North Korea under Tightening Sanctions,* the latest International Crisis Group briefing, warns that although it appears stable on the outside, the regime has been shaken by tough international sanctions, several domestic challenges and the consequences of its own extremely poor policy choices. The internal problems could have unanticipated implications for regional and wider international security.
"Pyongyang is facing several domestic problems that in isolation would each be manageable but together could threaten regime survival", says Daniel Pinkston, North East Asia Deputy Project director. "The North Korean government has demonstrated an extraordinary ability to survive, but the regime is under extreme pressure when it must also deal with looming succession issues".
Foreign exchange sources are dwindling, while humanitarian assistance, which feeds millions of North Koreans, has declined due to political factors and donor fatigue. In addition to international sanctions, Pyongyang is trying to cope with the pressures resulting from its disastrous currency reform, chronic and deteriorating food security problem and collapsed public health system. The balance of power on the Korean Peninsula has shifted against Pyongyang, and the country's leadership is not likely to start a war it knows it would lose. However, its motivation to survive could lead it to engage in more dangerous proliferation activities when other sources of foreign exchange are no longer available.
Human security has been a long-term crisis in North Korea, with human rights abuses and economic deprivation widely documented, but the international community has no effective policy instruments to produce improvements. The regime is adept at transferring the costs of sanctions to the weakest segments of society.
Although Pyongyang's opaque policymaking process makes it nearly impossible to understand regime motivations, the pressures of cascading and overlapping mini crises are unmistakable. For now, the state security apparatus and the barriers to collective action make a "revolution from below" impossible. But despite the loyalty of elites in the party and the military, a sudden split in the leadership, although unlikely, is not out of the question.
"Instability, a coup d'état or even regime collapse would not be observable from the outside until well underway", says Robert Templer, Crisis Group's Asia Program Director, "and any of these scenarios could create a humanitarian emergency that might require international intervention".
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*Read the full Crisis Group report on our website: http://www.crisisgroup.org
Contacts: Andrew Stroehlein (Brussels) +32 (0) 2 541 201635
Kimberly Abbott (Washington) +1 202 785 16