Only a Democratic North Korea Can Make Peace With the South

Sanctions failed to facilitate the democratization of North Korea, therefore the change must come from within, said Professor Hyug Baeg Im of Korea University in a Jan. 25 lecture hosted by CEU's Department of International Relations.

“Refuting the various predictions why North Korea must fall eventually, the regime has shown exceptional durability and survivability,” said Im, who is professor at Korea University's Department of Political Science and Diplomacy. Kim Jong Un has completed his succession and consolidated his power, and soon the North Korean dictatorship may surpass the Soviet Union’s lifespan, he added.

He believes that it is neither China’s support, nor North Korea’s nuclear experimentation that is the decisive factor in Korea’s longevity, but its effective institutionalization of dictatorship. “North Korea is not a military dictatorship, as some portray it, but a neopatrimonial state that is supported by a modern bureaucracy,” Im said.

Assessing how peace and reunification could be achieved between the two Koreas, Im ruled out both North Korea’s spontaneous collapse and an all-out military conflict because the costs of such a war would be astronomical for both sides. Therefore, the only option for peace is a peaceful settlement. “Making a lasting and predictable peace with a dictatorship, however, is not possible. They can always go back to war propaganda to strengthen their positions. Only a political system in which voters can express their adversity to war can be a real partner in such an agreement,” said Im.

So far neither the incentives and negotiations of the Clinton era, nor the isolation and sanctions introduced by the Bush administration could significantly influence North Korean politics. “We tried exogenous democratization, and it failed. Therefore, the only way is to help it happen from within,” said Im.

For the process to succeed, the current political elite headed by Kim Jong Un has to be confident about its victory in a democratic election and that it can retain its leading role. As there are several symptoms that endanger Kim Jong Un's power, such as deteriorating economic conditions, widespread corruption, and declining popularity, there might come a “bittersweet point,” where the regime might consent to giving up some of its power.

The West can only very cautiously assist this process. According to Im, economic aid to North Korea’s democratic transition could strengthen the regime’s “victory confidence and stability confidence.”

To guarantee inter-Korean peace, Im suggests the involvement of the East Asian Regional Security Community with strong support from the U.S. This, in the long run, could help better cooperation in the region and the creation of a common East-Asian identity. This is especially important, as according to Im, the revival of nationalism might be one of the major challenges the reunification process will have to solve.