The North Korea Paradox: Too Dangerous to stay..or go

The North Korea Paradox: Too Dangerous to stay..or go


The recent, quickly squashed, rumors of Kim Jong Un’s death were met with excited tweets and articles speculating about a surgery gone wrong and a fatally ill dictator. What if the tyrannical leader had finally met his fate? How exciting. Naturally, questions about succession were on everyone’s mind. Who would become the leader of the so-called “hermit kingdom”? What would happen to the country? Would the regime collapse?

At first glance, the end of what is after all a repressive dictatorship can only be a positive international development. However, enthusiasm should be curbed. The truth is that the fate of North Korea is intertwined with the interests of the major powers concerned, mainly South Korea, China and the United States. For now, even if these powers officially long for a unified Korea, geopolitical realities make it so that the fall of the North Korean regime would create more uncertainty and instability than its existence already produces.

South Korea’s Economic and Social Nightmare

Let us first turn to both Koreas. It is difficult to assume that reunification - either peaceful or violent - would be in any other form than under a democratic, Southern Korean government. Under that premise, it is easy to see how this would not sit well with North Korea. A regime that has fought so hard to survive amidst such hostility would find it hard to reconcile decades of opposition and communist indoctrination with reunification with the South, democracy, and peace with America.

If the North Korean regime were to fall, or agree to reunification with its Southern counterpart, South Korea would have to bear the brunt of the economic and societal challenges re-unification would carry. Economically, the two countries could not be further apart, with on one side the hyper modern, hyper digitalised, 11th largest economy in the world, and on the other side a largely rural poor nation. To put things into perspective, North Korean GDP is around less than 1% of South Korea’s. It would take generations, and billions of dollars, to bring North Koreans to the same standards of education, living conditions, and opportunities as their Southern counterparts. As South Korea itself experiences sluggish growth, and its younger generation feels increasingly South Korean as opposed to Korean, unification is losing political traction.

Integrating 25 million North Koreans into the South Korean way of life would be one of the greatest social engineering projects ever attempted. Socially, light years separate the two countries. Koreans do share a cultural heritage, but over half a century of division has created two vastly different societies. South Korea is a mature democracy, at the forefront of pop culture (namely with K-pop) and technological advancements in the region and the world. None of this permeates through the border; where society revolves around communist ideology, adoration of the leader and loyalty to the regime. Years of indoctrination would not easily be reversed. The South Korean government would have to tackle questions such as: How do you democratically represent 25 million citizens with no prior exposure to democracy? How do you expose them to liberal values and include them in foreign political structures? Already now, North Korean defectors often suffer from depression, struggle to find work and find it difficult to integrate. Providing equal opportunities and avoiding discrimination for the few which make it across the border already proves difficult. Governing what is essentially two staggeringly different societies with different needs and expectations could be near impossible.

Sino-American Strategic Competition

Altering the status quo is a risky gamble for both China and the US. Of course, the current situation carries risks for both countries who need to keep a close watch on North Korea. However, the security architecture of the region relies on a careful balance, and both powers know that by tilting it, with interests at odds, they stand to lose influence, and risk creating a perfect environment for mis-interpretations, miscalculations and ultimately, conflict.

The risk of losing influence

A major sticking point is the presence of American troops - around 30’000 men and women - on the peninsula. Should the peninsula unify, both China and the US would do all they can to defend their interests on this matter, which are unfortunately at odds. America doesn’t want to see its troops go, China doesn’t want them on its border. For the US, these troops serve as a way to keep a close watch on North Korea, but also serve the unofficial purpose of keeping an eye on China, curb its influence in the region, and maintain South Korea as a close, semi-dependent, ally. With North Korea gone, the chief justification for the presence of these troops goes with it. This process could be expedited by a South Korean government keen to appease a worried China and 25 million new citizens weary of America. Without its troops, and a rationale for its military presence, the US risks seeing its influence in the region reduced and a unified Korea fall under the Chinese sphere of influence.

China is concerned about precisely the opposite. North Korea serves as a convenient buffer zone between itself and the American troops on the peninsula. Should the peninsula unify, and American troops stay, China would subsequently have American military presence right on its border, something it is keen to avoid. Furthermore, the idea of a bordering unified Korean democracy allied to America, also does not sit well with China as the country vies to export its autocratic model of governance across Asia and the world.

The increased risk of conflict

Should the regime fall, military operations on the part of both countries is a very likely scenario. For China, stability is key. The fall of the DPRK could see the mass migration of North Koreans into China’s bordering provinces, with which China already has an uneasy relationship. Indeed, many could flee advancing South Korean and American troops they have been taught to fear, and see China - the closest thing to an ally North Korea has - as a better option. Political instability resulting from mass influx of refugees is high on the list of things to avoid for a country already dealing with increasing dissent from Hong Kong’s population and backlash for its treatment of the majority Muslim Uighur population. To avoid losing its buffer zone and in a logic to stabilise the situation and prevent floods of refugees, China would likely move into the North.

North Korea possesses an estimated 60 nuclear warheads. In the event of regime collapse, finding and securing those nuclear weapons stockpiles and disarming the North Korean troops is a priority for the United States and South Korea, likely prompting an intervention northwards. With the current climate surrounding the Sino-American relationship, many fear the possibility of cooperation, especially military, between the two powers has long gone. Without proper communication channels, and absent joint actions, separate military operations seeking to defend different interests risk sparking a broader conflict.

Dictatorships are unequivocally reprehensible. Relieving the North Korean people of their suffering should be the ultimate goal of the international community. However, the uncertainties of a power vacuum in North Korea carry enormous risk. Military conflict is a real possibility. Under these circumstances we might have to reconcile with the reality that the status quo, albeit dangerous, is a safer option than the consequences of its demise.