The most significant geopolitical events of the past half century have been unanticipated. Not that we did not expect them, but they were supposed to happen in the distant future, not now.The North Korean regime could collapse in the same unexpected way, leaving shocked politicians, diplomats, and pundits to fend with its consequences.
While it is comforting to believe that predictable rational calculation and self interest determine the course of human events, the most significant changes in the world order are heavily influenced by chance, personalities, emotions, and miscalculations. We expect the two Koreas to muddle along in a shaky equilibrium that will result in the end of the Hermit Kingdom in the distant future. A collapse of the North Korean regime in the near term would send pundits in vain searches of past writings for hints they saw it coming.
Unfolding events in the Koreas and their respective mentor states, the United States and China, resemble the run ups to the collapse of communism in the USSR and Central and Southeastern Europe and the reunification of the two Germanys. Few foresaw that both would collapse as abruptly as a house of cards. The intelligence community did not foresee the end of the USSR – an intelligence failure greater than its weapons-of-mass-destruction fiasco.Likewise, it will likely categorize the near-term collapse of the North Korean regime as a “highly unlikely” outcome.
The “fundamentals” explain why regimes change and collapse, but they tell us less about the all-crucial “when.” If the Soviet and EastGermany political and economic systems had been sound, they would be with us today. The North Korean fundamentals could not be more terrible – a closed society unable to provideits population with subsistence, but it has survived as such for decades.
Mikhail Gorbachev had no intention of setting in motion events that would lead to the collapse of the USSR and its client states. His goal was to repair the Soviet system not end it. Gorbachev would not have begun Perestroika had he known its consequences – one of history’s great miscalculations. Reagan was the first American President who believed that a near-term Soviet collapse was possible, and he did not hesitate to say so. It fell to Reagan’s successor, George Bush, to actually manage the disintegration of the Soviet Union, after his first incredulity wore off.
The leadership of the German Democratic Republic also intended to save East-German communism with salami-sliced concessions, which kept growing larger and larger to their dismay.The East German politburo had German Chancellor Helmut Kohl as their counterpart. When the opportunity presented itself, Kohl was there with instantaneous and irreversible reunification. Kohl did not dither when the opportunity presented itself.
The two Koreas represent a tinder box in search of a random spark. Both have new and untested leaders, each intent on reshaping the relationship between the two countries in their own way. Both appear unwilling to ramp down the rhetoric or be seen as caving to the other side.Kim Jong Un must prove his credentials to the military. Park Gyeun Hye needs no coaxing after witnessing an endless string of concessions as rewards for outrageous behavior. An agent of the North murdered her mother. The North blew a civilian airliner from the sky, torpedoed a military vessel in open water, trades in nuclear technology, and shelled a city in sight of Inchon Airport, only to receive slaps on the wrists.
China, the North’s mentor, cannot accept a reunified Korea and must make do with its maverick client. The United States is tired of playing the North’s blackmail game and must at least show its seriousness by the positioning of military resources in the area. Neither China nor the United States know how to pour water on the Korean tinderbox. They are limited to symbolic actions that have little effect on anything.
In this volatile setting, tensions stretch to their limit. Both sides stake positions from which they are loathe to retreat. One mistake or wrong calculation sets into motion events that cannot be stopped.All hope that someone will blink, but there is no guarantee that this time we really will not go over the brink.
The collapse of the Soviet Union rested on major miscalculations: Gorbachev thought he could preserve the Soviet system with minor economic tinkering and bold political change, which included the decision not to use Soviet troops in Eastern Europe. His alarmed Politburo colleagues launched an ill-conceived coup that did not include credible allies just as Yeltsin’s popularity was elected president of the Russian Republic. It did not help the coup plotters’cause that they drank themselves into a stupor and did not anticipate that their special forces were unwilling to fire on peaceful demonstrators. In all, the Soviet collapse was a comedy of chance and miscalculation from start to finish.
The German Democratic Republic collapsed with its Politburo’s limpid sacrificial firing of General Secretary, Erich Honecker, its failure to fire on the growing masses of peaceful demonstrators in Leipzig (to the demonstrators’ amazement), and their leaving an exit hole through Hungary unplugged. The final collapse came in keystone-cops fashion with the misinterpretation of a Politburo decree as stating that the Wall was open. Yet another comedy of miscalculation and confusion.
We do not know the set of circumstances and miscues that could begin the end of the North Korean dictatorship. A Northern provocation on the sea, in the air, or on the ground could be met by a South Korean response of equal or greater magnitude, initiating an escalating game of chicken. The North Korean people, who are more knowledgeable about life in the West than the regime understands, could rise up in riots, strikes and protest, which the army refuses to suppress with force. Or the famed Northern military could prove as inept and disloyal as Saddam’s Revolutionary Guard, as they rush headlong to lay down their arms to their Southern brethren. “Reformist” Northern generals could suddenly see the light and create a Gorbachev-like government.
As Romanian dictator Nicola Ceausescu learned as he stood before the firing squad: Support for a dictator is ephemeral, fickle, and fleeting. It can by ended by one jeer from a crowd. Kim Jong Un risks a similar fate, whether he understand it or not.
We overrate the stability of one-party states. We think they cultivate deep-rooted sources of stability, but their ultimate fate depends on personalities and the calculations they make.
In June of 1989, the Chinese leadership decided to put down the reformers’ protests, throughout the country but principally in Tiananmen Square. Forces within the leadership favored liberalization and democracy, but they lost the argument. This outcome was not preordained. It could have been altered by one random event. If the tank had squashed the solitary man standing in its path in view of the world, a different sequence of events could have unfolded, and we would today have a quite different China.
I am not predicting the imminent end of the odious Hermit Kingdom. Instead, history shows that major change usually catches us off guard. Major geopolitical changes open a new frontier beyond which we have never gone. In the case of Korea, it could lead to immense loss of human life, if mishandled. But if the collapse of North Korea is similar to other collapses, it would be quick. Coping with this new frontier provides an opportunity for leaders to emerge asstatesmen rather than politicians as they confront the challenge of the enormity of the task.
Do we have such leaders among us?