Demystifying the Survival of North Korea

AuthorSanghan Yea
Published date01 April 2017
Date01 April 2017
Subject MatterArticles
Demystifying the Survival
of North Korea
Sanghan Yea1
North Korea still exists. The majority of researchers today tend to attrib-
ute the nation’s surprising resilience to the total social control the regime
exerts. There are telltale signs, however, that the information cordon that
once surrounded the country is deteriorating and that the outside world
is filtering in through such means as cell phones. It is therefore reasonable
to assume that North Koreans already have accumulated enough informa-
tion to judge how miserable and hopeless their lot is. A true mystery of
North Korea thus becomes the question of why the regime has survived,
when so many North Koreans hate it. There is some parallelism between
the present-day North Korea and the final days of Germany under the Third
Reich. At that time, although Germans knew how despicable the Hitler regime
was and how that regime was bound to end, they nonetheless supported
Hitler and fought to the end. This has been ascribed to their fear of the Soviet
Red Army. In this vein, we could assume that North Koreans see no alterna-
tive to the current regime and instead opt to be inert because they believe
they face an overwhelming threat to their existence, as the Germans did
70 years ago.
North Korea, South Korea, Third Reich, fear for survival, Article 3 of the
Constitution of the Republic of Korea, unification in essence
A Puzzle
On 23 January 2015, US President Barack Obama held an interview with
two bloggers at the White House, which was later posted on YouTube. When the
bloggers asked about North Korea, he emphasized that the Internet will ultimately
1 Doctoral Research Fellow, The Korea-Africa Center, Seoul, Korea.
Corresponding author:
Sanghan Yea, Third Floor, Community Chest of Korea Building, 39 Sejong-daero 21-gil, Jung-gu,
Seoul, Korea.
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
4(1) 50–68
2017 SAGE Publications India
Private Limited
SAGE Publications
DOI: 10.1177/2347797016689208
Yea 51
find its way into the isolated totalitarian nation and spread information that will
undercut the authoritarian regime:
So the answer is not going to be a military solution. We will keep on ratcheting the
pressure, but part of what’s happening is that the environment that we’re speaking
in today, the Internet, over time is going to be penetrating this country. … And it is
very hard to sustain that kind of brutal authoritarian regime in this modern world.
Information ends up seeping in overtime and bringing about change, and that is some-
thing that we are constantly looking for ways to accelerate. (Yonhap, 2015)
We have seen the Internet’s potential as a means of liberation through the
so-called Arab Spring. There is no reason to believe that the Internet should work
otherwise among Korean societies. Before we concur with President Obama’s
high expectation of the Internet, however, we have to answer the question of
whether North Korea has survived because there has been no (or insufficient)
Internet penetration to ‘undeceive’ ordinary North Koreans. This returns us to the
ultimate puzzle of why North Korea still exists.
Previous Studies
Since the early 1990s, many have predicted the coming collapse of North Korea;
all of these predictions have failed (see Rosen, 2012). After this series of failures,
people became cautious; sometimes so cautious that they would not produce
any predictions at all. The Carnegie Endowment of International Peace recently
predicted the collapse of North Korea, but only in the longer term (the next 25 to
30 years): ‘A combination of severe economic decline, deeper rifts within the
North Korean political and military elite, external pressures could combine to
produce collapse or near-collapse of the North Korean regime within this time
frame’ (Swaine et al., 2015, p. 41).
Today, the majority of the researchers on North Korea appear to attribute the
nation’s surprising resilience to the total social control the regime wields.1 Simply
put, North Korea might be the perfect police state. In this vein, Gause (2012, p. 12)
said, ‘North Korea is a country that defies conventional characterization. Often
described as Stalinist or totalitarian, the regime in Pyongyang does not easily fit
into convenient definitions applied to the most oppressive Communist regimes of
the past.’ Gause referred to North Korea’s State Security Department (Gukga
An-jeon Bo-wi-bu, SSD), the Ministry of People’s Security (In-min Bo-an-bu,
MPS), the Military Security Command (Bo-wi Saryeong-bu, MSC) and the
Neighbourhood Watch Units (In-min-ban) as its highly effective internal security
apparatus working for this purpose. To this extent, President Obama appears
to be right. As long as the military option is not available, there is no better way to
fracture the security apparatus (and thus dismantle the dictatorship) than to enlighten
ordinary North Koreans.
In the recent past, however, there have been signs that the control the North Korean
regime maintains over society seems not to be quite as total and solid as it once was.
According to Gause (2012, p. 162), the information cordon that once surrounded the

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