Sunday, June 20 2021 | ASIA TODAY INTERNATIONAL - Reporting the Business that Matters in Asia
STABILITY AT RISK IN PYONGYANG
THE disappearance of North Korea’s Kim Dynasty is likely to result in an overwhelming sense of intellectual and cognitive dislocation and politico-cultural alienation for North Koreans as their entire existing world view vaporises in a swirl of disbelief . . .
SEOUL — As the North Korean military command continues to endure ‘yoyo’ promotions and demotions in a seemingly never-ending cycle, and as their civilian counterparts are buffeted by the fallout from Jang Seong-thaek’s dramatic ouster and execution, concerns over regime stability are rising.
Although journalists and others play a dangerous game (at least to their reputations) when they prematurely predict the demise of regimes as well as individuals, it is becoming clear that North Korea may be entering a period of uncertainty regarding its medium term prospects.
The question is what can be expected should the Kim dynasty go into the dustbin of history?
Given that the sole source of political legitimacy for the North Korean political system is the Kimist dynasty, the North Korean state would have difficulty surviving in a post-Kim dynasty world.
In probably the only statement issued by the North Korean state media that holds validity, its assertion that “our party, state, army and people do not know anyone except Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un” is indicative of what may be in store should the regime implode.
Apart from the severe economic erosion that has been under way since the mid-1980s, the greater, more intractable problems are very likely to be psychological and cultural, especially once the North Koreans become aware of the extent of the pervasive deception that they have been living under (or at a minimum been forced to accept openly).
Remove the illusion of the brilliant genius guiding the Juche political philosophy — and thus the justification underpinning the existence of the entire state — and there will be nothing for the North Korean people to fall back on. Compounding this moral collapse will be the belief (whether justified or not) that their brethren south of the DMZ largely sat back passively and grew wealthy while those in the North suffered and died for a lie.
Thus, the disappearance of the Kim dynasty is likely to result for the North Korean people in an overwhelming sense of intellectual and cognitive dislocation and politico-cultural alienation as their entire existing world view vaporises in a swirl of disbelief.
Of course, there will also be the grave economic disparity between average North Koreans and all of their neighbours in any direction.
Studies have shown that trans-border migration occurs when one country’s GDP per-capita falls below 60 percent of that of its neighbour. As the GDP per capita (2012) of both South Korea (US$27,991) and China (US$9,233) easily outstrips North Korea’s derisible US$1,800 (2011 estimate), both can expect mass migration once North Korea ceases to effectively control its borders. Moreover, the ones leaving are likely to have a greater capacity to take the initiative than those remaining, leading to a reduction in the human resources required to rebuild the former DPRK.
The question is what can be done to avoid South Korea inheriting a region of around 20 million inhabitants facing psychological alienation and economic distress and incurring substantial, if not crippling, reunification costs.
Should the North Korean polity implode, what must be avoided is immediate reunification — as that would open the floodgates to embittered economic refugees southward and carpetbagging South Koreans opportunists northward.
Already, the relatively few North Korean refugees in South Korea are having great difficulties in adjusting economically and socially. Adding significantly more could raise the spectre of a resurgence of slums and refugee camps on the outskirts of South Korean cities teeming with a new underclass of the marginalised.
Politically, if granted citizenship in the Republic of South Korea (which they technically have already), having millions of disillusioned, desperate voters could destabilise the South Korean political system.
Imagine the fist-fights that would occur in the National Assembly once martial arts-trained northern politicians are elected and added to the already volatile mix.
On the flip side, South Koreans going north to take advantage of North Korean distress would fuel further alienation and resentment (as well as increasing the price level for rents, etc.).
The experience of the United States during its post Civil War Reconstruction experience highlights this prospect all too well.
A roadmap that could avoid both social and economic dislocation and despair would have as its principal goals the reconstruction (or development) of the economy in the north while also forestalling socio-cultural alienation and despair by giving the Koreans in the north a stake in the future of the northern provinces.
The process should commence with the creation of an interim regime in the north to fill the political and administrative void. This would give the impression that the north would have a role in its own development.
To forestall mass migration, jobs would have to be created in the north.
Happily or otherwise, there is much to do. First, civil infrastructure (roads, rail, bridges, energy grid, sewer and sanitation, ports — you name it) has to be built from scratch. Fortun-ately, South Koreans (as well as China and Japan) are masters of infrastructural development.
Rapid development of infrastructure would general multiple positive spin-offs. For one, it would keep northerners productively employed in the north. For another, it would be the quickest way to raise living standards in the north and thus provide incentives to stay. Third, northerners would have visual proof of a brigh-ter future to which they have contributed. Fourth, North Korea has more than one million soldiers. Simply making them redundant (as the US did with the Iraqi forces) and leaving them to their own devices would create a social disaster of epic proportions.
Fortunately, North Korean military personnel are frequently drafted for construction projects, harvesting and other labour-intensive activities. In short, the redirection of military personnel to economic reconstruction is not an alien concept to them.
What would be alien is to receive wages for doing so. By creating on-site labour camps where the workers receive daily rations and pay, northerners would have a much reduced incentive to leave the north while simultaneously rebuilding their country.
Of course, the ultimate goal would be reunification. However, that should take place gradually and incrementally to give northerners the chance to develop economically, educationally and cognitively without facing immediate stifling competition from their more worldly southern brethren.
As infrastructure is developed (with southern financing and expertise) it can be integrated with infrastructure in the south.
Once northern Korea reaches around 70 percent of the economic level of southern Korea, and its population has been eased into the post Kimist world, unification will become more feasible and beneficial for all.
As Abraham Lincoln sagely instructed his Generals when the Confederate capital city, Richmond, fell to Union forces in 1865:
“Let the people down easy.”