Ever since the Soviet bloc crumbled in the early 1990s, the chance that North Korea might also collapse has been a subject of speculation among Korea experts. In his recent book Preparing for the Possibility of a North Korean Collapse, Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst with the RAND Corporation, concludes that a North Korean collapse is a real possibility with serious consequences for which South Korea and the United States should be prepared. Changsop Pyon of Radio Free Asia’s Korean Service interviewed Bennett about the factors that could lead to the North’s collapse.
Q: Many people speculated that North Korea would collapse after the East European communist countries fell in the 1990s, but the North has survived, after all. Why do you still believe in the theory of a North Korean collapse?
A: Well, let me be clear that what my paper is arguing is not that the collapse will happen very quickly. It’s more likely that it will happen in five or ten or 20 years. My argument is that we need to begin to prepare for this now, and not to wait until this happens, because that will be too late to make effective preparations. With that in mind, though, in terms of how a collapse might happen, I think the most likely way is for someone to assassinate Kim Jong Un, to kill him. We know that there were a number of assassination efforts against his father, and there has been at least one reported in the press against Kim Jong Un in November of last year.
So, those potentially could happen, and my argument is that we know that in the past the Kim family has done a very good job of balancing the [regime’s] second tier of leadership. They don’t let anybody get too strong. So, even when Jang Sung Taek got too strong in 2000, Kim Jong Il pulled him out of his leadership position for several years to try to control his power. If the leader is assassinated sometime in the future, there won’t be a designated successor among that second tier of leaders. There will probably be a debate who takes the leadership, and maybe even that debate could transition to a civil war.
Q: Do you really think anyone would step up and dare to assassinate Kim Jong Un in a closed country like North Korea?
A: I think it could happen. But like I say, there’s very little chance it’s going to happen this year—not zero, but little. But in terms of the coming years, I think in the next 20 or 30 years, it could happen. I think the probability will continue.
Q: Who could assassinate Kim Jong Un, and under what circumstances?
A: We know that Kim Jong Un has turned over many of his leadership [positions] very quickly. He sacked three different defense ministers and three different chiefs of the general staff on the defense side. And when they leave office, oftentimes they are not retiring into luxury. They are instead sent to prisons or shot. We don’t know for sure what’s happened. And in many cases even their families are sent off to prisons. So, my thought is that they have many junior officers who are their supporters, who would also be concerned about a sudden change in their superiors’ situation. They’re worried they would become victims, too. Sooner or later some of those people are likely to try to act against Kim Jong Un just to protect themselves and their families.
Q: Most Korea experts believe Kim Jong Un is in firm control with no apparent challenge to his rule. Do you still think he’s a vulnerable leader?
A: I think there is not a direct threat to remove him from some of those people or some second-tier leaders who think he’s become too weak. I think he’s fairly stable. If you go back to March of this year, the statements made in March about warning of a war with South Korea and the United States and other things suggested that there was a degree of concern by the regime that they wanted to be as strong as they should be. They needed to make themselves look powerful. So if Kim Jong Un doesn’t invigorate the economy, if the economy continues to be in poor shape, and if there is nothing to suggest that he is a very good leader--then, I think, he could face some threat as well. Of course, that would be an internal threat. I don’t think this is a period of time in which South Korea or the U.S. would simply decide to invade North Korea. That just doesn’t make any sense.
Q: How would you compare him with his late father Kim Jong Il in terms of vulnerability to political risks?
A: Well, if you think about the period of time in which Kim Jong Il was the leader, during his almost 20 years in leadership, his defense minister, I believe, was turned over only three times—the same as Kim Jong Un has done in a period of less than two years. So, Kim Jong Un has been replacing people, and that kind of situation is destabilizing. That’s one big difference. I think the second big difference is that Kim Jong Il, from the time he got out of college until he became the leader of North Korea, had shaped the leadership in North Korea. He replaced many [people] long before he became the leader. Some people argued that as early as the late 1980s he was really having as much power as his father in many regards. That didn’t happen with his son.
Now the third factor is that there is a lot more information coming into North Korea about what the outside world looks like. Kim Jong Il could claim that South Korea was a disaster, far worse than North Korea and so forth. Kim Jong Un can’t claim that easily. People know much more about what the situation in South Korea looks like today. So as more and more information comes into the country, Kim Jong Un will have a more difficult time explaining why he is doing such a bad job with the government, why he is not providing more economic returns to the people. And I think that’s a major difference.
Q: In your book, you say that the North Korean elite might rebel against Kim Jong Un. Don’t you think they are actually in the same boat as Kim Jong Un?
A: They are in the same boat. However, think about the situation in which Gen. Lee Yang Ho was fired. A month before he was removed from the leadership position, he had no idea what was going to happen. He may well have acted against Kim Jong Un. I think he was surprised when he was actually taken out of the leadership. Now more people know that Kim Jong Un replaced him even after he had made his initial replacements, put in people who’re supposed to be supportive of him. That’s going to make a lot of the new leaders skeptical about how long they will last in a position of authority, and what will happen to them after they’re removed. Kim Jong Un has created a very different situation. Just look at his security. Kim Jong Il used to have only plainclothes security personnel around him in almost all cases, whereas Kim Jong Un keeps uniformed security people with large weapons around him. He seems to be a little more concerned about his own security.
Q: You argue that economic decay in North Korea is another factor that could contribute to North Korea’s collapse. But hasn’t the North survived numerous economic difficulties in the past?
A: Well, I think it’s really two things. I mean, we’re hearing from some of the polling of defectors and Chinese businessmen that the younger generation in North Korea expected, when Kim Jong Un came in, that things would really improve and the economy would develop. Of course, he brought new vision into the leadership and tried to make necessary changes. Two years along, not a whole lot of things have happened in the way many of them expected. According to the poll taken, a lot of those young people are unhappy. I think that’s an important factor. The leakage of information from the outside is another important factor. When Kim Jong Il took over in 1994, people didn’t know a whole lot about the outside situation. Today the poll suggests that a quarter of the people in North Korea get fairly regular reports from the outside media. That’s a huge difference.
Q: Considering all these danger factors, do you conclude that North Korea could follow the fate of East Germany, which was absorbed by West Germany in 1990?
A: I think there is a chance it could. I think that’s a positive development. But with East Germany, the situation was different in the sense that the West German government made a lot of preparations for unification. There was regular communication across the border, and if you had taken the poll in East Germany in 1988, they would have said overwhelmingly they thought unification would be good for them. I don’t think that’s the condition in North Korea. I don’t think people have that kind of feeling in the North.