Waiting for the Ceausescu Moment

History has a strange habit of pivoting on the tempers and moods of ordinary people whom it swallows and forgets, and one of those people is the first angry man in a crowd of thousands in Bucharest, on December 20, 1989.  For some reason, he acted on his urge to shout  blasphemous words at  Europe’s most dreaded tryant.  There were others in that crowd whose anger overcame their fear, and those others also shouted out their discontent.  The tyrant failed to mask the fear in his eyes.  His own cameras  caught that instant on video. In  that  instant, the crowd in the square  was tranformed from bused-in, cheering loyalists with pre-printed banners to jeering rebels.   The Genius of the Danube was  ushered toward the doorway from the balcony to the helipad.


We know that Kim Jong Il has watched that video many times. That might explain why he’s scarce on reviewing stands and balconies lately. I’ve been predicting Kim Jong Il’s Ceausescu Moment since 1997, when as a young Army captain, I volunteered to serve in Korea, which had the advantages of sounding dangerous, exotic, and far from Fort Irwin. A stopped clock is right twice a day, and if I’ve read the available facts at all accurately, I will eventually be right once.

I have two favorite scenarios for this. In one, a bemedalled general appears on state television to announce that the Dear Leader is ill and resting comfortably in a sanitorium, and that an emergency committee has temporarily assumed the burdens of state. The other starts in a city somewhere in the hungry Northeast, with a disturbance at a food warehouse, a refused order to fire on the croweds, and a mutiny by the local garrisons. Loyal army units crush that uprising, but survivors carry their weapons to the countryside and continue to sap the regime’s scarce resources with insurgency and banditry. This time,  images of the massacre  filter out,  there is a  moment of  outrage, more countries impose sanctions, and eventually, some bemedalled generals take us back to Scenario One out of weary self-interest.

These scenarios are about as empirically grounded as a horoscope; they’re just applications of past history to a new template. Yet despite all of the opacity this persistent regime can create, more facts are escaping North Korea, along with more of its people. Now, I don’t conceal my desire to see Kim Jong Il’s Ceausescu moment, so I’m vary of selectively believing what I want to believe, but this time, I think things really are changing faster than they have before. Our collection of known facts permits us to identify some trends, and those trends look worse for Kim Jong Il now than at any time since the dark famine years of the mid-1990’s.





Andrei Lankov’s  “The Natural Death of North Korean Stalinism,” still has stirred much thought  about these things.  The amount and quality of his  information is remarkable. The picture he paints is of systemic decay, of an apparatus of control so saturated with “subversive” information that it simply lacks the time and prison space to suppress all of it.  The  official gods are dead in the hearts of the people.  I don’t agree with all of his conclusions, of course, but I don’t know of any two people who agree on what to do about North Korea.

I also think that for much of North Korea, the death of the official  ideology is  not a new development.  In the 1980’s and 1990’s, North Korea experienced  a wave of dissent that sometimes broke into open rebellion.  Each rebellion failed because each of them was localized. They were localized for three reasons: the mutual isolation caused by North Korea’s awful infrastructure, strict controls on the movements of people between regions, and the absence of unofficial information about events in other regions. The government’s ruthless response to each of these incidents was enough to hold the system together.


Unpopularity alone is not enough to overthrow a tyrant.  Kim Jong Il survives though the strength of the state’s echanism of control remained strong, and if that doesn’t change, we’ll be dealing with him for several more decades. He never faced a rebellion he could not quell, and his “military first” policy and system of privilege kept the state’s system of control behind him.  Yet I’m starting to believe that the  fundamentals  are closing in on Kim Jong Il.   Let me explain.

* Money. As I’ve documented here in great detail, we’re well into the process of disconnected Kim Jong Il’s access to foreign exchange.  For this, you can thank the Bush Administration for having a belated attack of decisiveness. But above all, you can thank Kim Jong Il for launching some missiles and resolving the factionionalism that had thus far forestalled it. In a single day, Kim Jong Il managed to weaken the arguments of virtually everyone who was keeping him alive.  He killed the Sunshine policy, alienated China, and weakened the  State Department doves.  Japan and Australia imposed sanctions, and there’s a new rumor that France (!) will be the next to act.

* Food. The prognosis for the food situation is bleak. North Korea hasn’t been able to feed more than two-thirds of its population for a decade. Food reserves began running out in the spring, floods washed away much of this year’s harvest, and donors are tired of North Korea’s theft of food aid from the people who really need it.  In the past, the regime was able to feed party members, the military, and people in and around Pyonyang (recent evidence suggests that soldiers are hungry, too).  This time, a lot of things seem to be going wrong at the same time, and the Inner Party may share in the misery, too.

* The Kim Dynasty. One possible wild card is Kim Jong Il’s own health. One recent report, sourced to  an opposition lawmaker with good connections to South Korean intelligence, holds that Kim has severe liver and kidney problems that sound like renal failure. Presuming this isn’t disinformation, there is no real successor in sight. Kim’s older son is considered unsuitably “effeminate,” reportedly because of a hormone disorder,  and his younger son is arguably too young. His promotion would also clash with traditional Korean notions of primogenature.





Can North Korea manage a “natural” evolution to a less repressive system?   Unlike North Korea, the Soviet Union in the 1950’s and China in the 1980’s had functioning economies, legal products to sell, access to the international banking system, and exclusive claims on their national traditions.  Those advantages allowed them to relax their grip slowly.  North Korea lacks those advantages, partly because it is so totalitarian. Totalitarian regimes create, and must contain, enormous social and political pressures. When the state ceases to containing the pressures from such profound social grievances, repressed people will not wait four decades for planned economic development. They want the food in that warehouse, and they want revenge against that official who hoarded it while their own kids starved to death. That brings us to two much likelier models: a sudden and violent collapse, as in Romania, Albania, or the Soviet Union, or a sudden and violent near-collapse followed by a ruthless restoration of tyranny, as in Burma in 1988.

Tyrannies hold power when their police and soldiers are  sufficiently paid, fed, and indoctrinated to obey orders, including orders to repress their own people. Terror can keep a tyrant on his throng long after the idealism is embalmed in its mausoleum, but the tyranny will continue to decay.


  1. I’d rejoice to see Kim Jong Il gone and the two Koreas on the path to reunification, but how do you see the post-collapse scenario?

    I am concerned — and this is a concern, not a conspiracy theory — that China has provisional territorial aims in the northern portion of the Korean peninsula and that a North Korean collapse would present the Chinese government with an opportunity.

    That’s one reason that I supported, with reservations, the Sunshine Policy. I think that the best method of undermining the North is by South Korean investment, for money corrupts, especially in a system like the one in the North.

    Loyalty would follow the money, the North would become dependent upon the South, and China would lose influence.

    These days, unfortunately, North Korea seems to be ever more integrated into the Chinese economy.

    And that — as I’ve noted — has me concerned.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *


  2. Jeffery, I think any Chinese calculation that it can grab half of Korea underestimates Korean nationalism.

    There would be an almost incalculable backlash, which might even accelerate to an anti-Chinese insurgency involving some of the loose guns that will be floating around, post collapse. Such resistance would be slow to take off in the North, because initially, the North Koreans would just be glad to be eating. But over time, the hostility would spread, and North Koreans would be quick to test the limits of the kinder, gentler repression of the Chinese.

    Eventually, South Koreans and North Koreans alike could demand that the Chinese leave. Plus, reconstruction would be very expensive for China. Part of me hopes China tries to grab North Korea for just those reasons.

    And anyway, you have to concede by now that Sunshine isn’t reaching the ordinary people of North Korea. It’s smuggled ell phones and and videotapes that are really having an effect, and Sunshine has nothing to do with that.


  3. Joshua,
    I don’t think the Chinese would ever be so foolish as to intervene directly and rule the North openly. I think you’re right to assume an action along those lines would provoke a severe backlash in the Koreas and throughout the world. They would be much smarter to groom a friendly military man from the current Northern establishment and put him on the top when the right moment arises. Of course, you only have to look to the example of Kim Il Sung and the Soviets to see how uncertain a gambit like that can be, but it seems a safer alternative to block a united and possibly pro-US Korea from touching Chinese borders.
    You touch on the most troubling – personally – aspect of a Chinese intervention: couldn’t it be preferable to allow China to assume the monumental cost of developing the North? As the third rail of South Korean politics, we all know that very few people in this country want to realistically address a post-collapse scenario. It’s just too easy to preach to the masses of ‘glorious unification’ but no one speaks openly about the elephant in the room. That seems to be the heart of the continuing popularity for the failed ‘Sunshine’ policy. If its failure were to be acknowledged it would neccessarily mean the government of South Korea would have to begin planning and allocating the massive resources that will have to be standing ready to absorb the initial shock of a post KFR collapse, something the rejection of Oplan 5029 suggests is not about to be popular. On that note, here are some of the questions I would like to see realistic (from a US and SK perspective) answers to:
    1. Who will stop the flood of refugees to the South? Will anyone have the will to stop the desperate and hungry people who will certainly flock to the wealthy cities so nearby? Will the current armed border continue to exist?
    2. Will the US and SK pony up the resources that proper stabilization will require?
    3. What is the potential form of a post-collapse government? Will it be something along the lines of the already proposed confederation model? Considering the vast differences in per capita GDP and educational levels, would further integration even be possible?

    Thinking about potential answers to these questions, sometimes I feel like it might be better to let the Chinese have their go at it.


  4. Joshua: There would be an almost incalculable backlash, which might even accelerate to an anti-Chinese insurgency involving some of the loose guns that will be floating around, post collapse. Such resistance would be slow to take off in the North, because initially, the North Koreans would just be glad to be eating. But over time, the hostility would spread, and North Koreans would be quick to test the limits of the kinder, gentler repression of the Chinese.

    China does kinder, gentler repression only when it can do so and maintain control. At Tiananmen, it showed what it is still capable of doing. When China invaded Vietnam in the late ’70’s, it is said to have massacred entire villages – men, women and children. And China wasn’t even there to stay. My feeling is that China would have no problem controlling North Korea, any more than it had any problem annexing East Turkestan or Tibet. I’ve always thought that the Chinese would be better off going after lower-hanging fruit. Taiwan is out of the question because of Uncle Sam’s protection and the 100-mile wide Taiwan Straits. Mongolia is out of the question because of Russian protection. Why North Korea? Because it has no friends. None at all. Apart from China.


  5. To Zhang: I’m counting on the fact that Chinese leaders have become more civilized since Deng Xiaoping, who was responsible for the massacres in Vietnam and at Tiananmen Square.

    I’m also hoping for another ‘Korean Miracle’ in the form of reunification.


  6. I’m also hoping for another ‘Korean Miracle’ in the form of reunification.

    Use The Force, Luke … the Fohhhhhhrce!


  7. I’m also counting on the fact that communism is on the way out, as people like Gordon Chang has pointed out. It will be hard for the Chinese government to control the stubborn North Koreans when it can’t even control its own citizens. Also, Tibet will one day regain its independence.


  8. if anything did happen within the next 2 years, do you think China would be so bold in making ‘offensive’ type moves with the Olympics in sight?

    i loved how SARS played out.

    china and it’s government wanted to play ‘hush hush’.

    the WHO director comes in and reminds them straight out….’stop BS’ing the rest of the world. you have the olympics coming. show all your cards or international public opinion will ruin you’.

    so they cooperated.


  9. The Chinese are sufficiently deft to work the situation to their advantage. They’ve allowed Pyongyang to be on a ‘long leash’ because it suits their (China’s) national self-interest in a lot of ways. Without having to spend too much, they been able to maintain a rather effective buffer state against the capitalists, as well as force the West to waste some big defense bucks to keep the Kim Family Regime in a box.

    If things start getting ‘iffy’, their ‘Plan B’, the infiltration and take over of the NK economy, will be pretty far along before anybody really becomes the wiser for it.

    Except for the mouthing of the requisite platitudes, the South Koreans have been willing to do little, especially since they became aware of the true economic costs associated with a rapid re-unification. They think it’s great that they are able to limit their inputs to some rice handouts and the build-up of a slave labor camp in Kaesong. And, for only a few million dollars more, they’ve been able to purchase a Nobel Peace Prize.

    Now … if Beijing can only get Seoul to address the electrical energy shortage in NK, things will really start looking a lot brighter.

    Looks like everybody comes out a winner on this (except the unfortunate wretches in the camps).