The recent Economist piece on the situation in North Korea is simultaneously a good read and also incredibly depressing. From my read, the following chart is pretty much the “million dollar slide” which explains why the situation in North Korea is so grim:
The figure highlights the bind that the US, South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia find themselves in:
- Massive human suffering demands some sort of action. To quote the Economist: “[Missionaries allowed in the country] say they can see with their own eyes that the level of hunger has become considerably worse in the past few years—in a country where famine led to the deaths of some 1m people, or nearly 5% of the population, in the 1990s. For instance, one man who works there says the number of orphans has surged recently as hunger has claimed their parents’ lives.”
- North Korea may be on the verge of collapse/civil war. If the collapsing economy weren’t enough, North Korea watchers suspect that the dictator Kim Jong Il’s recent health problems and an uncertain succession means there could be significant internal turmoil once Kim dies. Worse, that turmoil could spill outwards as demagogues finally decide to attack the pretend “South Korean threat” the North Korean government has used for years to justify their power.
- It is almost inconceivable how much it will cost/how long it will take to “rehabilitate” North Korea. The economic gap is so enormous that its been estimated the cost of “absorbing” North Korea into South Korea would run near $1 trillion for over 40 years. Not to mention, neither China nor South Korea seem willing (let alone able) to take on the waves of North Korean refugees that a collapse in the North Korean regime would bring about.
- There are no real plans on what to do if/when North Korea fails. How would you handle refugees? How would you handle which military forces are to preserve law and security? How would you handle which parts of the North Korean state to preserve, which to abolish, and which to reform? How would you handle the nuclear materials and huge amounts of arms that are there? If you thought the post-war planning in Iraq was bad, you ain’t seen nothing yet – and this problem touches not just South Korea and the US, but China, Japan, and Russia as well.
You can’t possibly want the current regime to continue, but the alternative seems just as bad. One hopes the international community figures out a way to safely navigate the two extremes.