Fatal Attraction: Unexpected Outcome Of The Inter-Korean Collusion – OpEd


Each time a Communist politician was elected a president in S Korea, many were concerned that the inter-Korean relations would go under N Korea’s control, which in turn would put S Korea’s national security and military preparedness on the line.  As a result, Pyongyang-led inter-Korean unification, many feared, would be the future of the two Koreas. 

The concerns again became a harsh reality during Moon’s presidency.  The South’s Communists took back control of the nation and filled every branch of the government with their ranks.  They committed treason.  They let the South’s guard down, rigged the national policies to make the North’s operatives walk free, supplied huge monies to Pyongyang, incensed Japan with military and diplomatic confrontations, and sabotaged the US-S Korea alliance; and the list goes on. 

The damage was insurmountable and many thought it was just a step away for Pyongyang and Seoul to declare a unified Korea and nothing could stop it since it would be a legitimate act by the two sovereign nations.  But interestingly, Pyongyang did not seize the golden opportunity, and that revealed much about their inner mind and conundrum.  What is the regime afraid of? 

Thirty years of collusion with Seoul has brought more dilemmas to Pyongyang.  The towering economy and lively pop culture of S Korea have become a powerful blackhole that can dissolve N Korea.  The men and women in the streets of Pyongyang admire the wealth and freedom their neighbors in Seoul enjoy.  Deep in their minds they now worship the golden calf and refuse the “faith.”  Pyongyang began to see that a unified Korea with Seoul would only accelerate the regime’s collapse.  

Economic dilemmas

The regime’s biggest problem is its dysfunctional economy.  Failure in a market economy and lack of modern industrialization make N Korea’s economy unrepairable without external help.  But accepting external assistance to rebuild its economy require the regime’s commitment and openness to the international community.  N Korea cannot afford that without giving up their family-owned ruling structure that prohibits the population from interacting with the outside world.  The stalled economy has caused all sorts of trouble for the regime.  As the Korean saying goes, “the standing water comes to rot,” and that’s the foreseeable future of the regime. 

Will China come to rescue as an ally and help N Korea rebuild its dying economy?  Surely not.  Pyongyang already got the answer when Hu Jintao advised Kim’s late father of “reformation and openness.”  China has given N Korea very little beyond the survival level.  Strategically, all that Beijing wants is keeping the Kim regime on life support. 

Kim balked at Trump’s offer of massive economic help in exchange for denuclearization.  The unprecedented public fanfare for Kim’s departure for Hanoi, aired by N Korea’s national media, ended up delivering frustration and emptiness to the nation, when Kim fooled himself in thinking that Trump would not know about N Korea’s hidden nuclear facilities.  It is a lost opportunity for N Korea and Kim will not get another offer of this nature.  The regime is left with what they now have, relying heavily on the loyalists at home and their elements and supporters abroad. 

Fortunately, but also unfortunately, one of the world’s most prosperous economies—S Korea—borders with the starving Kim regime.  The South’s stout economy not only proves the North’s miserable defeat, it forces the North to take every opportunity for easy money through collusion and extortion.  How can moths avoid attraction to the flame?  But the regime does not yet appear to fully comprehend the fatal consequence of flying too close to the sun.  The writing was on the wall but they didn’t see it. 

Ideological dilemmas 

What the regime fears most is disobedience of its ruling-class members.  But over the years Kim has failed to satisfy his loyalists because the bankrupt regime has little wealth to keep them loyal; instead, he has placed ever-growing burdens on their shoulders by demanding more money from them in order to make up for his limited resources.  

In recent years, a number of high-rank officials and military brass were executed and imprisoned on charges of “monetary disloyalty,” which proves that disobedient and corrupt members have exponentially increased in number.  In N Korea anyone who is found to have kept a considerable amount of money (US currency or gold) in their home faces an espionage charge automatically and the regime hands down a maximum penalty on them.  The allegation that Kim’s uncle Jang Song Thaek was executed because he mismanaged the black money left by Kim’s late father is also significant in this regard. 

Ideology has faded.  It is money that people are loyal to and N Korea is not an exception either. When the amount of money they bring in for Kim is a barometer of their loyalty—hence their safety in the regime—that only makes them more obsessed with money because it is money and not the “rocket man” that can safeguard them.  Most of Kim’s loyalists now worship money as their new savior and have forgotten the two bodies laid embalmed in the Pyongyang Mausoleum; the dead can no longer protect them or harm them. 

Recent satellite photos showed the construction of new, bigger lock-up camps near the nuclear experiment sites in the regime’s mountainous northeastern province.  The North’s populace has two classes—the privileged/ruling class and the undesired/labor class—and political prisoners are almost all former members of the privileged class.  The fact that more lock-up camps are needed for political prisoners also proves that more members of the privileged class have fallen victim to the regime’s faltering economy.  The regime is stuck in a mobster mindset and the level of cruelty they have shown to their own disloyal members is beyond imagination. 

But despite the regime’s horrific revenge, more members of the privileged class appear willing to be disloyal to Kim.  Each year more high-rank officials, generals, and diplomats have defected from N Korea or been incarcerated for their defection attempts; the numbers are unprecedented in the regime’s history.  It is a clear indication that the privileged class has an irreparable deep ideological fracture; even Kim’s insiders and loyalists, who prefer the status quo, appear to feel discontent and insecure about their future.  Has the fall of N Korea finally started? 

Military dilemmas

The economic and ideological failures have raised existential questions for the regime.  N Korea has long lost its military capabilities to wage another conventional war with S Korea since its bankrupt economy made much-needed military upgrades and modernization impossible.  The alternative was tactics of asymmetric warfare with focus on “unconventional weapons” (that is, nuclear and biochemical warheads) and effective delivery systems. 

The problem is, the regime cannot use their unconventional weapons in military offense.  If they are ever used against S Korea or the US forces, N Korea would be equally devastated from their responses.  When the outcome is an irreversible devastation with no win, how can N Korea wage a war?  The situation is very different from that of the 1950’s when Seoul was unprepared for the North’s preemptive strike.  Thus, in reality, the regime’s nuclear capabilities are for defense and their survival from external attacks rather than for offense and their annihilation at home. 

The regime’s perennial military threats to S Korea and the US forces are war rhetoric designed mainly as its internal propaganda for the military and the ruling class.  Since the regime has its national identity and foundation on the “military occupation and liberation” of the South, loss of military capabilities to wage another war has raised political conundrums for the regime.  Kim fears the hard-liners in his military, who would challenge his authority and show disobedience en masse if they think the party’s failed leadership would throw their future off. 

What can a dictator do when he is afraid of his own guards?  Routine shake-ups with carrots and whips, constant purges on every opportunity, and calculated provocations for outside enemies. That is exactly what Kim has done.  In a recent memoir by Mike Pompeo, Kim was quoted as saying that the US forces staying in S Korea had benefitted his regime.  That seems like Kim’s honest remark.  It revealed how the regime had taken advantage of their presence for its own geopolitical strategies in the region and its propaganda at home.  Strange as it may sound, the presence of the US forces has contributed to the regime’s stability under Kim’s control. 

Political dilemmas

Pyongyang had their best opportunity for inter-Korean unification with Seoul when the South’s government was run by Moon and numerous supporters of the North.  But Kim did not take it for one obvious reason.  Kim fears that peaceful inter-Korean unification would threaten his throne, since the Communist factions in Seoul would want their “shares” in the governance and that would jeopardize the regime’s doctrine that recognizes only one “Führer” (i.e., their propagandic term “Mt Baekdu bloodline”). 

After seizing Saigon, why did N Vietnam purge first the Vietcong forces who had helped and fought alongside them?  Power struggle always has the same fate.  If Kim could wage and win a war against S Korea, he would easily handle the factions in the South in the same manner as N Vietnam did, but that is out of the question now.  

Seasoned people in specialized and professional areas such as military strategists, intelligence and propaganda officers, and senior diplomats form Pyongyang’s brainpower.  Their combined experience and knowledge help steer the regime’s future direction.  But after Kim got power, surprisingly many of them have been axed as if their services were no longer needed; the names are too many to mention here.  That is an irrevocable loss for the regime for sure. 

Most of his father’s loyalists were rounded up with his uncle Jang’s purge; and the regime’s continued arrests of its disloyal members have caused an outburst of high-rank defectors from military posts, government offices, and secret service agencies.  The failed outcome of Kim’s summits with Trump resulted in cleansing of the ranks of the regime’s Foreign Ministry branch.

A tsunami of executions and imprisonments are yet to come pending the outcome of the ongoing trial in the South of the former presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung and his secret connection to Pyongyang.  The revelation so far is that the final amount of money that reached Kim was much smaller than the actual amount of money Lee handed over to N Korea during Moon’s presidency. No doubt there was a “delivery incident” inside the regime.  As a fuming Kim keeps an eye on the trial, those responsible in the regime’s Propaganda and Anti-S Korean Operations branch will dearly pay the price for their disloyalty. 

How can the regime deal with limited manpower when they have to lose so many experienced members of the loyalist group?  That plainly speaks one truth.  The regime needs no new brains and heroes as they have no other path to take than to preserve the status quo.  Unable to handle a mountain of trouble the Kim family has handed down for generations, they have lost sight of the future.  Their best strategy is to keep the same path and play by the book since that is the path most familiar to them, until they fall to their death. 


The US can stir up the regime in so many different ways but has done little other than economic sanctions.  It seems that Washington wants no regime change in N Korea, for regime change may cause unpredictable outcomes and risks in the region and beyond.  Probably, Washington’s tactic is to do little and wait until intervention becomes necessary.  

Many things are commonplace in N Korea now: hunger, crime, bribery, drugs, etc.  While all these involve money at the core, easy money is always the culprit for corruption.  The decades-old collusion with Seoul has only fueled Pyongyang’s culture of corruption.  How many more should perish and defect before the regime collapses under its own weight?  

Max S. Kim

Max S. Kim received his PhD in cognitive science from Brandeis University and taught at the University of Washington and the State University of New York at Albany. Besides his own field of profession, he occasionally writes on regional affairs of the East Asia, including the two Koreas.

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