North Korea's Survival And The Limits Of National Endurance

The very survival of North Korea 20 years after the death of its founder and 'Great Leader', Kim Il Sung, offers some interesting lessons for political and economic risk assessment.

July 8, 2014, marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Kim Il Sung, who ruled North Korea for almost 50 years. What is most remarkable is that his power passed successfully to his son and chosen successor, Kim Jong Il, and thence grandson Kim Jong Un, and that the country still exists at all.

When Kim Il Sung died, most people expected Kim Jong Il to be deposed quickly, and that the country would collapse and be absorbed by the South, paving the way for its modernisation. Similarly, many were surprised that Kim Jong Un was able to assume power following Kim Jong Il's death in December 2011.

Instead of seeing change, North Korea offers observers and social scientists a test case of the limits of economic adversity and human endurance. Since the late 1990s, the country has experienced:

  • Economic depression, with GDP shrinking for 13 out of the past 24 years.
  • Mass starvation, with hundreds of thousands (or possibly more than a million) dying of hunger.
  • The virtual collapse of industrial activities.
  • Chronic electricity and energy shortages.
  • Hyperinflation following tentative market-based reforms in 2002, and after a currency redenomination in 2009.
  • Natural disasters in the form of massive floods.

It is hard to think of a country which has fared so badly for so long. Only Afghanistan and Somalia spring to mind. And yet, North Korea has been surprisingly free of mass public unrest. The amount of refugees has been lower than would be expected, and there have been surprisingly few high-level defections.

So, how does North Korea survive? The answer is a combination of:

  • Massive police state. There are 1 million army troops and multiple security agencies watching the public and senior officials.
  • Isolation from the outside world. This generally keeps citizens unaware of far better living conditions in the rest of the world (although this is changing, and more North Koreans are becoming aware of better conditions in the South and China).
  • Handouts from China, South Korea (from time to time) and international agencies. This keeps at least some stomachs filled.
  • Black market economy. This allows people to trade basic goods and services (particularly smuggled from China), and thus indulge in off-the-books survival strategies.

North Korea is an extreme case, since many of its conditions are now virtually unique to the country (e.g. its one-family dictatorship, its almost totally centrally-planned economy, and its isolation from the global mainstream). Nonetheless, it demonstrates the extent to which some societies can endure food and energy shortages, hyperinflation, and natural disasters.

The survivability of the Pyongyang regime has subsequently led some former doomsayers to move to the opposite extreme and anticipate that North Korea can last several more decades.

We in fact believe that the country cannot continue in its present form indefinitely – something will have to change.

Sadly, the experience of countries such as Iraq, Libya, and Syria suggests that the more repressive the state, the more violent the collapse and aftermath. North Korea is much more homogenous than those countries, which may be a mitigating factor, but it is also much more heavily armed, thus increasing the scope for violence.

Our long-term political forecasts for North Korea and the Korean Peninsula are available to subscribers at Business Monitor Online. We produce long-term political forecasts for more than 100 countries and recently added Eritrea – whose critics call it the 'North Korea of Africa' – to the list.