Hanging around Goomjang last night, walking through the cold without a coat, pushing my broken bike—the old chain got stuck when I was throwing myself up a hill on two very flat tires—listening to some crazy old Ali Farka Toure, I got to thinking about the impending collapse of North Korea, which I’d just discussed for half an hour with one of my favorite students, a middle school kid who sometimes actually asks me questions. In the middle of this conversation I was suddenly like, seriously, if you’re making a big deal about a visit from Dennis Rodman, if you’re threatening to scrap an armistice you’ve already broken numerous times, you are on your last legs. This topic is the favorite whipping boy of expatriates living in Korea, and all kinds of intelligent people have been predicting that the North would collapse since its first hours of existence, but in a recent interview B.R Myers, author of the best book on the subject, said these guys are finished.
I think sooner or later, a tipping point is going to be reached where the North Korean government suddenly finds itself in some kind of a difficult situation, and there’s only one real way for North Korea to react to that kind of situation, and that is to increase tension with the outside world. And I think that someday North Korea will go a step too far, North Korea will maybe engage in some kind of nuclear provocation, or it will attack South Korea, and it will finally induce South Korea and the United States to fight back, and when that happens, North Korea is going to collapse.
Fascist governments need their people to be whipped up into a war-hungry frenzy on a constant basis to distract them from the starvation, poverty, and corruption that surrounds them; and to crack that whip they’ve got to keep lashing out at other countries, but the only trouble is that South Korea is finished with taking the North’s potshots—the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island—and from what I understand the government here is going to shoot back the next time the North violates their sovereignty.
The war will probably be over within hours. Thousands of people will be killed in Seoul and elsewhere thanks to an artillery barrage, and thousands more may die over the coming months as a result of the North’s stockpile of chemical and biological weapons, which I think are far more dangerous than the few small nukes in the Kim dynasty’s possession, as those currently lack an effective delivery system (aside from driving them around in a truck). China, which seems to be more or less fed up with the North (they endorsed the latest U.N. Resolution against the North), will not intervene this time as the South occupies and administers the former territory of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Statues and paintings of Kim Jong Il and his son will be knocked down and destroyed, but Mr. Myers has elsewhere predicted that the founder of the North Korean state, Kim Il Sung, will undergo a resuscitation by Korean historians, who for various nationalistic reasons will be unable to admit that any powerful Korean leader was more horrible than the colonial Japanese.
My student told me he believes that after reunification the Northerners will try to come down to live in the South, but I think there’s all kinds of problems with that: most notably, the fact that South Korea is already packed to the brim with people, and doesn’t have any more room. My guess it that the reverse will happen: there’s plenty of space in North Korea, lots of cheap land, lots of old buildings that need to get knocked down and replaced, so my suspicion is that when peace finally settles over the smoke and rubble along the DMZ there will be a construction bonanza as the architectural remnants of North Korea are replaced with the dull modern apartment buildings and flashy neon noraebangs of the South. The North Koreans also don’t know how to use computers, so my guess is that they’re going to be working in factories; students will have a lot of trouble adjusting to the South’s notoriously impossible education system, which breaks for nobody, and the South’s impressive suicide rate—the highest in the developed world—will spread northward as old folks find that there isn’t much reason to live if they don’t have to sacrifice anything to defeat the American imperialists anymore.
The ironic thing about North Korea is that while it ranks as among the most belligerent nations on Earth—right up there with The United States of America—the last sixty years have probably been the most peaceful in the history of East Asia, as the American military, with tens of thousands of soldiers deployed in South Korea and Japan to protect against the North, has ensured that if the region’s traditional enemies go to war, everything everywhere will be destroyed. So if you take away North Korea, you take away the reason to keep all those American soldiers stationed in the region, and you increase the possibility of a catastrophic conflict between China, Korea, and Japan. Since Korea is right in the middle, it’s likely that most of the fighting will be done there; and who knows, in the future people may regret that the North disappeared at all. “Ah, those were the good old days,” they’ll say, “back when East Asia wasn’t a smoldering cinder.”