I have yet to see an article discussing the implications of climate change for North Korea. But the topic came up in a recent Asia Institute seminar with Vince Rubino, Matthew Weigand and I. If climate change, the global financial chaos, digitalization and the disorder stemming to domestic and international conflicts sweeping the world worsen in the years to come, there may be some unexpected consequences. Not the least of which would be the strengthening of North Korean power and influence.
“Strengthening of North Korean power? Wait a minute, Emanuel, what are you talking about? I thought North Korea was on the edge of collapse. Its tired old ideology is not fit for the modern age and its people can barely feed themselves using antiquated farming tools. Why look at Gangnam in Seoul where everyone is well-fed and some drive Ferraris. And the South Korean military is much better equipped, after all. A little climate change and chaos should bring North Korea to their knees, no?”
Well all that is true, but completely off the point. I think we can look forward to considerable greater integration over the next few years. And of course North Koreans will have a terrible time trying to find employment in Seoul if they want to be computer programmers or stock analysts. But is that the future we are looking at? But would serious crisis “bring them to their knees?” It has not yet, and they have see crises that we can only dream of.
Well, we have grown up on the myth of the fall of Communism. The Berlin Wall fell down and freedom poured into the Soviet Block. Whether or not that story is accurate is actually not all that important now. What is critical is to recognize that the future is not going to work like that at all and we may find new forms of conflict and also new forms of cooperation, emerging.
In any case, let us imagine that we see the full impact of a social and economic collapse, flavored with the bitter legacy of climate change over the next ten years. How would North and South Korea respond? Well, regardless of whether they are unified or divided, I think we can say with some confidence that many South Koreans will be paralyzed. How do you think young people in Gangnam would respond to extended periods of hunger? How would the South Korean military do if it had no access to fossil fuel? How would families in Seoul fare if suddenly distribution networks ceased to function or money ceased to be meaningful?
Of course there is no reason to assume such a doomsday scenario, but there certainly is no reason to dismiss it. The bottom line is that in such a worst-case scenario, North Koreans would be much better adapted. North Koreans have lived with such intense hardship for sixty years, and in some sense, for the last 100,000 years. They are more than ready to function in a worst-case scenario.
Now let me qualify all the above by saying that I am not saying that North Koreans will be hostile at that time. For all we know there will be a peaceful order on the peninsula and all Koreans will work together. But North Koreans will certainly be better equipped to deal with the challenges of climate change and economic collapse. They will know a lot about how to survive that most of us do not.
The sophisticated lion fish
In fact, I would venture that their rather simplistic ideological system may have real advantages in moments of severe crisis.
Think of the South Korean political culture as something equivalent to the lion fish that inhabits coral reefs. A sophisticated, articulated and nuanced creature with a unique high-tech structure.
The primitive shark
Think of the North Korean political system as the equivalent of a shark. The shark is a primitive fish of the chondrichthyes class. So pale and unimpressive compared with the remarkable lion fish.