SEOUL — It is 20 years since, in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, China and the Soviet Union began to normalize relations with South Korea. So its been 20 years since I, like many others, started writing scenarios for the end of the Kim dynasty in the North, and how the South might handle the costs of creating a single nation.
Twenty years of hopes lie in ruins. The economic gap between the two countries has widened, the North has nuclear weapons, and another generation of the Kim Il-sung line waits in the wings. Scenarios for change in North Korea, let alone reunification, are few. Yet it is not futile to think that radical change is possible in the foreseeable future.
One cause for hope is that Kim Jong-il’s health is failing, possibly bringing an end to the Kim dynasty. After all, it took Kim Jong-il several years after the death in 1994 of his father, Kim Il-sung, to solidify power, even though he had been groomed for succession for years.
The youngest of Kim Jong-il’s three sons, Kim Jong-un, who appears to be his anointed successor, is believed to be about 28 and lacks experience. But he may have a couple of years to establish himself. After the death of Kim Jong-il, the army may prefer to keep the young Kim as titular leader while it controls the power structure.
The army has for so long been linked with Kim family mythology that a dynastic succession may be necessary. But even that does not necessarily mean a continuation of Kim policies. Instead of claiming legitimacy as the defenders of Korean national integrity via its nuclear accomplishments, as Kim Jong-il has done, the new regime could shift to a China-style emphasis on the economy. Though that might ultimately undermine the power of the current elite, it could present them with the opportunity to become rich like their counterparts in Myanmar.
There could even be a more radical shift from Kim ideology in the manner of de-Stalinization or de-Maoification.
Do we have evidence for the existence of such sentiments? Not really. But jealousies must abound within this tight-knit, secretive power structure, and if the Kims are overthrown new policies will likely follow.
The second cause for hope is the rising diplomatic cost to China of sustaining the status quo. Recently, China has reinforced its support for the North, welcoming Kim Jong-il to Beijing and strongly criticizing U.S.-South Korean naval exercises. China has a strong interest in maintaining a buffer state between itself and the forces of the United States and its allies. Yet Beijing must realize that the North’s behavior legitimizes America’s presence in South Korea and encourages Japan to increase defense spending.
South Korea is wary of relying too much on the China, now its largest market. Elsewhere in Asia, support for the North is seen as unworthy of a China which aspires to international leadership. Beijing cannot abandon the North, but it would surely reward a major change in Pyongyang’s policies, or even promote an anti-Kim faction.
A third cause for hope may, paradoxically, be a growing reluctance in the South to take a confrontational stance against provocation. For sure, President Lee Myung-bak’s recent cabinet reshuffle showed he is not backing off from a hard line. But it might not need a huge shift in Pyongyang to open the way for a revival of the so-called Sunshine policy, and a subsequent agreement to halt nuclear development in exchange for U.S. recognition.
Instant reunification along German lines remains unlikely. None of the neighbors want it, and the demilitarized zone is a barrier of mines and forest that cannot be quickly dismantled. But a popular, Romanian-style uprising in the North is not impossible in this highly urbanized society if power struggles within army and party come into the open.
Moreover, reunification may not prove to be quite as costly as is often assumed. The South has a labor shortage while the North has a literate workforce and offers huge opportunities for Southern companies to rebuild its infrastructure.
The odds on reunification in the foreseeable future remain long. But chances for radical change in the North are less so. Although hopes have for so long been dashed, there is no reason to believe that things will never change.