Prospects for Political Liberalization in North Korea

Foreign Policy‘s Democracy Lab has just posted an essay of mine on why the odds that North Korea might undergo a “thaw” of sorts in the next few years aren’t so bad. The top-line judgment:

Improbable does not mean impossible. Maybe this time really will be different. The U.S.S.R. wasn’t supposed to loosen the screws, and then it did. The Burmese junta was supposed to have battened down the hatches when it crushed the Saffron Uprising in 2007, and look where we are now, just a few years later. Although the safe money’s still on continuity in North Korea, there are sound reasons to believe the chances for political liberalization in the near future are improving.

Those “sound reasons” have to do with trade-offs inherent in the political economy of authoritarian rule, a topic I also discussed on this blog last fall in a post about Burma. Dictators want to preempt or squash domestic political threats, but they don’t like having to pay so much for security, and all that monitoring and repression trips up their economies, too. Those dilemmas mean that dictators might sometimes decide to relax repression when their opposition is weak and their economies are languishing, as is the case in North Korea today.

If you’re interested, please take a look at the piece in FP and let me know what you think. For more academic treatments of this topic, check out the 2007 conference paper on which I based my essay and this article by Georgy Egorov, Sergei Guriev, and Konstantin Sonin from the November 2009 issue of the American Political Science Review.

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  1. Rex Brynen

     /  September 5, 2012

    I’ve spent too long coding intelligence judgment for predictive accuracy… I see “improbable” and I think “20-30% chance” 😉

    • Ha! Yeah, if I had to put numbers on these conjectures, I guess I’d say the likelihood of an expansion of civil liberties in the next couple of years has gone from less than 5% to something more like 35%. Now: fire away!

  2. Grant

     /  September 6, 2012

    I’m wondering what the personalities that matter think of it, how the military will react if less money flows to them and what happens if any loosening of the state’s grip leads to sudden riots and loud complaints about what the citizenry has to put up with.

    • I’m really using Kim Jong-un as shorthand here for what you’re calling “the personalities that matter.” But, yes, the trade-offs you identify are exactly the ones that I presume these people have to consider. And then I imagine it’s like any other big decision in life: you can’t know for sure what the outcome will be no matter which way you play it, so you make some informed guesses and then act.

      • Grant

         /  September 6, 2012

        For some reason that reminds me of the major change in Pakistani politics making it less friendly to the U.S. Is there any model to look at the probability of a state allying or opposing another state?

      • Not that I know of, but I don’t know recent work in IR nearly as well as in comparative politics.

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