Mathew Ha’s ’14 grasp of the North Korean political structure is impressive, especially considering the reclusive nature of the 65-year-old single party state. Ha took inspiration in designing his Emerson Grant summer research project on the 2012 North Korean leadership transition from Hamilton alumnus Jae Yong Kim ’10, whose 2009 Emerson research project studied the role of NGOs in North Korea.
Ha originally intended to write his culminating essay on international responses to the new North Korean government now being led by deceased North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s son and heir, Kim Jong Un; however, after completing extensive research, Ha decided to change the focus of his paper to the possibility of a North Korean regime collapse. Ha, a world politics concentrator, is being advised in his research by Henry Platt Bristol Professor of International Affairs Alan Cafruny.
Ha’s research relies heavily upon former National Security Council Director of Asian Affairs Victor Cha’s recently published book on North Korea, The Impossible State. Ha also studied sources provided by Jae Yong Kim, who had previously interned at a South Korean unification oriented think-tank.
Cha asserts that political and economic conditions in North Korea will require Un to rule even more oppressively than his father did. While Un was educated in Switzerland and has the potential to be an “enlightened dictator,” Ha believes that the young Kim does not have the political power to influence significant change and will simply follow the counsel of his advisors.
Un is currently being advised by two regents, his uncle Jang Sung-taek and his aunt Kim Kyong-Hui, the younger sister of Kim Jong Il and, reportedly, one of Il’s only family confidants. The 66-year-old Kyong-Hui is in failing health and Ha believes that her death could ignite a power struggle as Jang Sung-Taek’s political affiliations threaten the current parties in power.
While a power struggle in North Korea has many potential risks, Ha believes that such an event would likely lead to the collapse of the North Korean regime. Ha notes that North Korea’s military and political systems are closely tied, and that the intensely loyal private army controlled by North Korea’s political leadership, known as the Military Security Command, is nearly as powerful as the regular military. As such, a power struggle among North Korean leadership would not result in a clear winner.
Ha has analyzed various collapse scenarios, and while the long term impact of a unified democratic Korea is positive, the short term impacts could be highly dangerous. If North Korea mobilizes is “million man army” (which is actually over five million men and 25 percent of the population including reserves), then immense bloodshed could potentially ensue. Furthermore Ha believes that if the unstable North Korean regime does not make use of their nuclear weapons during such a conflict, political leadership might sell those weapons on the black market to create a financial parachute in the event of a regime collapse. Un already has more than $4 billion set aside (by his father) in Luxembourg banks for use in event of a regime collapse.
Even without such violence, Ha believes that the collapse of the North Korean regime could have significant unanticipated side effects, such as the outpouring of millions of North Korean refugees to China. In the event of a post collapse reunification, Ha claims that cultural, GDP, and ideological differences will likely slow the process of North and South Korea coming back together. Given these factors, Ha asserts that the best course of action for the United States is to “let the clock run out on the North Korean regime… collapse is unavoidable, whether it takes 10 years or only two.”
Matthew Ha is a graduate of North Brunswick Township High School (N.J.)