Despite a growing narrative that North Korea might be teetering on the verge of collapse, there is a lack of consensus among U.S. experts on the imminent downfall of the reclusive regime.
Talks of a possible near-term regime collapse resurfaced among North Korea watchers when Thae Yong Ho, a high-level defector, said recently that the influx of information from outside the country and expansion of market activities within it are sapping traditional structures of the North Korean system. The regime is â€œcrumblingâ€ and the days of Kim Jong Un’s leadership are â€œnumbered,â€ said North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom, prior to defecting with his family to South Korea in 2016.
â€œLow-level dissent or criticism of the regime, until recently unthinkable, is becoming more frequent [among North Korea’s elite],â€ Thae said at a news conference in Seoul last week. â€œWe have to spray gasoline on North Korea and let the North Korean people set fire to it.â€
Following Thae’s comments, a Wall Street Journal editorial suggested the Trump administration should â€œmake regime change an explicit policy goal for North Korea.â€
Joseph DeTrani, former U.S. nuclear envoy and intelligence official, said that while Thae’s claims are â€œsignificant commentaryâ€ based on the diplomat’s knowledge base, there is virtually â€œno indication that the regime’s collapse is imminent.â€
While saying that his views are based on limited information, DeTrani said he sees â€œa functioning governmentâ€ in the North: private markets are functioning and people have access to food.
Ken Gause, who monitors the Kim regime, is also skeptical of Thae’s prediction of regime change.
Notwithstanding increasing international sanctions, he says, Pyongyang’s economy is faring relatively well. Even with its chronic food shortage, the country is â€œnot as in serious situation as it was in the 1990s when there was mass starvation.â€
Gause, director of the International Affairs Group at the Center for Naval Analyses in Arlington, Virginia added that due to an extensive surveillance network of informants that covers every North Korean citizen, it is highly unlikely that information that could lead to a popular uprising will circulate among ordinary citizens.
â€œIf this regime is going to collapse, it will come from destabilization at the top of the regime,â€ Gause said.
Some experts, however, give weight to Thae’s description of Pyongyang’s political state.
Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center in Washington, believes the Kim regime is being undermined significantly by disillusionment among North Koreans.
â€œMr. Thae’s comments show that there is growing disillusionment, that the hopes that people had for Kim Jong Un have not panned out, that he is no better than his father and his grandfather, not only the repression but the resistance to allowing outside information in and implementing necessary economic reform,â€ the former intelligence official said.
Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California said there are a few signs of instability in North Korea. One example, he said, is the deteriorating ties between the North and its only ally, China.
â€œ[South Korean] President Park has had eight summits with [Chinese President] Xi Jinping and [Kim’s] had zero,â€ Bennett said.
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