Can the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, also known as North Korea) survive—as a distinct regime, an autonomous state, a spe- cific political-economic system, and a sovereign country?
Can it continue to function in the manner it has been performing since the end of 1991—that is, since the collapse of the Soviet empire? Or is it doomed to join the Warsaw Pact’s failed Communist experiments in the dustbin of history? Or might it, instead, adapt and evolve—surviving in the sense of maintaining its political authority and power to rule, but transform- ing its defining functional characteristics and systemic identity?
My own work on the North Korean economy has generally been associ- ated with what others have termed the “collapsist” school of thought, and not unfairly. As far back as June 1990, I published an op-ed essay entitled “The Coming Collapse of North Korea” (Eberstadt 1990); since then, my analyses have requestioned the viability of the DPRK economy and system.
It is therefore perhaps especially fitting that someone such as I, having imagined the odds of the DPRK’s post-Soviet survival to be very low, should be charged with explaining just how the North Korean system has managed to survive these past 13 or 14 years—and to speculate about the possibility of sustainable pathways that might permit regime, state, and system to endure that far, or farther, into the future.
The following pages propose to offer something other than an apologia pro vita sua (although the reader will have to decide exactly how well that obvious temptation has been resisted). It will proceed through three sections. The first focuses on some of the factors that may have abetted state