North Korea’s Coming Collapse

April 13, 2012     
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North Korea’s young and unknown dictator, Kim Jong-un, used a controversial rocket launch to assert leadership over his impoverished and isolated state. Defying sanctions and condemnations from around the world, Pyongyang promised that the rocket would allow North Korea to place its own satellite into space, “the Bright Shining Star,” affirming the success and strength of the country. The rocket launch also coincided with the 100th birthday celebrations for the founder of North Korea, Kim Il-sung. His grandson would prove his worthiness for power with a showing of how he could further the greatness of the nation in space.

This effort at symbolic assertion failed as the North Korean rocket exploded a minute after take-off, fragmented, and fell in pieces into the Yellow Sea. The new North Korean dictator had invested his prestige and about $1 billion of his cash-strapped country’s capital in this project. He had also paid a high price in lost foreign aid for defying international requests to refrain from provocation. He promised that his poor country could compete with the world’s strongest and most technologically advanced states. Now, however, he had proven just the opposite: North Korea is a degenerate regime, suffering from a dead-end economy and a disastrous dictatorship.

As all the promises about the rocket launch blew apart, the regime’s profound inadequacies became evident to everyone, especially its own citizens. Facts matter, and this failure was undeniable. North Koreans learned of it on television, as did much of the rest of the world. One must wonder how North Korean citizens can now retain a belief in their dictator’s infallibility. One must wonder how other North Korean elites, especially in the military, can justify continued subservience to the obviously naive and flawed Kim Jung-un.

North Korea’s failed rocket test has an ironic quality that echoes Percy Bysshe Shelley’s reflections on the ruins of another bombastic dictator who over-reached:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert….
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

Kim Jung-un is Shelley’s Ozymandias. He inherited an apparent instinct for domination from his dictator dad and granddad, but he lacks the tools to keep this game going. North Korean technology, economy, and society suffer from the suffocating effects of prolonged repression. The country cannot compete internationally, it cannot feed its own citizens, and it is rapidly losing its ability to scare its neighbors with flamboyant shows of defiance.

North Korea has transitioned from a rogue state to a pathetic wasteland. It still has a capacity to do damage to nearby countries, especially South Korea and Japan. It still has some claim on world attention because of its small nuclear arsenal. Nonetheless, this regime is on a rapid path to collapse under the weight of its own self-defeating leadership.

The best policy for the United States and its allies is to prepare for this collapse by keeping a distance from this regime, ignoring it as much as possible. The United States, South Korea, Japan, and China should also begin preparations to contain the violence and migration that will surely accompany the last days. Political distance and physical containment are the most strategic ways to handle a fizzling nuisance.

How long will this process take? The historical record should warn against firm timetables. Failing regimes tend to linger longer than expected, and then collapse very quickly. The same pattern is likely in North Korea. My guess is that the lingering is almost over. We must contain the present regime and prepare for its imminent demise. We must not do anything that will give it a longer lease on life through excessive aid or unwise military provocations. With patience and preparation, time is indeed on the side of ending this terrible nightmare.

The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of either Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.

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