Bucking the Odds in North Korea

Why Kim Jong Un might just dare to be different.

Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images
Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

No one ever got rich by betting that North Korea was about to loosen up. Kim Jong Un’s "kingdom" is one of the world’s last totalitarian states, and it’s generally safe to assume that next year’s politics in a totalitarian regime will closely resemble last year’s. A lot of "maybe this time really is different" stories have been written about North Korea over the decades since the peninsula was divided, and so far, they’ve all been wrong. Waiting for North Korea to crack open is like waiting for the Cubs to win the World Series, and no amount of wishing makes it so. As longtime Korea-watcher Charles Armstrong recently observed, "The status quo remains and is unlikely to change any time soon." Or, in Victor Cha’s more bearish take in the pages of Foreign Policy, "The North Korean regime will not change because Little Kim studied in Switzerland, likes Mickey Mouse, and has a hot wife. If anything, another crisis could be looming."

And yet "improbable" does not mean "impossible." Maybe this time really will be different. The USSR wasn’t supposed to loosen the screws, and then it did. The Burmese junta was supposed to have battened down the hatches when it crushed the Saffron Uprising in 2007, and look where we are now, just a few years later. Although the money’s still on continuity in North Korea, there are sound reasons to believe that the chances for political liberalization in the near future are improving.

To understand why a seemingly stable dictatorship would ever give its political opponents an opening, it helps to consider the political economy of authoritarianism. Dictators repress their citizens because it helps them stay in power. Political rivals can’t beat you if they can’t get organized, and they’ll find it very hard to organize if they can’t meet, talk, or reach out for support. Following this logic, we usually think of political liberalization as something that dictators resort to only when forced by restive mobs threatening to end their rule, if not their lives.

What that conventional view misses, though, are the financial and economic trade-offs that harsh repression entails. First, the machinery of monitoring and repression can be expensive, and the information it produces isn’t always reliable, so shrewd autocrats will always be looking to cut costs and improve outputs in these areas. Second, and less obviously, repression indirectly imposes drag on an economy by inhibiting productive exchanges among citizens. These market frictions can create a gap between an economy’s actual growth rate and the growth it might achieve with a freer citizenry.

When a dictator’s revenues depend on the performance of his country’s economy, these trade-offs give him some incentive to loosen restrictions on civil liberties. The question is when that incentive becomes strong enough to outweigh the political risks of reform.

The conventional view of political liberalization tells us this shift only occurs when dictators face an imminent threat of revolution. If the end already seems nigh, rulers might try to prolong their tenure by meeting their opponents halfway and hoping that compromise satisfies the mobs at the gates. This process is sometimes described as liberalization "from below," because it’s driven by popular unrest.

Careful consideration of the political and economic trade-offs involved, however, suggests another possibility: Dictators might also pursue "liberalization from above," gambling on reform when the economy is stagnating and political opposition is especially weak. Under these circumstances, expanded freedoms of speech and movement can open new avenues for economic growth without immediately producing a serious political challenge. There might be plenty of pent-up demand for political change, but revolutions require organization, and organization takes time, so shrewd rulers might attempt to shoot those rapids in search of calmer waters on the other side.

The mid-1980s USSR offers the classic example of this strategy. When Gorbachev started the reform ball rolling in early 1986, glasnost was not meant to throw the doors open to free speech. Instead, it was intended to serve as an instrument of economic reform. By giving workers and managers space to talk about waste and corruption, glasnost was supposed to make the machinery of the planned economy run more efficiently, not to tear it down. The Soviet Communist Party ended up losing that gamble, but the fact that they attempted it at all illustrates that this scenario is a real possibility.

The ongoing thaw in Burma offers another example. Burma is rich in natural resources, and the value of those resources is currently high, but the country’s ruling elite hasn’t been able to benefit much from those assets because they’ve been locked up behind economic sanctions imposed by Western governments. The political reforms undertaken in the past year seem to have been carefully calibrated to encourage those governments to ease sanctions and encourage investment — all without immediately threatening the regime’s control. The end result is a process that will allow an aging generation of leaders to cash out their newly liquid assets and retire comfortably before the next wave of revolutionary fervor hits.

Might North Korea soon follow a similar path?

In contrast to Victor Cha’s skepticism, Korea hand Andrei Lankov thinks liberalization is not out of the question. His observations of the latest doings in Pyongyang recently led him to conclude that "the start of a reform process is a real possibility." He cites proposed agricultural reforms that would mimic changes in China in the late 1970s and ruler Kim Jong-Un’s public endorsement of an American pop-music concert in Pyongyang.

Other North Korea-watchers also saw a portent of reform in an abrupt shake-up of the country’s military leadership in July 2012. Personnel changes are standard procedure for new leaders seeking to consolidate their authority, of course. But ousted Vice Marshall Ri Yong-ho was widely regarded as a hardliner, so his dismissal was also the sort of thing we might expect to see from a leader laying the groundwork for reform.

There is no question that North Korean regime’s extreme repression has effectively quashed any organized popular opposition. According to recent reports from the U.S.-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, the country’s gulags now hold as many as 200,000 political prisoners, and its security services have actually stepped up their surveillance activities since Kim Jong-un took power. As the International Crisis Group observed in a July 2012 report, "although many North Koreans are dissatisfied with the government, the barriers to collective action make it very risky and nearly impossible to organize any resistance… There is no civil society."

But there’s another way to look at this. The absence of organized opposition and the dreadful reputation of DPRK’s state security services actually give the regime more room to pursue partial liberalization in pursuit of economic revival. We’re much less likely to see dictators gambling on reform in countries where there is a nascent opposition that stands a chance of becoming a threat — and that certainly doesn’t apply to North Korea today.

Many caveats come to mind, of course. If we’re going to talk about prospects for political change in North Korea, for example, we also have to talk about China. Without political and financial backing from its more powerful neighbor, the North Korean regime would surely have collapsed years ago. This makes it hard to imagine a reform process starting without China’s blessing, or at least its continued financial support.

Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, director of the International Crisis Group’s North East Asia Project, argues that China’s support is probably not in doubt. In a recent blog post, Kleine-Ahlbrandt acknowledges that "North Korea’s economic dependence on China may have reached an all-time high," but she also points out that the dependency in this relationship flows both ways, and that this interdependence gives Kim room to maneuver. "The late Kim Jong Il once said that China should have to pay for its buffer zone," she notes, and "Beijing seems quite willing to do so." This line of thinking suggests that China is unlikely to respond to reforms in North Korea by withholding support and may even welcome the prospect of a less dependent client.

Another important factor: North Korea’s war footing. The country has spent decades in an official state of war, a condition that has distorted its political development in ways that continue to dampen prospects for reform. When I asked Korea expert Bruce Cumings what he thought about the possibility of political liberalization in the near future, he noted the importance of heavy investment from China and a more relaxed attitude toward news from the outside world. At the same time, he asserted that "this is fundamentally a garrison state," and "as long as relations with the U.S. and the South are hostile, there won’t be any serious reform breakthrough."

Cumings clearly has a point. Yet history constantly reminds us that no dictatorship lasts forever, and it is just possible that the trade-offs inherent in authoritarian rule may finally be tipping North Korea toward change.

Of course, even a significant liberalization would not lead automatically to democracy — or, for that matter, to state collapse. The "thaw" in the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death led to another 40 years of Communist rule, and even the denouement under Gorbachev took several years to unfold.

For a country as closed and brutally repressive as North Korea, however, even modest reforms would mark a significant break with the past. Against this standard, careful consideration of the dilemmas of authoritarian rule suggests there’s reason to be more optimistic than we’ve been for a while.

Jay Ulfelder, a political scientist and forecaster, writes the blog Dart-Throwing Chimp.