Despite a growing narrative that North Korea might be teetering on the verge of collapse, there is a lack of consensus among U.S. experts on the imminent downfall of the reclusive regime.
Talks of a possible near-term regime collapse resurfaced among North Korea watchers when Thae Yong Ho, a high-level defector, said recently that the influx of information from outside the country and expansion of market activities within it are sapping traditional structures of the North Korean system. The regime is “crumbling” and the days of Kim Jong Un’s leadership are “numbered,” said North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom, prior to defecting with his family to South Korea in 2016.
“Low-level dissent or criticism of the regime, until recently unthinkable, is becoming more frequent [among North Korea’s elite],” Thae said at a news conference in Seoul last week. “We have to spray gasoline on North Korea and let the North Korean people set fire to it.”
Following Thae’s comments, a Wall Street Journal editorial suggested the Trump administration should “make regime change an explicit policy goal for North Korea.”
Joseph DeTrani, former U.S. nuclear envoy and intelligence official, said that while Thae’s claims are “significant commentary” based on the diplomat’s knowledge base, there is virtually “no indication that the regime’s collapse is imminent.” While saying that his views are based on limited information, DeTrani said he sees “a functioning government” in the North: private markets are functioning and people have access to food.
Ken Gause, who monitors the Kim regime, is also skeptical of Thae’s prediction of regime change. Notwithstanding increasing international sanctions, he says, Pyongyang’s economy is faring relatively well. Even with its chronic food shortage, the country is “not as in serious situation as it was in the 1990s when there was mass starvation.”
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