So far the state has gotten by through political agitation. They'll build a couple missiles, cause a little scene by test-firing them over Japan then make some concessions to the west by agreeing to end the missile testing in return for aid. Once in a while they'll play China and Russia off each other since both of them like using North Korea as a tool against the Americans. If that gets boring they'll warm up ties with the South and get some hard currency from South Korean tourists. What do they get in the end? Chump change. One step forward, two steps back.
None of these options are long-term solutions. No amount of political posturing will change the fact that the country is slowly starving while the economy is going nowhere fast. It's been pretty obvious for a while that North Korea is facing constantly increasing internal and external pressures and it's only a matter of time before something cracks. The country's leaders will eventually have to face up to the facts and say, "The jig is up, boys! Let's blow this joint!" The problem is: there's nowhere to go. If all hell breaks loose and there's a popular uprising, a government official from the current regime might just be persona non-fucking-grata.
No kidding; North Korea's is the leading contender for the world's most authoritarian state - a country where people must wear badges showing their country's leader. If the government collapses and the people find out how much money their government officials have been spending - in the middle of a famine - on propaganda billboards, spying on people who collect water-bottle labels, and enriching themselves... well, some of the them are going to be very, very pissed off. Those officials will have little luck finding shelter in other countries since North Korea is a pariah state. What nation would publicly protect the leaders of a country that has spent the last 50 years in a state not even seen in Russia since the days of Stalin? Even China wouldn't accept them once the world realizes North Korea's government has turned the country of 22 million into a giant work camp with worse conditions than in the infamous Chinese prisons.
Since the big shots can't leave the country, and want to avoid being part of a going away party of the type given to Mussolini or Ceausescu, they're going to be pretty anxious about preventing their regime's seemingly inevitable collapse - or at least trying to turn that collapse into a smooth transition. The question is: who can they turn to for help? China? Russia? The USA?
South Korea and Japan, the two most obvious candidates, can be ruled out right away. The South Korean government rightfully considers North Korean leaders to be murderous bastards that should be shot on sight, and the North Koreans would find it pretty hard to negotiate with Japan after spending the last 50 years convincing their populace that Japan wants nothing less than the destruction of all Koreans.
Would the Americans be willing to help North Korea, even in the unlikely event that they were willing to remove Kim Jong-il as their leader and start reforms? I think not. Let's face it: since the collapse of the USSR the world's bad guys have been in a pretty fucking sad state. They just don't make `em like they used to. Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Osama Bin Laden... all amateurs compared to the Soviets. Putting things in perspective, what's the World Trade Center compared to the threat of TOTAL NUCLEAR ANNIHILATION? That's right: The USA is running low on viable enemies. How else can you justify spending billions on weapons when you've got the worlds largest military and no real threats to speak of? As anyone who's been following the latest Star Wars project knows, the answer is rogue states. As long as the American public believes there's a reasonable chance of a nuclear attack from the "Axis Of Evil", all that tax money spent on the military may not seem so crazy.
But who are we kidding? Today, the world's bad guys don't even have a cool name like `The Evil Empire'; all we've got is the `Axis Of Evil'. I think we can all agree that the dark side is getting pretty pathetic when their name sounds like First World War-era propaganda. Instead of an evil empire we've got Iran and Iraq, two poseur states about as threatening as suburban 15-year-olds blasting gangsta rap out of the windows of their mom's minivan, and a North Korea that's run by an Asian version of Oscar Wilde, only less menacing. That's not an axis of evil, that's the Three Stooges, people!
A nuclear attack by Iran? Not gonna happen. Iraq? Yeah, right. Despite what you may have heard, Saddam Hussein is not crazy. He's not going to launch a nuke at a country that will respond by wiping Iraq off the face of the earth, even if he has nukes to begin with. If you think Hussein is the madman the media make him out to be, then consider this: He's the one running his own country, getting driven around in limos and sleeping with nubile young broads every night, while you're working for a living like a chump! No, he's not crazy. He'd rather go on murdering his own people and boning Miss Baghdad instead of getting involved in nuclear shootouts he can't win.
With enemies like these, the US simply can't afford to lose the animosity of North Korea. What you lack in quality, you might as well make up in quantity. Not that North Korea itself is actually dangerous - they can't even get nuclear technology from the Russians, and I think that says a lot. Hell, the Russians would sell nukes just to piss off the Americans, for old times' sake. Even if ol' Kim Jong-il did get a nuke, don't expect a nuclear attack from a guy that's so scared of flying he'll spend three weeks on a train rather than board an airplane. Going shopping for nuclear weapons it can't afford and then making the "concession" of not buying them in return for foreign aid is just another way the North Korean regime is hoping to keep itself afloat.
If help from the US can be pretty well ruled out, what about Russia? Russia has pretty close ties with North Korea and, like China, uses them once in a while to prod the United States. Fine, since the Americans don't have diplomatic ties with North Korea the Russians act as a proxy negotiator for the west when it suits their interests, but that's about as far as they're willing to go. The reason is very simple: influencing North Korea basically means bribing them with some kind of aid package, and Russia doesn't have money to throw away. The Russians have got enough problems of their that they won't be spending big dough on a country that, to be honest, just isn't that important to them.
That just leaves China. Like Russia, China has good relations with the North Koreans and they've got an interest in ensuring the stability of a country they share a border with. Unlike Russia, China has the money to support its wild adventures on the frontiers of geopolitics, so it seems reasonable they would be involved in any major change in North Korea's government. More importantly, China has had a lot of success in the transition that the North Koreans would be looking to make: a transition from a centrally-planned economy run by a corrupt, one-party system to a market economy run by the same corrupt, one-party system. As was the case in Russia, many of China's leaders realized decades ago that their economy was going all to hell. China's latent free-market tendencies were not the result of some limp-wristed desire to improve the life of the workers, but to stop an economic collapse that would mean losing the party's grip on power. Any North Korean politician who isn't too blind to notice the noose that's been materializing around his neck these past few years has probably started watching China pretty carefully.
Something big just waiting to happen in North Korea, and it looks like the regime's options are pretty limited. Look for major changes in the next few years, and don't be surprised if they turn to the Chinese for help. Remember folks, you read it here first.
Originally published at con.ca as Where Are We Going and Why Are We in This Handbasket?