In a long analytical piece in the Asia Times, Andrei Lankov concludes that a Chinese puppet regime (on the former Soviet model in Eastern Europe) might be the least worst option for all concerned in case North Korea finally falls apart. Here is some of his reasoning.
Americans might worry about proliferation threats and feel sorry about sufferings of North Koreans. Yet they are not very likely to dispatch troops to a chaotic and violent country whose population has been taught for three generations that Americans are evil incarnate, natural born torturers and killers, to be resisted at all costs. Chaos in North Korea, if it happens, cannot be stopped by the use of hi-tech weapons, and Americans are not eager to mire themselves in local intrigues, fights and hatreds. This is not what they like nor what they know how to handle well.
South Koreans are not necessarily different. State-sponsored nationalism is an important feature of the South Korean ideological landscape and lip service to unification as the nation’s supreme goal is made by all political forces in Seoul. However, South Koreans have demonstrated throughout the last decade that they are not too eager to risk their hard-won affluence for the sake of unification. South Korea is a democracy, and parents will not be too happy to send their only sons to the dangerous North, to get involved in necessarily dirty and immoral work there – and probably get killed in the process.
So, if everything else fails, the Chinese move across the Yalu will be tacitly (or openly) welcomed. Beijing is not overwhelmed with worries about excessive losses, has good local knowledge and intelligence and, like any authoritarian government, does not care too much about losses of the opposite force. So, it can do this work with brutal efficiency.
And then what? It would be naive to expect China just to leave after it sorts out the problems in its neighbor. It is probable it will maintain a presence for long time while supporting a friendly (or, better to say, semi-puppet) government. Such a government will not continue with the old policies of the Kim family’s regime, since these are remarkably inefficient and China, while willing to provide some aid, will not pump large amounts of aid into the North indefinitely. The new dependency will have to be made self-sustainable, and the only way to do this is to encourage reforms in accordance with the tested Chinese-Vietnamese model.
However, for a cold-minded (or cynical, if you prefer) observer it means that the Chinese and their puppets will assume a heavy responsibility. Post-communist reforms are always difficult and dirty to bring about. They solve many old problems – and create a lot of new ones. That is why the South now sees a German-style instant unification as a nightmare: it would mean that Seoul assume the total responsibility for transforming the North, and everybody understands that this will be a costly and unthankful task.
The economic gap between North and South is so large that it cannot be bridged in less than two or three decades, and its existence alone is bound to produce mutual resentment and tensions. The transformation means that nearly all adult North Koreans will find themselves at the bottom of the new social ladder and remain there for the rest of their lives, even though their absolute living standards will improve considerably.
The resulting discontent will be strong and lasting, as experience of former Soviet states testifies. The hagiographic biographies of Generalissimo Stalin constitute a large part of the best-sellers in the Russian book market these days. Most people who admire these stories and feel nostalgic about the grandeur of the Soviet era actually live remarkably better-off lives than they had under the communist regime, and far better then their grandparents, the subjects of Stalin, could even dream about living.
Nonetheless, they take the current material benefits (and right to read uncensored books) for granted while feeling sorry about the loss of established order, collapse of their beliefs and deep wounds inflicted on Russia’s national pride. It is not incidental that in the past decade the word “democracy” has become a popular term of abuse in Russian parlance: it is associated with real or perceived national humiliation, social disruption, corruption and instability.
There are few doubts that reforms in a Chinese-controlled North Korea will produce a fast and remarkable improvement in the living standards – much as has happened in Vietnam and China itself. However, if those reforms are undertaken without unification with the South, the North Koreans will not compare their state and their consumption level with those of rich South, but rather with their own sorry past, and as a result they will have less psychological reason for discontent.
As an added benefit, the discontent when it arises will be channeled not against a democratically elected national government but against a regime that will be clearly a dictatorship, forcefully imposed by a foreign power, and largely consisting of Kim Jong Il’s ex-officials – that is, people responsible for earlier abuses and economic disasters. These opportunistic puppets will make convenient scapegoats, and this will mean that ideas of liberal democracy will not become seriously discredited. Meanwhile, the South will be seen as a land of prosperity, beacon of democracy and a truly national polity.
Beside, under such a regime there will be many more opportunities for starting a genuine pro-democracy movement inside North Korea. China might be an authoritarian state, but it is far cry from present-day North Korea, arguably still the least free society on the face of Earth.
A measure of political liberalization is unavoidable if one wants to reform a Stalinist system: a functioning market economy cannot exist in a society where for a trip outside the country one has first to apply for police permission and then wait for days (or even weeks) until such permission is issued, as is still technically the case in North Korea.
Greater freedoms means that dissenters will be at least able to gather information, publish or read some hitherto underground material, or even stage occasional strikes and pickets – like the situation in the USSR and East Europe in the Brezhnev era of the 1970s. Nowadays in North Korea every potential dissenter just goes to prison, sometimes accompanied by his or her entire family, well before he or she undertakes any kind of meaningful action. Chinese dissenters gather press conferences in their kitchens – North Koreans disappear without trace.