Is North Korea about to collapse?
That’s the question Don Surber asks in this post last week. He is looking at the recent defections of soldiers and civilians. We have at least one soldier, an elite soldier no less, who simply walked across the border unmolested. Maybe this happens from time to time, but the impression from news reports is that the Norks guard that border ferociously. The Norks have special units that do nothing but roam the border looking for anyone trying to flee. Here’s a recent video of them shooting a guy trying to escape.
Surber is looking at these recent incidents where North Koreans have managed to escapade unmolested and compares it to the last days of the Soviet empire. There’s also the fact that the one soldier was from an elite unit. That seems unusual. There was also the solider that escaped and was found to be infested with parasites, suggesting the regime is struggling to care for even the soldiers that protects it. The Kim regime can only survive if it has the absolute loyalty of the military, so they have to make sure they are fed.
I think we can also wonder if the recent Chinese cooperation may be another signal that all is not well in the hermit kingdom. It’s reasonable to assume that the Chinese know the most of any outsiders about what is going on inside the country. The assumption in the West is that they were willing to prop up the Norks, in order to avoid dealing with the collapse. Maybe they have decided that Kim’s days are numbered, no matter what they do, so they are now looking to turn the inevitable into an opportunity.
American military intelligence probably knows a great deal about what is happening inside North Korea, but it is tightly held information. As a result, the public defense experts have no idea what’s happening. Trump’s dramatic ramp up of pressure is reminiscent of what we did with the Russians in the 1980’s. Reagan’s great insight, and it was truly his insight, was that the Russians simply could not compete with the West, if we got our act together economically. That proved to be correct. The Russians were spent as an empire.
Maybe that is what Trump is sensing. A generation ago, standard operating procedure in the US was to try and negotiate with the Russians. It was done on the assumption that the Soviets were strong. Reagan’s insight was that they were weak, so he abandoned appeasement. Trump seems to be going down the same path with the Norks. He has said that negotiations are a waste of time. That would explain the build up of assets in the region, along with the moves to cut off the North’s access to hard currency.
It’s all speculation, but we can tease out some things from what we do know about the Norks. Countries have a finite amount of resources. Some portion are used for the necessities of maintaining society. Some portion are used for defense. Some other portion is used by the ruling class to maintain their positions. Similarly, the ruling class will use some portion of their available capital to expand their position, both internally and externally. A country is not a closed system, but about 90% of its resources are internal.
It is assumed that the Norks have a lot of human capital, relative to rogue regimes in the Arab world. This is based on the unspoken assumption that Asians are smart, while Arabs are dumb. The Norks have split the atom and developed respectable missile technology, which is more than Saddam was able to do and more than the Persians have mustered to this point. The Norks have also shown themselves to be very resourceful in gaining access to the global arms market and the global drug trade. The Kim regime is clever.
That said, we know that most of the population is living with barely enough to eat and the bare minimum of health care. So much so that the North Koreans are shorter than the South Koreans. We know from Western history, that as nutrition improved in the West, Europeans got taller. People also got smarter. The Flynn Effect is most likely a result of nutrition and health care. The Norks are probably experiencing a reverse of this, where starvation and poor sanitation are lowering the average IQ of the population.
Then there is the math of every extraction regime. North Korea is closer to a feudal society than a modern country. Every level of society sees the excess from its labor siphoned off by the layer above it. This not only stifles productivity and innovation, it encourages corruption at all levels. This was the experience in the Soviet Union, where trust in institutions fell to zero. That was the joke among Soviet workers. The government would pretend to pay the workers and the workers pretended to work.
The point here is that the sum of human capital in North Korea is probably an order of magnitude less than many assume. They have a large enough smart fraction to build crude nuclear bombs and launch some long range missiles into the sea. They don’t have enough of a smart fraction to do that, feed their people and provide the basics of health care. Throw in the fact that Kim may have been forced to kill off many of the regime’s best people in order to solidify control, and North Korea could be very weak right now.
In fact, the saber rattling may be an attempt to get South Korea and China to put pressure on the US, in order to get some food and medical relief. That has worked with past presidents. Clinton, Bush and Obama were all willing to cut a deal. Trump calling the bluff may be why the Nork solider was allowed to just walk across the border to the South. He is carrying antibodies for anthrax, suggesting he has been exposed to it. That could be intended to send a message that the Norks have it and will use it in a war.
It’s impossible to know the true state of affairs in North Korea. One feature of all authoritarian regimes is a high degree of secrecy and deception. The same skills used to lie to the people, are used by the political factions inside the regime to lie to one another and to the outside world. The one thing low trust societies are good at producing is gifted liars. Still, the fundamental math of society strongly suggest the Norks are much weaker than they wish the world to know. That may explain the shift in US policy under Trump.