Last night I had a conversation about North Korea on Twitter with Laura Rozen, reporter for al-Monitor. It starts here, and most of the conversation (but not all) is connected. You can find the rest by looking at my timeline, which you can do even if you’re not on Twitter. I’m not fond of long strings of tweets pretending to be blog posts, so I’ll summarize in sentences and paragraphs and add a few more thoughts.
Representatives of the US and North Korea are reported to have met at a castle in Sweden, shown at top (photo from here). The article does not give the subject of the discussions. Contacts between antagonistic countries begin this way: quiet meetings between a few representatives. That is how the talks on Iran’s nuclear program began.
We speculated that the subject of the meeting might have been humanitarian aid, discussion of the two Americans detained in North Korea, or the nuclear program. Those subjects overlap. North Korea uses detained Americans as a lever toward nuclear negotiations or provision of food and other aid. The North Korean nuclear program has been moving along lately. North Korea seems to be improving its missiles and showed off something they claimed was a nuclear weapon. Talks to freeze those programs would be a good thing. President Barack Obama may want to begin to set up talks that can be taken over by his successor.
Rozen said that she is hearing in Washington that people in government are becoming concerned about a possible collapse of the North Korean government. This is a concern that arises periodically. North Korea is one of the last Stalinist dictatorships in the world. If the government collapsed, it would leave behind chaos and famine for common people and a small nuclear arsenal. Refugees would head for China and South Korea. South Korea would be faced with a more rapid unification of the country than Germany after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The meeting might have been a step toward making preparations for such a crisis. Hopefully, the United States, China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia all have some level of plans to deal with it.
Andrei Lankov warns about what might happen in the event of a collapse. The article is from this week and presumably comes out of the concerns that Rozen reports. A RAND report from 2013 works through the consequences of a North Korean collapse. In 2012, Jay Ulfelder, who studies governmental collapse, wrote about North Korea. He commented on Twitter that he feels the considerations in the article are still valid, but he would now emphasize China’s role in keeping North Korea stable.
North Korea reacts in volatile ways to world events. They recently released a stream of invective against the United States in response to sanctions levied directly against Kim Jong Un and sent up another missile. That could also be a show of force to cover the fact they are talking to the enemy. Releasing news of the meeting could make North Korea shy away from the subject of the talks. Developing.