Kim Jong-Un (3rd from L) applauds while watching the Arirang mass games performance to celebrate the Workers' Party of Korea's 65th anniversary

Kim Jong-Un applauds while watching the Arirang mass games performance in 2010 (Source: AP Photo/Xinhua, Yao Dawei)

North Korea is going through a testing transition. As Kim Jong-il appears intent on positioning his son, Kim Jong-un, as heir, there are reports of severe unrest and shortages within. In recent years, the question of whether there can be a stable handover in power has lead to further speculation about the North Korean state collapsing.

If this happened, what could the South Koreans, and the rest of the world, expect? What should they do? Will we be able to predict it? These questions are made all the more pressing by recent events in North Africa.

Feasibility of state failure in North Korea

Back in December 2010, the Yomiuri reported on a cable released by Wikileaks in which Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell reported on his meeting with South Korean Unification Minister Hyun In-taek on July 20th 2009. In that meeting, Hyun concluded: “Although Kim Jong-il (KJI) remained firmly in control of the regime for now, he was unlikely to live beyond 2015.”

Hyun told Campbell that “North Korea after KJI’s death would look very different than the current state and require economic assistance from South Korea and the United States,” and that “in case of a sudden collapse in North Korea, the ROKG and USG should move quickly toward unification of the Korean peninsula.”

In a later cable, Ambassador Kathleen Stephens reports on a meeting with Vice Foreign Minister Chun Young-woo on February 17th 2010, in which Chun advises that “China would not be able to stop North Korea’s collapse following the death of Kim Jong-il. The DPRK, Chun said, had already collapsed economically and would collapse politically two to three years after the death of Kim Jong-il.”

Chun considered the Chinese response to a collapse, stating that “China would clearly “not welcome” any U.S. military presence north of the DMZ,” and that the “PRC would be comfortable with a reunified Korea controlled by Seoul and anchored to the United States in a ‘benign alliance’.”

On Japan, Chun was pessimistic: “even though “Japan’s preference” was to keep Korea divided, Tokyo lacked the leverage to stop reunification in the event the DPRK collapses.”


Elements of the South Korean government clearly believe that North Korea may collapse in the next seven or eight years. This raises the question of what comes next, a question that Andrew Bennett and Cory S. Julie discussed in a CSIS paper yesterday: The U.S., China, and Preparing for North Korea’s Demise.

The demise of one-party regimes in the former Warsaw Pact states, and more recently Tunisia, reminds us that long entrenched governments can disintegrate with remarkable and unexpected speed.  With its ailing economy and rickety transition to a figurehead third generation leader, North Korea is a candidate for collapse.  We will know this process is imminent, and gain insight into its dynamics, when we see an increase in defectors from North Korea’s ruling circle.

Year Defections
2000 312
2001 583
2002 1,140
2003 1,281
2004 1,894
2005 1,383
2006 2,018
2007 2,544
2008 2,809
2009 2,952

On the right is a table showing the number of total defections to South Korea from 2000 to 2009 (data from Wikipedia). While there is a clear upward trend in the figures, it should be noted that only a tiny fraction of these numbers are comprised of high-level defectors. Indeed, they have little to gain from defecting: in North Korea they have power and status that they could never sustain across the border. It is only once the going gets tough that the powerful get going.

Bennett and Julie see this problem and belief it is important to encourage the power elites from their palaces:

We should also make clear that early defectors from the North Korean elite will be welcomed and well-treated, and that late converts may be left to their own devices or handed over to international or Korean courts.  Repugnant though it may be to provide amnesty to any North Korean officials clever enough to jump ship early, they need to know that an orderly process of unification is a realistic and superior alternative to continued provocations or the risk of uncontrolled state collapse.

With recent reports of a Kim Jong-un driving a purge of his rivals in the North, this suggestion could not be better timed with so many standing to lose so much. Bringing the elite out of Kim Jong-il’s influence will weaken the power structure within the country.

A further problem, however, are the thousands of others who would attempt to leave the country. No matter how many attempt to get around or across the DMZ, many hundreds more take their chances crossing the Yellow River into China. State collapse in the North would drive refugees across the river causing a humanitarian crisis and an undesirable contingency for China to deal with. Even those who choose to remain in the country will need logistical support to ensure that they receive food, water and fuel, particularly given the harsh North Korean winters.

Integrating the economies

The major problem, acknowledged in the CSIS paper, will be the economic impact. The collapse, they say, “would entail and the certainty, from Germany’s example, that unification would impose high fiscal and social costs.”

An October 2010 Ilmin International Relations Institute Working Paper on the economic impact of a North Korean collapse concluded:

In an integrated Korean peninsula, unless a humanitarian crisis breaks out, it is unlikely that the international community will assist in bearing the financial burden of developing the North. Eventually, South Korea will need to procure funds through means such as tax hikes, accruing debt, and increasing social assurance funds. As much as possible it would be wise for the current generation of South Koreans to bear the costs through tax increases. If it becomes necessary to accrue more debt, any associated risks can be minimized by borrowing primarily from domestic sources. However, no matter the shape of the financial burden, it will cause notable difficulties for whoever decides to take charge. Therefore, all efforts need to be made to minimize integration expenses. This includes delaying the labor market’s integration to prevent market distortions.

Economic disparities between North and South Korea in 2009, and East and West Germany in 1990

Economic disparities between North and South Korea in 2009, and East and West Germany in 1990 (Source: Economist)

The lessons of Germany were also the subject of a recent Economist article. Analysing the disparity between the North and South Korean economies, it concludes:

If the Koreas reunified, the government would face a stark choice. It could try to fill the gap in living standards between North and South, through handouts, public investment and subsidies. Or it could brace itself for heavy migration, as poor Northerners moved to the South in search of higher wages.

What else?

The final major problem is that of the military. South Korean officials are quick to tell American officials that they seek a  denuclearized unified-Korea, but there are many who doubt this. Besides the weapons themselves, how would the South go about dismantling the supporting technology and safeguarding the scientists and research that led to its development? Moreover, how would they secure the missiles and other weapons that might suddenly be up for grabs?

These are key scenarios that must be planned for. The role of the US in supporting South Korea in securing the North is the final step to consider. If the US takes too active a role in post-collapse North, it could drive the kind of strategic calculations that led to the Chinese involvement in the original Korean War. On this, all three states must work together – and hopefully the Chinese will be willing to play ball.

What other problems would be faced? Is collapse imminent? Can we even predict this kind of thing? What are the chances of civil war? What will the final unified state look like?  - Let us know in the comments!

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A former contributor to World Intelligence (Japan Military Review), James Simpson joined Japan Security Watch in 2011, migrating with his blog Defending Japan. He has a Masters in Security Studies from Aberystwyth University and is currently living in Kawasaki, Japan. His primary interests include the so-called 'normalization' of Japanese security (i.e. militarization), and the political impact of the abduction issue with North Korea.
James Simpson has 254 post(s) on Japan Security Watch