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What Would Democracy in North Korea Actually Look Like?

It’s the most-isolated state in existence.

North Korea – also known with fantastic irony as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – is an officially Communist, hereditary dictatorship that’s existed since 1948.

Often called “the Hermit Kingdom”, it’s so closed-off that even it’s one major ally, China, frequently has no idea what’s happening within its borders.

That means the world only ever sees the face Pyongyang chooses to show: of a highly-militarized state characterized by total obedience.

But what if that obedience isn’t so total? What if, one day, the people of North Korea cast off the Kim dictatorship? 

What would democracy in the Hermit Kingdom actually look like?

Despite what you may assume, this isn’t an academic question.

Foreign Policy notes hereditary dictatorships almost never last beyond three generations.

The Samoza family in Nicaragua, for example, was overthrown on its third leader. The Duvalier regime in Haiti collapsed during the reign of its second.

With Kim Jong-Un the third dictator from his family, after Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il, the odds are stacked against the chubby tyrant.

So what happens when he goes?

To figure that out, we first need to figure out how the regime might collapse.

One possibility is that Kim has a severe health crisis, either suddenly dying or becoming so ill he can no longer rule.

Of all the ways for the regime to end, this would be both the fastest, and the messiest.

As we saw during Kim’s disappearance in mid-2020, the despot has no clear successor, with the possible exception of his sister: Kim Yo Jong.

kim yo jong, kim jongun's sister
Kim Yo jong.ByK im Jinseok, is
licensed under OPENGL

But Korea – even the South – is fiercely patriarchal. The idea that Pyongyang’s military men would answer to a woman is about as likely as Meatloaf ever doing That for love.

That means a power struggle between military factions, factions armed with nuclear weapons. 

In this scenario democracy may come to North Korea, but only after one Helluva war.

The next possibility is the likeliest: a palace coup.

Ever since he took control in 2011, Kim has conducted purges like a cheap Stalin tribute act: targeting the military, the elite, even his own family.

While these purges were designed to make him feared, they’ve also made him many enemies. 

In the right circumstances, those enemies could combine to force Kim from office. If their coup turns out well – like in Portugal in 1974 – it could even lead to a transition to democracy.

The final way Kim could fall without first losing a war is also the most peaceful: a change in local attitudes.

Defectors talk of thriving black markets – known as Jangmadang – where young North Koreans buy everything from Japanese makeup, to pirated South Korean shows.

North Korean millennials are actually known as “the Jangmadang Generation”, because they’re more obsessed with consumer products than ideology.

As more of the Communist old guard die off, it may become impossible for Kim to hold back this tide of aspirational young consumers.

So let’s say one of these scenarios comes to pass and the Kim regime falls. What next?

How do we get from dictatorship to democracy?

According to South Korea, the answer is: by reunification.

Seoul’s policy for regime collapse is to quickly rejoin the two Koreas into one, a plan not-so-subtly modeled on the case of Germany.

From 1945 to 1990, Germany existed as two states: a western democracy, and an eastern Communist dictatorship.

When the Berlin Wall fell at the end of 1989, the west quickly absorbed the east. In less than a year, the two Germanys had successfully reunited – an outcome missed by absolutely no-one in South Korea.

But while Seoul envisages a united Korean powerhouse, experts are worried this is absurdly optimistic.

At the moment the two Germanys rejoined, West Germans were only two to three times wealthier than their neighbors.

By comparison, South Koreans earn twenty five times more than North Koreans. And while East Germany at least had industry, North Korea just has famine and gulags.

Beyond that, there’s a serious question that needs to be asked: Could North Koreans actually function in a modern democracy?

In 1990, there were enough East Germans with either relatives in the West or living memories of the Weimar Republic that democracy wasn’t a totally alien concept.

But North Koreans have suffered over seventy years of one party rule. Democracy is as alien to them as the idea of wearing a uniform and worshipping a dear leader is to you.

Just look at how elections currently function in Pyongyang.

On voting day, everyone reports to their polling station as early as possible – a sign of loyalty.

Once inside, they’re handed a ballot paper that contains not a list of names, but a single, pre-selected Party candidate.

Rather than mark the paper, “voters” (and emphasis on those air quotes) drop the pre-filled slip into an open ballot box, all while watched by a guard.

Kim Jong-Un.By Alexei Nikolsky is licensed under CC-BY

Then they go outside to join the crowds singing songs praising Kim’s leadership. 

For anyone who’d spent their entire life in a system like that, understanding regular voting might be next to impossible. 

And the same applies to other aspects of modern democracy, like consumer culture and finding a job.

Defectors to the South often struggle with these basic things, leading to staggering rates of unemployment and poverty.

To combat this, Seoul places new defectors in a compulsory integration program; something it’s been suggested could be applied to the entire North. 

The idea is that, post-reunification, North Korea would become a special district, with Communism only slowly being dismantled over several years.

We should be clear that this is not official South Korean policy. But it could be the only workable option.

North Korea has so many urgent problems that introducing democracy might have to come bottom of the To Do list.

First, there’s the healthcare, or lack of it. 

North Koreans suffer hepatitis, malnutrition, and tuberculosis on a colossal scale. Curing them will take unimaginable amounts of time and money.

North Korean police automobile in a suburb of Pyongyang.By Mike Connolly, is licensed under CC-BY

Second, there’s the military.

North Korea’s army is one the largest in the world, with 1.2 million fanatics ready to die for Kim. 

Any reunification government would have to demobilize them in such a way that civil war didn’t break out; while also stopping officers from vanishing underground and using their skills to set up criminal gangs. 

Nor should we gloss over the problems on the South Korean side.

Already, North Koreans face serious discrimination below the border. And that’s with only 33,000 of them living in Seoul.

Just imagine what happens when that 33,000 becomes 25 million. 25 million refugees, all suddenly competing with South Koreans for work.

It’s not hard to see how this might cause problems.

Another problem Seoul might cause is letting corporations in too early.

In the 1990s, former Soviet countries were given economic “shock therapy” to quickly make them capitalist.

While it worked, the sudden shift also impoverished millions, wiped out life-savings, and created a brand new class of gangsters and corrupt oligarchs. 

Yet, despite all this, reunification may be the only way of achieving democracy in North Korea.

That’s because an independent, post-Kim North would be slap bang on the border of two very un-democratic nations: Russia and China. 

While Russia has the longer track record of interfering in its neighbors’ affairs, Moscow’s interest in a democratic North Korea would probably be minimal, beyond generally discouraging it.

Beijing, on the other hand, is a whole other story.

One scenario the Pentagon considers plausible is China staging a coup and replacing any post-Kim government with its own tyrant.

But a bigger problem might be if Kim’s regime suddenly collapses.

At that point, Beijing could march its troops on Pyongyang to stabilize the situation and… well. So much for a democratic North Korea.

A free North might not even be able to count oN champions of democracy like the US to provide support.

That’s because American intervention might accidentally provoke an armed conflict with China – effectively pressing the big, red button on our planet marked SELF DESTRUCT.

Still, the path to a democratic North Korea is not an impossible one. 

The Kim family regime has been standing for seven decades now, and may stand for decades more. 

But, in the end, nothing lasts forever. And while having authoritarian states on its border may not bode well for North Korea’s future, the example of its sibling in the South could one day assure free North Koreans that it could be done.

That democracy can really work.

It may be a long way off, and the route there may be uncertain. But, hopefully, a time will come when North Koreans are at last living in a fair and open and – yes – democratic society. 

And, when it does, the world will know that the poisonous legacy of the Kims has finally been consigned to history.

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