The Ilmin International Relations Institute recently put out a Delphic-style survey of 135 experts on the future of North Korea. One of the more interesting aspects is how distinct the views of Chinese experts are from respondents from other countries on some important issues.
The survey was conducted between 14 April and 8 May this year. The respondents were a mix of scholars and former government officials drawn from South Korea (35), the US (25), China (12), Japan (17), Russia (13), Europe (12), and other countries (6). No further information is provided on professional background, etc.
The median response on the bottom line question “how long will the Kim Jong-un regime last?” was 10-20 years. The South Korean respondents were more pessimistic with a median response of 5-10 years. The Chinese response pattern was bimodal: 42% said 5-10 years, while 25% put the regimes life expectancy of more than 30 years.
Most respondents believe that when the regime fails it will be due to an internal power struggle (64%). But among the Chinese respondents, 17% thought that it would come through foreign intervention, in sharp contrast to the overall sample where this possibility received only a 5% response rate.
In terms of short-run internal politics, a majority of non-Korean experts (56%) expect regime consolidation. But among the South Koreans, the plurality of respondents (45%) expect increase in domestic instability.
In terms of the economy, a plurality of respondents (47%) believe North Korea’s own policy choices will have the biggest impact on future outcomes, with majorities of American and Chinese respondents holding this view (52% and 67%, respectively). But South Korean respondents put a much lower emphasis on North Korean policy (31%) and instead see Chinese policy as the key issue (47%). The response pattern is emblematic of a pattern which runs throughout the survey: foreign respondents tend to place a higher weight on Chinese policy then the Chinese respondents who tend to downplay their country’s influence.
In terms of unification, when asked to score the benefits of Korean unification on the ten point scale (10 being most beneficial) the group said that unification will have the biggest positive impact on China (7.4). Maybe someone should explain the unification bonanza to the Chinese leadership. One Japanese respondent oddly expected the bonanza to be best achieved via armed conflict. Not sure what he/she had in mind.
The modal response for the date of unification is 10-20 years out (consistent with views on the life expectancy of the Kim Jong-un regime). Eighty percent of respondents believe that this will occur via a collapse of North Korea. Chinese and Russian respondents place a higher likelihood on a negotiated deal, but even the numbers here are relatively low, 25% for the Chinese, and 38% for the Russians.
Finally on the how to get from here to there issues, the response patterns on nuclear issue questions are fascinating. The experts were profoundly pessimistic about the North Koreans giving up their nuclear weapons (96%), with a majority (52%) responding that North Korea will “continuously strengthen its nuclear capability,” and 44% indicating that they believed that North Korea would “open talks while maintaining its nuclear capability.” Only 4% thought that North Korea might relinquish its nuclear program and no one believing that North Korea would “abandon its nuclear program for economic development.” Not much support for the “bargaining chip” hypothesis.
As shown in the figure below, thirty-seven percent of respondents believe that Chinese pressure is the most effective way to resolve the nuclear issue, followed by US-DPRK bilateral talks (24%), the Six Party Talks (19%), strengthening sanctions (11%), and economic support and lifting of sanctions (9 percent).
But the response pattern differs dramatically by nationality of respondents. A majority of Americans (56%) think Chinese pressure is the most effective way to resolve the issue. The Americans were quite skeptical on the efficacy of bilateral negotiations (4%). No—zero, nada, none—Chinese respondent thought that Chinese pressure was the most effective approach. Instead they advocated a resumption of the Six Party Talks (42%) or US-DPRK bilateral negotiations (also 42%). Yet 17% of the Chinese respondents opted for tighter sanctions—a higher response rate than that derived from the overall sample, and none placed their hopes on enhanced engagement and lifting of sanctions.
This summary just skims the surface of what is a very detailed analysis of North Korea scenarios. The main takeaways are that most respondents expect the Kim Jong-un regime to disappear in 10-20 years through an internal factional struggle and that to lead to unification with the South. But on some of the critical transitional issues, the rest of the world sees China as key—but the Chinese don’t.