A report in today’s New York Times (reg required) explains that in 1997, the Clinton administration expected the North Korean regime to collapse within 5 years in a “political implosion” due to economic ruin.

The information comes from recently declassified documents.

It leaves us with two issues to consider.

  1. Did the Clinton administration have poor intelligence information and then miscalculate the state of North Korea at the time?
  2. Did an unforeseen factor change the fortunes of North Korea that the research had not accounted for?

I would say it was about 30% of 1 and 70% of 2.

  1. I think the adminstration underestimated how resilient the North Korean government is. The brainwashing and control of the people there has proved to be stronger than anticipated. Even famine, energy shortages and additional movement restictions did not result in a significant dissident movement. It has resulted in a greater flow of escapees across the border to China however. 
  2. The unforeseen factor was the lengths China and South Korea were willing to go in order to prop up  the North Korean administration.  South Korea knows a stagnant, toothless but stable North Korea is good news for the South Korean economy. China fears a flood of refugees but its biggest fear is having U.S forces at its border if North Korea falls and the U.S get there first. 
  3. China always had the incentive to prop up North Korea but it is only in recent times that they have also had the cash to match.

I think we are back at the 1997 junction again now and another decision is going to be made. It looks like it is not going to be engagement from Washington and I think that is probably the right move for now.