The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), to give it its official title, has nuclear weapons, long range missiles, a starving populace, a corrupt government, an exceptionally nasty secret police, a disintegrating army, and powerful, well armed neighbors. This brew is a recipe, not just for instability but disaster. The death of its hereditary dictator, Kim Jong Il, on December 17, 2011, is one of those events that make informed observers of the international scene nervous, to say the least.
With any luck, the leaders of South Korea and China will be able to get together with the US, Japan and Russia and agree on some informal, minimal guidelines that will keep the peace and help maintain some kind security in the region, as the factions inside the Pyongyang government -- the gangsters -- sort out their new arrangements and divide the loot.
A desperate, hungry and freezing population, however, may not give anyone time to sort things out in a nice, orderly way. A year ago, no one predicted that the suicide of Tunisian fruit vendor would lead to the collapse of multiple Arab dictatorships. The Dear Leader's death at a moment when his supposed successor , his 28-year old son, Kim Jong Un, has failed to consolidate his position, raises the possibility of a power struggle inside the North Korean Communist Party.
A nasty fight inside the Party -- with pro- and anti- Kim Jong Un factions going at each other, and all sides trying to convince the Chinese that their friends they would do a better job looking out for China's interests than their rivals' -- could destroy what little legitimacy the regime has left.
The totalitarian propaganda put out by the DPRK government has been so overdone for so long, that one suspects that it has lost its ability to convince the majority of North Korea's citizens of anything at all. Hungry people, who have been falsely promised food for years on end, have no reason to believe a single word coming from those who made these promises in the first place..
Although this contempt by the North's people for their ruler could set the stage for massive unrest, or even civil war, normally an oppressed, hungry, propagandized population is not one that will rise up, even against a weakened tyrannical system; but nothing about North Korea is normal.
A situation similar to East Germany's in 1989, might develop: there had been no plan to tear down the wall that separated Berlin from West to keep the East Germans in, and there were no dissident leaders to call on the East Berliners to wreck this symbol of Communist power. Low level unrest led to a Communist leader's verbal blunder -- he said the wall was open -- and the people spontaneously took the opportunity to tear it down and flood into West Berlin, leading to the regime's collapse.
China fears a mass exodus of North Korean refugees coming across its common border. South Korea fears that it will have to spend hundreds of billions to support its Northern cousins. The US, Japan and others fear that the DPRK's nuclear weapons, materiel and missiles will get loose and end up in Iran or on the worldwide nuclear black market. The end of Korea's bizarre communist regime may, in the end, be a great step forward for human freedom, but it would also open up a Pandora's box of trouble.
There are no known dissident leaders in North Korea. If the regime stumbles, the population will react in unpredictable ways. Without leaders, but with a powerful collective effort, the people might decide to rid themselves of the Party. North Korea's people could, unexpectedly find themselves in charge of their own destinies. If the regime does fall apart, power could be lying in the street for anyone to pick up.
"What, " Leo Tolstoy asked, "is power? Power is the collective will of the people transferred to one person. Under what conditions is the will of the people delegated to one person ? On condition that one person expresses the will of the whole people. "
In War and Peace, he tried to tear down the so-called "Great Man" theory of history, which holds that the direction world history is determined by the action of a few men (and a small number of women) who seize the moment and lead the mass of people in the direction they want to go. Tolstoy, using the example of Napoleon's 1812 invasion of Russia, argued against this idea. "In historic events, " he wrote, "the so-called great men are labels giving names to events, and like labels they have but the smallest connection with the event itself."
There seem to be no "great men" in North Korea "to express the will of the whole people" -- or in any of the other nations involved in the dictatorships that have changed hands this year. Trouble, or perhaps historic destiny, will not wait for the right leader to show up. To paraphrase former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, "One goes into a crisis with the leaders one has."
It may be that in the next few weeks and months, in that sorry nation, "events" may escape the control of any one man, or group of men.
If the DPRK government falls, the people of the North will probably want, and expect, massive humanitarian, economic and political support from their fellow Koreans in the South, and anyone else who might provide it. Rapid unification, even if Seoul's government wanted to postpone it, always remains a possibility. One only hopes that the US government has already started thinking about the political and military implications of a power vacuum in Pyongyang.
Many good people and wise experts are warning us not to expect much change in North Korea. They may well be right. On the other hand, large parts of the North's population not only know that the regime has been lying to them about food; they also know, thanks to smuggled DVDs, cell phones and even clandestinely-received satellite television, something of the reality of the world outside.
If the North Korean people, or a significant number of them, decide to act at a moment when the government is weak and divided, then an already dangerous situation could get ugly overnight. No matter what differences the US, Japan and South Korea now have with China, there is an urgent need to talk with Beijing at the highest military to military levels -- at the very least so that there will not be any misunderstanding about what might happen during a crisis in North Korea. Having clear, well established and open lines of communication with the Chinese government could save everyone a great deal of grief. An uncontrolled political and humanitarian crisis on its northern border is the last thing China needs or wants. Like it or not, the US is the only power with the strength and the alliances to help China deal with a possible North Korean meltdown.