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A. Zhebin: North Korea's Factors of Stability and Future Developments

Address to the International Leadership Conference
Seoul, Republic of Korea - February 9-13, 2014

In spite of chronic economic problems and the dramatically complicated international environment, the North Korean leaders have managed to retain their power and ensure political and social stability and sustainable control over developments in the country. This was demonstrated by the smooth power transfer process after Kim Jong-Il’s death. There were neither signs of any open display of discontent with Kim Jong-un’s take-over nor evidence of any organized opposition of any kind. The ruthless purge of Jang Song-taek and several reshuffles of the top military commanders have proved that the new leader is fully in control of the country. A number of factors, which could become a potential source of destabilization and on which some circles abroad pin so many hopes, have clearly not worked. Two previous decades demonstrated the futility of attempts by outside forces to detect and single out, and much less render support to any person or a group inside North Korea that are an alternative to the ruling family. All efforts to crack the unity of the ruling elite from the outside have so far proved to be unsuccessful, which ultimately happened to be a key domestic factor in the DPRK’s survival as a sovereign entity. Until the North Korean nomenclature are given clear-cut guarantees of their personal safety and certain level of well-being, they would be cautious about implementing any reforms and moving towards denuclearization and re-unification. Pyongyang also expects that Beijing would continue to treat the DPRK as an important buffer state separating China from the U.S. forward deployment forces in East Asia.The economic situation and primarily the food problem remains a major challenge for the regime. It seems that nowadays the DPRK is more, than ever before, aware that in order to survive in the modern world order, it is necessary to take new approaches to the solution of economic problems. Among the remarkable signs of departure from the previous rigid stance were decisions to normalize work at the Kaesong industrial zone and to establish a dozen more special economic zones. It is highly desirable to use all opportunities available for developing various kinds of economic and related exchanges with North Korea as the only available channel to engage Pyongyang, promote mutual trust and integrate the country into the world community.


During the last two decades Pyongyang, in spite of incessant pronouncements of the “collapse theory” advocates and other numerous predictions of North Korea’s imminent demise, has managed to cope with the loss of its major political and military allies, deflect military threats from its main adversaries, and, finally, escape an economic downfall of the country.

Though the situation in the DPRK is still complicated, it remains generally stable. The ruling elite, brought up to power by the country’s previous leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, have succeeded in ensuring the transition of power to Kim Jong-un, maintaining political and social stability and sustainable control over the country.

In this paper the author will present his personal opinion on major factors which ensured these remarkable results. The situation leaves us with meager chances to change North Korea’s international behavior unless the world community engages the country in honest [dialogue] to alleviate the regime’s fears – real or imaginary ones.

United we stay

According to Vladimir Lenin's classical teaching on two absolutely necessary conditions for a revolution to occur, that is an “upper strata” cannot rule like it did before whilea "lower strata" do not want to live like it did before, the first part of this formula was not the case in the DPRK. The purge of Jang Song-taek demonstrated that the North Korean leadership is determined to root out at an early stage the emergence of any faction within the WPK, to say nothing of any civic group or organization, capable of challenging the existing system.

At the grass-roots level, like in the 1930s in the Soviet Union, whose political system at the time was very similar to the present-day DPRK, the majority of the ordinary North Koreans are inclined to put the bulk of the blame for food shortages and economic problems on local officials who are believed have failed to implement in a proper way the directives of the Leader, as well as on "imperialists" and their "flunkies" who make attempts to strangle "the Korean-style socialism."

When assessing the severity of the food situation in the DPRK one should always keep in mind that the northern part of the peninsula for centuries suffered from lack of food because of climate and other natural conditions. The North Koreans used to live under very modest rations during almost the whole period of the DPRK's history and well before 1945. Providing decent food to the population has never been among top policy priorities of either local feudal lords or the Japanese colonial authorities. During the whole period a transparent border with China helped a lot to alleviate the food situation.

Potential sources of discord, which some foreign observers used to pin so many hopes on during the last two decades, have clearly failed to bring about the destabilization of the regime. Infighting between "conservatives" (ideologists) and "technocrats" (pragmatics) which many analysts expected to exacerbate initially after Kim Jong-il left the political arena, if it is really going on, is being waged behind the scene. The North Korean conservatives have demonstrated staggering ability, whenever it was necessary, to become successful pragmatics (with virtually no major trump cards in their hands, they made major world powers negotiate with DPRK for two decades actually on equal footing). And reformers were cautious enough to realize that factional infighting and drastic twists in policy can trigger processes that eventually could lead to unleashing process beyond their control.

The so-called "contradictions" between the DPRK Foreign Ministry officials and the North Korean military, which reportedly surfaced from time to time at the talks with the U.S.A. with the passage of time look ever more like a product of wishful thinking. While recognizing the fact of the military's strongpositions in the DPRK’s leadership and their more rigid stance in dealing with the U.S.A., it would be misleading to overestimate their influence or imagine that their core interests differ from those of the regime. Both civil and military branches of the ruling elite are interested first of all in ensuring the North Koreanstate’s survival.

One of the major factors behind the current seemingly solid unity of the North Korean elite is that both hard-liners and pragmatists have learned a lot from the fate of some top leaders in the former East Europe’s socialist countries as well as in some third world countries. Trials of former Communist parties' Politburo members and ex-presidents in Europe, the Middle East and Asia happened to be a very convincing argument employed by those in North Korea who warn against rocking the boat and call "to share life and death with the Leader." The DPRK’s reaction to the events in Libya is the latest confirmation of the position.[1]

This approach is supported by numerous strata of middle and even low-level in the Workers Party of Korea and government officials across the country, including army and security forces officers, managers of industrial enterprises and agricultural cooperative farms who, along with their family members, would lose literally everything in case of the regime’s collapse or soft landing.

As to the conflict of generations within the ruling elite, which may have taken place in the 1980s and 1990s, it has virtually ended by now for natural reasons: old "partisan" cadres have mostly left the political stage. As a result of the WPK conferences held in 2010-2012, the party’s top bodies testified to the fact that the remaining representatives of the first and second generations of “revolutionaries” will compete not for the top position but for the places among closest aides to Kim Jong-un, who represents the third generation of the incumbent leadership.[2]

As a result, nowadays there are experienced functionaries in every sphere of the Workers Party of Korea and government activity on whom Kim Jong-un can rely. They were placed in the Party and state’s top decision-making bodies because, firstly, they were expected to give good advice to the young leader, and secondly, they will assume the daily management of the particular sectors until the new leader acquires enough experience. In general, such a leadership system for a transition period is almost identical to the one used in North Korea in the first years after Kim Il-sung’s demise.

Until the purge of Jang Song-taek, Kim Jong-un seemed mainly to be the regime’s symbol and “face.” However, several replacements of the top brass conducted by him during 2012-2013 without any visible signs of resistance indicated that he is unlikely to share power with someone else. He - like his father, Kim Jong-il, did after Kim Il-sung’s death - would rule alone. There is an absolute leader, the only source of power. Any attempts to establish another center or even to interpret his orders according to somebody’s “selfish” wishes will not be tolerated and will be mercilessly crushed. All other members of the top leadership can compete only for the opportunity to have the Leader’s ear more frequently than others and to be credited as successful executors of the Leader’s orders and policy.

Of course family members (as we know from history) often enjoy more of the Leader’s confidence. That was exactly the case of Jang Song-taek. However, some experts’ claims that he was allegedly a "regent" for the new Leader seemed unconvincing. His power and influence stemmed from the mere fact that he was a husband of a member of the ruling family. His career was brisk and skyrocketing as long as he was serving the family well. But when he tried to pull over the blanket too much, the punishment was devastating.

Two previous decades demonstrated the futility of attempts by outside forces to try to detect and single out in order to give greater support to any person or a group as an alternative to the ruling family. All efforts to crack this unity from the outside have so far proved to be unsuccessful, which ultimately happened to be a key factor of the DPRK’s survival as a sovereign entity.

In assessing the likelihood of change in the future, it is important to bear in mind that, given the age of the incumbent North Korean leadership, it is highly likely to expect the appearance of new people in the next two to three years. Kim Jong-un, if he manages to stay in power for the next several years, is bound to encircle himself with his own hand-picked younger aides.

At the same time, awareness of being «in the same boat» does not exclude the existence of different approaches and even disputes between conservatives and advocates of change, including those in economic policy. Such discussions are taking place and sometimes have been made public. Some publications in the Workers Party of Korea’s news outlets contained, inter alia, criticism of unnamed supporters of the non-traditional industrial structure of the country with its emphasis on heavy industry and rejected views of “some people” who were arguing in favor of the transition to the so-called "export model” of development.[3]

China-North Korea: Support and persuasion

China’s position is a major international factor ensuring the survival of North Korea. To understand China's position it is necessary to take into consideration that China and Korea have been neighbors for several thousand years. Until the 20th century Korea was included in China's traditional sphere of influence. The last 100-year break means nothing, from Beijing's vision of history and its long-term interests on the peninsula and in the region, when compared with the previous 5,000 years and perhaps a similar period in the future.

In spite of an on-going debate among Chinese foreign policy experts on the feasibility of China’s current support of North Korea, it is unlikely that even post-communist China, to say nothing of the present-day one, which is preserving the socialist system and the ruling role of the Communist Party, will agree to a united Korea under the political and military control of the U.S.A., China's major rival in the current Asia-Pacific century. However, this would be exactly the case if the North Korean regime collapses in the near future.

China prefers, at least for the time being, to keep North Korea afloat as a buffer zone between herself and the U.S.’s forward deployment forces on Asia’s mainland. For China to lose North Korea would be equal to losing a second Korean War, with the possible subsequent stationing of the U.S. troops on the Yalu River - a prospect that is absolutely unacceptable in view of both the U.S. “pivot” to Asia and Beijing's plans concerning Taiwan. For China to yield the DPRK to "imperialists" would be fraught with the loss of face and authority earned by China in Asia over many centuries. China can hardly afford acting like that.

During the current crisis, Beijing repeatedly spoke in favor of the denuclearized status of the peninsula. A nuclear North Korea could push down the same road to South Korea, Japan and, probably, - the most dreadful thing for Beijing, - Taiwan.[4] However, attempts to employ those worries to make China to exert more pressure on North Korea have definitely failed, since Beijing realized that the United States was more interested in preventing such a development than China herself because a nuclear-armed Japan and South Korea may well consider it unnecessary to tolerate any more the American military presence on their soil.

Beijing realizes very well the negative consequences that the liquidation of the DPRK could bring about for the People’s Republic of China, especially in view of the unfolding American-Chinese competition or, perhaps, rivalry for a leading role in the Asian Pacific region. Therefore China, despite her displeasure with some of Pyongyang's moves, cannot afford to lose North Korea. The visit to Pyongyang by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in October of 2009 and his laying flowers on the grave of Mao’s son, who fought and died during the Korean War, spoke volumes about China’s stance for those who have an elementary knowledge about the meaning of such symbolic gestures in Oriental politics.

In an extreme case, China’s protection that occurred in the 1950s and in many other cases during past centuries, may well be extended over the DPRK's territory, because for North Korean leaders and the ruling elite it would be much more preferable and safer to return to their old traditional relations with China - the 21st century's superpower - than to find themselves - at best of chances - in a South Korean prison. Four trips to China during 2010 and 2011 by Kim Jong-il support the assumption quite convincingly.

The U.S.A., in turn, understands that any attempt to take hold of what China has considered its sphere of influence for many centuries would lead to a major quarrel with the world’s largest country and with another world civilization – a Confucian one. The U.S.A. is certainly unwilling and, as the continuing financial crisis has shown, prefers to evade a risk of a major conflict with China over North Korea.

Therefore the U.S.A is trying to lure the Chinese by promises that after the DPRK's "disarmament" is concluded, the U.S. forces will not be deployed in the North and return to the south of the 38th parallel, or that American strikes will be limited only to the North Korean nuclear facilities. However, Beijing, no doubt, remembers similar promises concerning NATO’s expansion to the East given by the Americans to Mikhail Gorbachev and can compare them with present-day realities in Europe. Meanwhile, the Americans in every way possible try to sow alienation and mistrust between China and North Korea, particularly by compliment about what they call a "constructive role" allegedly played by Beijing during the current crisis.

Beijing, apparently, will try henceforth to employ all political and diplomatic methods available as well as economic resources necessary to ensure the DPRK's survival. At the same time China will encourage North Korea in every possible way to exercise restraint in it foreign policy and to continue economic transformations which would lessen the political and economic burden for China to support the regime in Pyongyang.

Prospects for change

The probability of radical reforms from "above" like the Gorbachev-style perestroika in the USSR are almost excluded in North Korea. The DPRK’s leaders were hardly inspired by results of perestroika in the USSR, which led to the removal of the ruling Communist Party and her leader from power and to the country's disintegration.

A "peaceful revolution from below" like in East Europe appears to be also impossible in North Korea because of the almost total absence of elements of civil society in the country. An all-embracing system of social control and mass mobilization, the absence of a regular transportation network between the country’svarious regions available to ordinary people, the restrictions of freedom of travel within the country, and the absence of any media outlets independent from the state make any open mass display of discontent with the official policy impossible.

Kim Jong-un’s performance in safeguarding the ruling elite's power and in pulling the country out of crisis without making too many concessions to "imperialists" will be the key factors which will determine his political future. Some pronouncements of the new Leader indicate that he understands the gravity of the situation and the urgency of addressing his people’s everyday needs.[5]

A process of economic integration and globalization in North-East Asia seems to provide the world community with new instruments for both persuading him to go down this road as well to engage him in a mutually acceptable and beneficial way. Only inviting in honest North Korea to participate in carrying out multilateral economic projects in North-East Asia, including those proposed by Russia, can convince Pyongyang that the international community has embarked on a road leading to the DPRK's gradual and peaceful integration in existing international political and economic order instead of forcing on the country a regime change scenario.

Economic cooperation will help to develop the DPRK’s economy and make the North Koreans more prepared to live in a modern society. In other words, it will help to lessen the existing gap between two parts of the country and to cut unification's cost. During the process, it will help to enlarge in the North the ever-growing strata of people interested in stable cooperative relations with the outside world. It is highly likely that more active involvement of the DPRK in those processes may bring about positive changes in her international behavior. That’s why Russia is in favor of early implementation of multilateral economic cooperation projects on the peninsula.

That doesn't mean at all that Kim Jong-un’s leadership will be much more liberal or more inclined to step down from power. On the contrary, it may well be rather conservative in domestic politics, highly pragmatic and very tough in negotiating for such a settlement formula which would ensure for them an appropriate social status and material well-being in a reunified Korea.


The current long pause in the Six-Party process provides South and North Korea with unique opportunities, through their own combined efforts, to seize the leadership in removing the threat of another major conflict, promoting peace and common prosperity. The start of the 21st century proved that an inter-Korean dialogue has every chance to become a major factor in promoting security and stability on the Korean peninsula.

Dialogue is vitally necessary to improve the current uneasy situation in the inter-Korean relations. The best option for the Koreans would be to resume working on implementation of the bilateral agreements and understandings reached between South and North Korea at the various talks and contacts held during several previous decades, including those agreed upon at the historical inter-Korean summits of 2000 and 2007.

Moscow's position concerning the inter-Korean rapprochement and its possible results is determined by Russia’s national interests, for it will certainly benefit, first of all, from the liquidation of a long-time conflict right next to her Far Eastern region and from ultimately founding a unified Korea capable of maintaining relations of friendship, good-neighborliness and cooperation with Russia.

Secondly, better relations between North and South Korea, along with providing Russia with more favorable conditions for the development of trade and economic cooperation with both parts of Korea, would open new opportunities for the economic development of the Russian Far East and for linking Russia’s economy to the integration processes in the Asia-Pacific region.

So both for security and economic reasons, Russia is vitally interested in the peace, reconciliation and unification of Korea. This conclusion seems especially important in view of continuing attempts by some experts to convince public opinion that none of the neighboring countries, including Russia, is interested in Korea unification. Such allegations are aimed at placating some countries' egoistic policy and disguise their attempts to keep their military dominance in the region at any price.

[1] Foreign Ministry Spokesman Denounces US Military Attack on Libya. KCNA.2011.03.22.

[2] “Rodong Sinmun.” 2010.09.28.

[3] “Rodong Sinmun.” 1998.09.17.

[4] "Nezavisimaya gazeta." 2003.04.28.

[5] New Year Address Made by Kim Jong Un. KCNA.2013.01.01; Kim Jong Un’s First Public Speech: New Direction for Economic Policy Stressed. NKbriefs. 2012.04.25. Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un's New Year Address. KCNA.2014.01.01