The Improbability of Popular Rebellion in Kim Jong-un’s North Korea and Policy Alternatives for the USA

Date01 December 2017
AuthorFrancis Grice
Publication Date01 December 2017
The Improbability
of Popular Rebellion
in Kim Jong-un’s North
Korea and Policy
Alternatives for the USA
Francis Grice1
The Trump administration has declared its determination to resolve the prob-
lems posed by North Korea, but a full-scale military intervention would impart
a terrible human cost and could ignite a global war. One alternative that might
meet the objectives of the USA would be the collapse of the North Korea
regime through a domestic uprising. Claims that the regime is teetering on
the brink of self-implosion have been made for decades; yet, there has been
no popular rebellion to date and this article argues that the prospect of one
occurring in the foreseeable future remains remote. Numerous factors exist
in North Korea that ought, according to conventional theories of rebellion,
to push the population to rebel, including public grievances, opportunities for
private gain and regime vulnerability. These drivers are suppressed by the Kim
Jong-un regime, however, through the use of isolation, propaganda, deter-
rence and prevention, which combine to make rebellion extremely improb-
able. Despite a major military invasion being impractical and the likelihood of
a domestic uprising occurring being markedly low, a number of policy alterna-
tives do exist for the Trump administration. Nevertheless, there are no easy
answers with North Korea and each course of action possesses significant
drawbacks and limitations.
Donald Trump, Kim Jong-un, North Korea, pacification, popular rebellion,
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
4(3) 263–293
2017 SAGE Publications India
Private Limited
SAGE Publications
DOI: 10.1177/2347797017732227
Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science and International Studies, McDaniel College,
Corresponding author:
Francis Grice, Department of Political Science and International Studies, McDaniel College,
Westminster, MD 21157, United States.
264 Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 4(3)
The most recent spate of ballistic missile tests by North Korea has raised frictions
upon the Korean Peninsula and left the newly installed Trump administration
searching for a way to deal with the pariah state. More broadly, North Korea
has long posed a challenge based upon its illicit nuclear and ballistic missiles
programme, totalitarian regime and human rights abuses. The determination of
the Trump and his government to solve these problems was lucidly highlighted by
the declaration of Vice President Mike Pence in early 2017 that ‘the era of
Strategic Patience is over’. Yet, a military intervention would assuredly lead to a
colossal loss of life and could even spark a nuclear war. One alternative is the
possibility that the Kim Jong-un regime could collapse internally, which would
mitigate the need for the USA and its allies to consider outright war with North
Korea. This article discusses the extent to which a domestic popular rebellion is a
viable outcome or whether the Trump administration must consider alternative
solutions instead.
The question of whether or not the Stalinist regime in North Korea will soon
implode is not altogether new, having been discussed by scholars and policy-
makers for decades. It has gained increasing focus since 2011, however, as a
result of two international and domestic developments. The first was the Arab
Spring, which felled multiple corrupt governments across the Mediterranean
and appeared to foretell a new wave of global non-democratic regime change.
The second was the unexpected death of Kim Jong-il in North Korea and transfer
of power to his young and previously relatively unknown son, Kim Jong-un.
Following these events, many scholars and policymakers concluded that the
regime is headed for internal collapse (Metzl, 2015; Richey, 2015). Retired US
Four-star General Walter Sharp declared in 2016, for example, that ‘there will be
instability in North Korea that I believe will lead to the collapse of North Korea
much sooner than many of us think’ (Olson, 2016). Similarly, North Korean
defector, Thae Yong Ho, predicted in 2017 that Kim Jong-un would soon be toppled
by a popular uprising (Mills, 2017).
This article argues that an underlying reason for many predictions of collapse
is that the situation in North Korea meets the main criteria associated with
the outbreak of a popular rebellion in the academic and policy literature. These
are the existence of public grievances, opportunities for private gain through
insurrection and vulnerabilities of the regime (Collier, Hoeffler & Rohner, 2009;
Keen, 2012; Zartman, 2011). The ways in which the situation in North Korea
fits theoretically with these criteria is discussed in the first section of the article.
Yet, as the second section of the article discusses, the pervasive and often brutal
pacification measures used by the Kim Jong-un regime serve to placate, deter and
prevent the population from undertaking rebellion, making such an outcome
extremely improbable. The final section analyses the policy options available for
the Trump administration regarding North Korea.
The article focuses upon the civilian population because they are a prominent
contender for carrying out an uprising against the Kim Jong-un regime. The over-
throw of oppressive governments by popular uprisings has happened multiple

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