Research Paper no. 15 2010–11
Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security Section
14 June 2011
- Recent events in the Middle-East and North Africa (MENA) region have been used by analysts to draw insight into how political change occurs in authoritarian regimes. Several of these analyses have looked at what events in the MENA region mean for North Korea.
- Stability in the Korean peninsula region is important to Australia's national interests. Australia's four largest trading partners (China, Japan, South Korea, United States) all have strong connections and interests in the region. Political change in North Korea could have a major impact on the region.
- There are distinct differences between the MENA region and North Korea. Political conditions in North Korea do not reflect those in the MENA region. North Korea can be considered a 'neo-patrimonial regime'. Political change in neo-patrimonial regimes differ from other types of authoritarian regime.
- Two key lessons can be learnt from political change in the MENA region. Firstly, political change is at least a two stage process. The second stage does not necessarily mean 'democratisation'. Secondly, analytical forecasts and reporting on political conditions in authoritarian regimes is unreliable. In the case of North Korea, analytical forecasts and reporting on political conditions are particularly unreliable.
Recent events in the Middle-East and North Africa (MENA) region have been used by analysts to draw insight into how political change occurs in authoritarian regimes. This has led some analysts to consider whether political change in the MENA region holds any lessons for political change in the Asia-Pacific region.
One regime in the Asia-Pacific region that is routinely featured in such analyses is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), hereafter, North Korea.  North Korea has been assessed as a state on the edge of momentous political change for around 15 years and reflecting its failure to change, continues to provoke similar assessments. The year 2010-11 has been a particularly eventful period with the Korean peninsula seeing some of the most volatile incidents since the Korean War (1950-53) amidst what is believed to be a continuing effort to provide for the succession of Kim Jong-Eun, the third son of current leader, Kim Jong-Il.
Security in the Korean peninsula region is vital to Australia's national interests. Australia's four largest export markets (China, Japan, South Korea and the United States) are intricately involved in the security of the region. Australia is also an interested party as a signatory to the Declaration on the Korean War Armistice Agreement, signed by the participating forces of the United Nations, which requires them to 'again be united and prompt to resist' in the event of an armed attack on South Korea. Reflecting this, political change in North Korea remains a remote, but high impact event warranting ongoing attention.
Recent events in the MENA region highlight certain characteristics of political change in authoritarian regimes, which on the surface seem applicable to the case of North Korea. A closer look suggests that North Korea may be an altogether different case.
Analysts have argued that higher levels of modernisation—economic development marked by increases in per capita income, education, urbanisation and access to information and communications technologies (ICT)—are conducive to political participation and democracy. It follows that as a regime's level of economic development increases, social pressures for political participation also increase, until a social group empowered by economic development pushes for political change.
In the past decade, the MENA region has seen higher levels of economic development marked by increases in per capita income, education, urbanisation and access to information and communications technologies (ICT). Urbanisation serves as a good example. While there is no internationally agreed upon definition of urban and rural that is applicable to all countries or even to all countries within a region, available United Nations estimates show that between 2005–10, the urban annual growth rates in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Tunisia were 1.99, 2.23, 3.97 and 1.56 per cent, respectively, compared to 0.53 in North Korea.
Uneven and uncontrolled modernisation can further intensify calls for political change. Economic development in the MENA region was accompanied by high levels of youth unemployment and an increased perception of wealth disparities and corruption. In an interview with US network CNBC the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Dominique Strauss-Kahn, noted:
Such a high level of unemployment, especially youth unemployment, and such a high level of inequality in the country create a social situation that may end in unrest… You cannot expect to have nice economic development without having the society as a whole following.
However, both measuring modernisation in North Korea and assuming that it would lead to a greater demand for political participation is problematic.
Firstly, the distinct lack of reliable economic indicators limits the ability to measure the degree of modernisation in North Korea. North Korean statistics were considered highly dubious at the height of North Korea's economic success during the 1970s. Today, they are not only considered highly dubious, but in many cases are simply non-existent. As stated by Nick Eberstadt:
…the DPRK's release of official statistics is entirely episodic and absolutely minimal, and has been so for over four decades. In an age of globalization, North Korean statistical authorities stand in virtually complete isolation from all international counterparts.
Secondly, thinking that modernisation will lead to greater political participation is ethnocentric and does not account for the differing correlation between economic development and political participation that has been a feature of East Asian development, such as in Singapore, China and Japan. Accordingly, it is conceivable that economic development in North Korea would not necessarily demonstrate a similar correlation to political participation as would be expected in other regions.
Analysts have also argued that the international environment influences public expectations, and facilitates conditions either conducive or detrimental to political change. Thus, in the context of the MENA states, the international environment facilitated conditions detrimental to political change, in the interests of stability and security at the height of the Cold War, but facilitated conditions more conducive to political change (in relative terms) after the demise of the Soviet threat.
Further, political change in states which share similar conditions, such as colonial legacies, economic dependence and/or unequal relationships with dominant powers, can have a 'demonstration effect', upon authoritarian regimes, as occurred in Egypt and Libya after Tunisia.
The influence of the international environment is facilitated by the substantial increase in the individual's ability to communicate and access information. In the MENA region this has included computer and smart-phone enabled internet access combined with social network services, such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as satellite TV combined with regionally focused services such as Al-Jazeera.
However, once again, the case of North Korea is distinct. The influence of the international environment is very limited because of restrictions imposed on the individual's ability to communicate and access information.
Firstly, the international environment facilitates conditions detrimental to political change, given China's strategic interests and the severely constrained influence of other states. China's interests in North Korea have historically been in the maintenance of a buffer state between itself and United States ally, South Korea. While these interests may now be changing, inertia and the very real threat of refugees and civil unrest on its border, means that China would likely still maintain a strategic interest in the survival of the current North Korean regime.
In addition, the vast majority of information regarding international affairs reaches North Korea through China, which itself restricts information considered detrimental to national security. According to the Wall Street Journal, Chinese authorities have blocked access to keyword search functions related to uprisings in the MENA region on several popular social network services.
Secondly, the only state which shares similar conditions, including colonial legacy, economic dependence and unequal relationships with dominant powers, and has transitioned from an authoritarian regime, is South Korea. North Korea has expended substantial effort to ensure that the international environment, let alone South Korea's shining example of economic development and democratic transition, has a very limited influence on the North Korean population.
Analysts have also argued that economic crises act as a catalyst to political change. This includes political change towards authoritarianism, as in Europe after the Great Depression, or away from authoritarianism, as in Indonesia after the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis.
In the context of the MENA states, it is argued that the Global Financial Crisis and its effect on demand for MENA region exports in Europe contributed to political change. Tunisia serves as an example. Real growth in Tunisia averaged nearly five per cent over the past decade. Living standards also improved considerably with progressive social policies, relative to the region.
However, in 2009–10 real growth declined to between three and four per cent due to economic contraction and the slowing of import demand in Europe. This conforms to the theory that economic crisis, in this case the Global Financial Crisis, can act as a catalyst to political change.
However, measuring economic change and the impact of economic crises in North Korea is very difficult. It is clear that the economy has been in decline since the 1970s, and has faced major upheavals with the withdrawal of Soviet aid in the 1990s. Obtaining more useful and timely information, which could be used to measure the impact of economic crises, is very difficult. Reflecting this, seeking insight into the potential of economic crises to act as a catalyst for political change in North Korea is effectively impossible.
Analysts also contend that authoritarian regimes change only when political actors have a preferable and feasible alternative. Change is driven by the reactive, short-term calculations of political actors when a feasible alternative emerges which would allow them to sustain or increase their power and privilege. In the case of Egypt, it is argued that the reactive, short-term calculations of the military elite ultimately decided the direction of political change as it emerged that their position would remain largely unchanged under a post-Mubarak administration.
This highlights one of the key challenges to political change in North Korea. Political actors, namely the extended Kim family, the party and the military would likely be aware that political change could result in a substantial loss of power and privilege. However, as political change progresses, the short-term calculations of political actors will also change. Reflecting this, a partial loss of regime control, for example over a certain sector of the economy, could result in substantial changes in the short-term calculations of affected political actors. 
The importance of political actors having preferable and feasible alternatives also presents interesting implications for external support of political change. South Korea and/or third countries, could encourage political change in North Korea through policies that support amnesty and/or award guarantees to political actors. This could possibly encourage political actors to view political change as preferable and feasible.
Just as there are different types of democracy, there are different types of authoritarian regime. Perhaps the best fit to North Korea is not those of the MENA region, but rather examples in sub-Saharan Africa. In July 1994, World Politics published a paper by Michael Bratton and Nicolas Van De Walle entitled 'Neopatrimonial regimes and political transitions in Africa', which draws important parallels to the North Korean situation.
A neo-patrimonial regime is characterised by the maintenance of political authority through personal patronage rather than ideology or law; a right to rule ascribed to an individual rather than an office; and the securing of elite loyalty and dependence through personal favour and material rewards. From the western point of view, such regimes tend to display qualities more like a mafia network than a state, as epitomised by the popular moniker often used for North Korea—'the Kim family regime'.
Bratton and Van De Walle proposed several characteristics, which distinguish political change in neo-patrimonial regimes from political change in other types of authoritarian regime. Those which give insight into the (lack of) potential for change in North Korea include:
- change originates in social protest. The vested interest of the elite in the maintenance of the regime structure means that they are unlikely to be an early supporter of political change. This means that change is more likely to originate from mass social protest.
However, given that social protest is facilitated through non-state social networks (religious groups, unions, business circles, etc), information and communications technologies (TV, radio, internet, social network services), and historical precedent, the outlook for North Korea is bleak. North Korea strictly controls social networks, with some experts even questioning the existence of non-state social networks. The majority of the North Korean population has access only to radio and television hard-wired to state broadcast services and no access to internet and social networking services.
- elite fragmentation is based on self-interest rather than ideology. In neo-patrimonial regimes, the elite cohesion is based upon patronage. Few analysts today believe that ideology actually plays a large role in the decision-making of the North Korean elite.
However, there remains a distinct lack of reliable information on the attitudes of the North Korean elite. To date, there are no reliable indications (elite defections, rapid changes in public office, shifts in power between political factions) that the self-interest of the elite lies in political change.
- compromise is unlikely. Change in authoritarian regimes is often characterised by compromise when no social or political group has enough authority to rule independently. This was demonstrated by the example of Egypt where the military and civilian opposition groups compromised to secure stability.
However, political change in neo-patrimonial regimes is marked by escalating confrontation, establishing a zero-sum game in which compromise is unlikely. Further, in North Korea with no precedent of non-violent political change, the likelihood of compromise is remote.
The recent events in the MENA region do demonstrate two important aspects of political change in authoritarian regimes, which should be used in the analysis of political change in North Korea:
1. Firstly, the recent and ongoing events in the MENA region show that political change is at minimum, a two stage process. It involves the removal of one authority and the establishment of an alternative authority. Dependent on the society in question, the establishment of alternative authority may rely on existing military, exile or religious networks or in less preferable scenarios, it may suffer from ongoing competition between several networks.
Importantly, this means that political change is not necessarily democratisation. It can result in the establishment of a more authoritarian elite, military or ideological regime. The example of Libya demonstrates that the first part of this two stage process can be confusing, haphazard, almost invariably beyond the control of external powers, and not necessarily in the interests of internal and external stakeholders. The example of Egypt demonstrates that the second part can be equally confusing, haphazard and beyond the control of external powers. Despite the success of the protesters in removing Mubarak from power, the arrests of bloggers and commentators who criticised the military demonstrates that the path to genuine democracy remains very uncertain.
2. Secondly, recent events in the MENA region demonstrate that analytical forecasts and reporting on political conditions in authoritarian regimes is unreliable. Reported conversations of French diplomats who considered Tunisia as 'the most stable country in the Maghreb' just prior to the Jasmine Revolution, demonstrate that political assessments from even a seemingly informed vantage point, can be misguided.
Analytical forecasts and reporting on political conditions in North Korea are particularly unreliable. The nature of the regime means that analysts, academics, journalists and diplomats rely on a coterie of sources, the objectivity of which must be questioned. This can include the subjective viewpoints of Christian missionary networks; NGOs with entrenched political positions; government agencies pushing political agendas or deliberate misinformation; and even individuals who know that 'exclusive' information is rewarded with a free meal and maybe more. It is this dearth of reliable and objective information that ultimately confounds any analysis of North Korea.
Essentially, recent events in the MENA region demonstrate that if political change were to occur in North Korea, it would be unlikely to conform to expectations and would occur with little or no warning. Despite the considerable amount of academic literature on political change in authoritarian regimes and the plethora of 'expert' commentary, which emerges with every North Korean crisis, it remains largely impossible to determine if and when political change will occur in North Korea.
Due to the substantially differing circumstances, attempts to use the recent events in the MENA region to obtain insight into political change in the Asia-Pacific region should be treated with a degree of caution. The Asia-Pacific, and North Korea in particular, is distinct.
Recent events in the MENA region show that political change in authoritarian regimes rarely conforms to expectations and can only be predicted in hindsight.
However, for a country like Australia, whose four largest trading partners (China, Japan, South Korea, United States) all have strong connections and interests in the Korean peninsula region, there is ultimately one lesson that cannot be ignored—preparation.
Analysts have looked at the wide degree of scenarios that could result from political change in North Korea and how this would impact South Korea and the United States. To date, there has been no attempt to look at how these scenarios would affect Australia's strategic and economic interests. Given the potential economic impact, this type of preparation could be considered essential.
There are a range of long-term options that Australia could consider, such as travel and/or training programs for North Korean citizens. Economic and agricultural training programs for North Korean citizens sponsored by AusAID have previously been undertaken at various Australian universities and were highly regarded by both the North Korean Government and the academic community.
Such programs play a dual role. They can assist an authoritarian regime in addressing economic difficulties which are a catalyst for political change. Yet, they can also play a fundamental role in allowing individual citizens to learn from, experience and prepare for democratic society. There is no better example of this than the influence of travel and/or training on political actors central to perestroika, glasnost, and ultimately the largely peaceful 'revolution from above', which resulted in the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
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