Robert Collins, the author of the famous briefing on the seven phases of regime collapse in North Korea, almost certainly does not recall that, years ago, I was among a small group of Army officers who heard him deliver his briefing at Yongsan Garrison, in Seoul. For those who aren’t familiar with the seven phases, Robert Kaplan reproduced them in The Atlantic:
Phase One: resource depletion;
Phase Two: the failure to maintain infrastructure around the country because of resource depletion;
Phase Three: the rise of independent fiefs informally controlled by local party apparatchiks or warlords, along with widespread corruption to circumvent a failing central government;
Phase Four: the attempted suppression of these fiefs by the KFR once it feels that they have become powerful enough;
Phase Five: active resistance against the central government;
Phase Six: the fracture of the regime; and
Phase Seven: the formation of new national leadership.
In 2006, Kaplan wrote that “North Korea probably reached Phase Four in the mid-1990s, but was saved by subsidies from China and South Korea, as well as by famine aid from the United States,” and had since reverted to Phase Three.
Since the coronation of Kim Jong-Un, the regime has re-entered Phase Four (there have also been some isolated outbreaks of Phase Five, including in the military). From the outside, Phase Four looks like the collectivization of capitalism — an erratic effort to pull a spiraling galaxy of corrupt officials and hard currency-earning state enterprises back into Pyongyang’s orbit. For example, the regime had recently relaxed market controls, but has since cracked down again, at least for the time being. A widely-touted joint venture with a foreign firm has shut down. Corruption has even penetrated to North Korea’s supply of gold, requiring the regime to crack down on pilferage and smuggling. The critical leap back to Phase Four, however, was the purge of Jang Song-Thaek, in December 2013.
In a system like North Korea’s, the impact of events like Jang’s purge can remain hidden from us for years, only manifesting themselves years after the fact. These effects are much more manifest now, thanks to a new report by CNN’s Kyung Lah, who reports on the views of a young defector who, until less than a year ago, “worked among the elites in Pyongyang.” Today, he works for the South Korean government as a researcher at a university. Because his family is still in Pyongyang, and because he “fears North Korea could manage to hunt him down in his new life,” CNN took great pains to avoid revealing identifying details about him. Here is what he says about the stability of the regime he fled:
He believes that among North Korea’s dictators, the dynasty of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and now Kim Jong Un, “It is Kim Jong Un’s regime that is the most unstable. And it is going to be the shortest.” [CNN]
It was the execution of Jang Song-Thaek that caused him to flee:
“I can tell you for sure the North Koreans who are in the upper middle class don’t trust Kim Jong Un. I was thinking about leaving North Korea for a long time. After seeing the execution of Jang, I thought, ‘I need to hurry up and leave this hell on earth.’ That’s why I defected.”
At the time of Jang’s purge, the Joongang Ilbo, arguably the best and least-read of the major Korean papers, reported that 70 to 80 North Koreans in Europe, and probably scores of others in China, were called home but refused, and went to ground instead. At the time, I speculated that the loss of these operatives might cause significant short-term financial hardships for the regime, and that if foreign intelligence services could recruit some of them and access their laptops, they might yield a wealth of financial intelligence.
He made a risky, harrowing escape, telling no one he knew that he would attempt to defect. I’ve agreed not to reveal how he escaped, again for his safety. Suffice it to say, the chance of his capture or death was extraordinarily high.
But fear of death trying to escape paled in comparison to remaining under Kim Jong Un’s power, says the defector. After Kim’s purge of his inner circle, the defector says he witnessed a change among Pyongyang’s upper class. “They are terrified. The fear grows more intense every day.” [….]
“I can tell you for sure, the North Korean regime will collapse within 10 years,” he says without hesitation.
“Kim Jong Un is mistaken that he can control his people and maintain his regime by executing his enemies. There’s fear among high officials that at any time, they can be targets. The general public will continue to lose their trust in him as a leader by witnessing him being willing to kill his own uncle.”
Dismiss this as wishful thinking if you will — my own wishfulness is no secret, after all — but this account is consistent with other reports. In January 2014, shortly after Jang’s purge, several reports claimed that people in Pyongyang were terrified. This summer, we saw a spate of reports suggesting rising angst and discontent in the ruling class, and increased internal surveillance to suppress it. I’ve speculated that the point would come when the elites would be more afraid of not challenging Kim Jong-Un than of challenging him. But in a society like North Korea’s, not everyone reaches that state at the same time, and few would dare to express it aloud. No one can act alone, and without some means to communicate and organize with others, a crowd of dissenters is nothing more than a large collection of lonely people.
CNN’s report also addresses this Wall Street Journal report, about an analysis of refugee opinions by Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies. Leave aside, for a moment, whatever biases you might suspect a South Korean university’s Peace Studies department brings to its research. Although the report’s headline claims “solid support” for Kim Jong-Un, the study actually measured what recent defectors speculate that other North Koreans thought about the regime. The most obvious problem with this is the classic problem of “preference cascades,” in which totalitarian regimes successfully alienate and isolate double-thinkers and latent dissenters, who are themselves shocked to learn (after the fact) that others secretly harbored the same views as themselves. If the study can claim to measure anything empirically, it is that perceptions of confidence in Kim Jong-Un have actually declined:
In 2012, just as Kim Jong Un took control of the regime, defectors in the survey perceived support at more than 70%. In 2014, their latest survey of 146 defectors shows that while they perceive support of Kim Jong Un remains high, it has dropped to 58%. [CNN]
Unfortunately, however, the survey doesn’t claim to measure anything empirically. According to the institute’s senior researcher, Chang Yong Seok, “the results should not be read as generalized facts due to the small pool of respondents.” That pool consists of just 100 subjects. The study may or may not control for the subjects’ variable circumstances. At best, the study is a useful caution about selection bias — that at least some refugees reckon that they’re unrepresentative of public opinion in North Korea.
But not all North Korean defectors necessarily concede this, including the North Korean diaspora’s foremost public intellectual:
People who were slowly dying under dictatorial oppression gained such a consciousness through a survival enabled by the marketplaces. It is a mindset that cannot be reversed nor switched off. It is not an exaggeration to say that North Koreans have passed the point where they disobey and desert command and control only because of pressing survival needs. They do so because they have reached a point of psychological insurrection in terms of system-loyalty. [Jang Jing Sun, New Focus]
After you read Jang’s essay, read the call by Chairman Ed Royce of the House Foreign Affairs Committee for more “[r]adio broadcast[ing], social media, pushing cheap wave transistor radios and low-cost communications, DVDs,” and other ways for North Koreans to hear, speak, and communicate. When communication is free, the regime cannot last. As long as the regime controls communication, it is unlikely to fall.