emitter of industrial pollution.

The burgeoning private economy in the North has left the regime in a difficult position regarding the correct course of action to take. Grassroots capitalism must be kept under control, as free market growth could spell the end of the regime. However, the leadership is also aware that excessive crack-downs will result in a backlash. Lankov believes it is likely Kim Jong Un will follow a policy of market control for the foreseeable future – even if he does wish to attempt reform, those surrounding him are not likely to allow it.

Concluding remarks

What will happen next in North Korea? Lankov believes that in the long run, the current situation is not sustainable and a future collapse is likely to be violent. The main problem remains the economy. Since reform is not likely, the gap between the North and South remains large and will probably expand even further.

Another important variable when considering the prospects of the current regime are the ideological differences between those in their 20s and 30s and those of their parents. The younger generation views the distribution system as suboptimal, is less afraid of the government and, due to corruption, has learned that they are able to buy their way out of trouble. Increasing knowledge of the outside world also means this group is well aware of North Korea’s poverty in comparison with its neighbors. In due course, this demographic will become the majority.

Of course, there are both internal and external forces that support the current situation. With the exception of the United States, all countries with a stake in Korean affairs wish to maintain the status quo. In particular, the idea of unification in South Korea is becoming increasingly unpopular. Despite the lip service paid to this ideal, it is probable that southerners would resist the large social and economic price involved.

Internally, a very significant minority of around two million North Koreans maintain a stake in the continuation of the current system. Unlike past communist regimes and dictatorships, this minority believes that if reform were to occur they would fail to personally benefit. Despite being only a small part of the North Korean population, they are better organized, educated, and wield power over just about everything in the country.

Lankov points out that it is not a matter of if but of when the regime will face collapse, and he believes the collapse will come rather suddenly. However, some warning signs could herald the beginning of the end. These may include the increase of international news coverage about newly implemented reforms, and much fanfare surrounding a “Pyongyang Spring.”

If collapse were to occur, Lankov believes it likely that a large number of refugees, some armed and violent, could attempt to cross both borders. Another possible scenario involves the large scale smuggling of nuclear material to third parties. A further significant danger could arise from the small but powerful minority who, seeing an imminent collapse, may not give up without a fight.

Of further concern is a crisis on the peninsula coinciding with a phase of tense relations between China and the United States. This could be dangerous for the rest of the world, not to mention for those currently residing in Seoul.

Audience questions

Is North Korean culture anti-revolutionary?

Probably, yes. However, while this could postpone the outcome (of a collapse) it could not prevent it. It is true that the North Koreans are badly organized. There is no civic education or civic spirit. There are no horizontal connections, and people are terrified of the government. They also don’t see any alternative. But having said that, we were also told the Arabs were anti-revolutionary. While it may be true the older generations in North Korea are anti-revolutionary, the younger people present a slightly different picture.

Has news of North Korean refugees not doing well in South Korea influenced other North Koreans refugees in their decision about where to live?

Those North Koreans living in China are not able to understand (about life elsewhere). They hear a lot of different stories. It’s true that those who choose to go to Canada or the United Kingdom have an added disadvantage of a language barrier and cultural shock.

If unification were to occur there would probably be a high level of mutual distrust between South Koreans and North Koreans. North Koreans will see southerners as greedy, arrogant and discriminating. And in most cases, northerners will not be suitable for highly skilled labor. For example, there may be North Korean engineers who are highly educated on general matters and theory but have never used a computer. People like these won’t get jobs at Hyundai and will see this as discrimination. Being able to use a pencil and paper is simply no longer a valuable skill for an engineer. One of the things we should do is warn North Koreans about holding excessive expectations about life in the south.

How effective is flooding North Korea with information about the outside world?

This may be the only way (to bring change) but we can’t expect too much. When will the results be produced? Bureaucrats and politicians tend to want things being done by the next election, whereas this is a more long-term approach. One should not be optimistic about diplomacy. However, there are some other things that can be done. The “painkiller solution,” as opposed to a “treatment,” would involve accepting the North Koreans as a de-facto nuclear power. They want a nuclear arms restriction treaty with the United States – essentially a revision of the 1994 Geneva Framework. That is, North Korea will put their nuclear program on hold and subject to some international controls in exchange for being able to keep their stockpiles of plutonium and previously produced nuclear devices. In addition, the North Koreans want money transferred to them to use as they see fit. As long as someone is paying there will be no war.

This is unpopular to outsiders as it’s like “paying the blackmailer.” However, the alternative is a growing nuclear program which could be sold to the highest bidder. They may also develop nuclear missiles. Ultimately, the “painkiller solution” is a postponement, but surely life could be made slightly less painful in the meantime.

How would South Korea be impacted in the case of collapse or unification?

The “horrors of post-unification life” are often discussed. It is likely that the first 10-15 years will be difficult. North Koreans will discover their skills are unacceptable. They will see this as discrimination but who would hire a North Korean doctor? Also, what do you do with one quarter of a million people who have suffered physical and psychological damage in prison camps? What do you do with those in the military, who spent all their lives learning how to kill people with low-tech weapons? How do you control real estate speculators from the South who will pressure North Koreans to sell their houses for the price of a new fridge? There will be a lot of mutual distrust and accusation. After that, things would probably get better. The younger generation will just know themselves as “Koreans.” This will be good for the country, as it will be much larger and less vulnerable. The long-term prospects are good to brilliant. The short-term prospects are very hard to disastrous.

Would South Korea and the United States be safe to enter North Korea without having to worry about China?

I am not sure that they would be too eager to invade in the first place. Even if a majority of North Koreans welcome southern troops, there would be Kim loyalists in North Korea who would resist this takeover by Seoul, and many South Koreans would be unenthusiastic about sending their children to fight for unification. China would also not intervene in the advent of a crisis, as North Korea is a hot potato. A Chinese intervention would make China the enemy of Korean nationalism, and they don’t want either the North or South Koreans hating them. Also, other neighboring countries will see China’s entry as a signal about China becoming dangerous. Nobody wants to be involved with this North Korean crisis and reconstruction. In fact, the Chinese have already laid out conditions regarding a potential South Korean takeover. These conditions include no support for irredentist claims in Manchuria and the acceptance of Chinese economic rights in North Korea. Ultimately, it may be that South Korea will use the excuse of the threat of Russia and China to justify doing nothing.  Younger South Koreans in particular would prefer to do nothing in case of regime collapse in the North.

Will China stop repatriating refugees?

Theoretically speaking, if China wants to exercise pressure on North Korea, stopping the repatriation of refugees may be an effective way to do so, as this remains one of North Korea’s vulnerable spots. China is unhappy with North Korea but is not sure how to put pressure on them without inciting a whole-scale crisis. They are faced with either a nuclear North Korea they don’t like, a collapsing North Korea they like even less, or a unified one under a pro-American government. If it does occur, China would accept a unified Korea. But for now, the status quo is better. Ultimately, they don’t want to do anything that would jeopardize this.

Additional photos from this event:

Facebook photo album: North Korean Human Rights Speaker Series

Media coverage of this event:

Lankov on Reform in North Korea
NK News
May 4, 2012

A past interview with Professor Lankov:

Interview: Andrei Lankov on NK’s Extraordinary Diplomacy, Why It Doesn’t Reform, and More
NK Vision
July 2011

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