Capitalism is already breaking down North Korea's government — and it could be the end of Kim Jong Un

  • North Koreans are starting to get a taste for what life is like in China and South Korea, countries not stifled by isolation and socialist economics.
  • An emerging market economy in North Korea threatens to wrestle some power away from the government and give it back to the people.
  • Younger North Koreans reportedly don't always respect the country's leadership, and the highest-ranking North Korean defector ever says the country won't last 10 years under Kim Jong Un.


The US has stood on the brink of nuclear war with a totalitarian regime in Asia before, and in the end it was economics, not military might, that brought the Soviet Union down.

The US's nuclear arsenal has failed to scare North Korea away from developing its own nukes, sanctions have failed to restrict its access to markets, and leveraging the US's relationship with China has failed to starve the country into submission.

But the US's greatest weapon, capitalism, might just do the trick.

RELATED: Everything you didn't know about Kim Jong Un

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Everything you didn't know about Kim Jong Un

1. While Kim Jong Un's birthday on January 8 is a national holiday, it is unknown exactly how old the North Korean leader is. It's widely believed he is in his early-mid thirties. In 2016, the U.S. Treasury Department listed his birth year as 1984 when they placed sanctions on North Korea.

 (KCNA via REUTERS)

2. Kim Jong Un is the world's youngest leader, according to the date listed by the Treasury. 

(STR/AFP/Getty Images)

3. Kim Jong Un is very passionate about basketball. He is reportedly a big fan of Michael Jordan and has a friendly relationship with Jordan's former Chicago Bulls teammate Dennis Rodman. Rodman has visited the secluded nation multiple times and even sang him "Happy Birthday" before an exhibition game in Jan. 2014. 

(REUTERS/KCNA)

4. Kim Jong Un reportedly has a love for smoking, whiskey and cheese

(KCNA/via Reuters)

5. Kim Jong Un's older half-brother Kim Jong Nam was killed in Feb. 2017 by two women who smeared VX nerve agent on his face at an airport in Kuala Lumpur. The women were arrested following his death. Many believe the hit was directed by North Korea. 

(KCNA; REUTERS)

6. Kim Jong Un has two college degrees. One is in physics from Kim il Sung University and another as an Army officer obtained from the Kim Il Sung Military University.

(KCNA/REUTERS)

7. Kim Jong Un attended boarding school in Switzerland. It is widely disputed how much time he spent at the school. Most reports say he was abroad from 1998-2000. 

(KCNA/REUTERS)

8. Kim Jong Un is the only general in the world that does not have any military experience. 

(KCNA/REUTERS)

9. He married Ri Sol Ju in 2009. The couple has at least one daughter named Ju Ae. 

(KCNA/REUTERS)

10. Kim Jong Un had his uncle Jang Song Thaek arrested and executed for treachery in 2013. 

(REUTERS/Kyodo)

11. Kim Jong Un hand selected North Korea's first all-female music group -- Moranbong Band. They made their debut in 2012. 

(ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)

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What North Koreans really think of Kim Jong Un

The Washington Post's Anna Fitfield talked to 25 North Koreans around Asia about life under Kim Jong Un, the country's dictatorial leader since 2011, and revealed a pro-market current to everyday life that threatens to undercut the regime.

"Increasingly, North Koreans are not fleeing their totalitarian state because they are hungry," wrote Fitfield. "Now, they are leaving because they are disillusioned."

Fitfield's interviews with North Koreans paint a picture of a state economy which has come to a halt and a growing trend toward capitalism among common people. The market activity brings with it Western information, as North Koreans travel to China for work and come back enlightened to the realities of life outside the Kim regime.

Though North Korean authorities may punish possessing South Korean media with death, it has become a trend among North Korea's elite to speak with a South Korean accent, indicating their power, independence from the state, and access to outside information, according to the New Yorker's foreign correspondent Evan Osnos

"North Korea technically has a centrally planned economy, but now people’s lives revolve around the market," a university student who left the country in 2013 told Fitfield. "No one expects the government to provide things anymore. Everyone has to find their own way to survive."

With state infrastructure no longer supporting people's livelihoods, fissures between the actual lives of common people and the total loyalty demanded by the state could render the Kim regime out of touch and in danger of disposal.

A 2016 survey of 36 North Koreans found that all of them thought the country provided goods sufficient for a good life. Only one of the 36 said they did not make jokes at the government's expense behind closed doors.

"Among my closest friends, we were calling [Kim Jong Un] a piece of s---," another student told Fitfield. "Everyone thinks this, but you can only say it to your closest friends or to your parents if you know that they agree."

'Impure' attitudes among high-rank leaders

South Korea's National Intelligence Service reports that North Korea recently disciplined two of its highest ranking military officers for having "impure" attitudes, according to the Associated Press. The crackdown on the North Korean military's second in command comes as international sanctions have weakened the state's economy more than ever before.

Daily NK, a Seoul-based news website that purports to have a large network of informants within North Korea, reported that US-led sanctions have affected the economy in the country and now citizens may turn on the Kim government.

As a result, Daily NK reported that security has increased at monuments to the Kim dynasty for fear that citizens will vandalize the paintings and sculptures, which the state demands citizens give incredible reverence to.

Thae Yong Ho, a former North Korean diplomat and the highest-level defector of the Kim regime, discussed North Korean youths sneaking in "nose cards," or small SD cards loaded with South Korean media hidden inside their noses.

RELATED: North Korea unveils new weapons at military parade

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North Korea unveils new weapons at military parade
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un applauds during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of the country's founding father, Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Missiles are driven past the stand with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and other high ranking officials during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
High ranking military officers cheer as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un arrives for a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
People react as they march past the stand with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of the country's founding father Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang, April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
TOPSHOT - Korean People's Army (KPA) tanks are displayed during a military parade marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung in Pyongyang on April 15, 2017. North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un on April 15 saluted as ranks of goose-stepping soldiers followed by tanks and other military hardware paraded in Pyongyang for a show of strength with tensions mounting over his nuclear ambitions. / AFP PHOTO / Ed JONES (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
Korean People's Army (KPA) soldiers march on Kim Il-Sung squure during a military parade marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung in Pyongyang on April 15, 2017. North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un on April 15 saluted as ranks of goose-stepping soldiers followed by tanks and other military hardware paraded in Pyongyang for a show of strength with tensions mounting over his nuclear ambitions. / AFP PHOTO / Ed JONES (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves to people attending a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Military vehicles carry missiles with characters reading "Pukkuksong" during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Members of the Korean People's Army (KPA) ride on mobile missile launchers during a military parade marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung in Pyongyang on April 15, 2017. North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un on April 15 saluted as ranks of goose-stepping soldiers followed by tanks and other military hardware paraded in Pyongyang for a show of strength with tensions mounting over his nuclear ambitions. / AFP PHOTO / Ed JONES (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
North Korean soldiers march and shout slogans during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of the country's founding father Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, North Korea, April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
An unidentified rocket is displayed during a military parade marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung in Pyongyang on April 15, 2017. North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un on April 15 saluted as ranks of goose-stepping soldiers followed by tanks and other military hardware paraded in Pyongyang for a show of strength with tensions mounting over his nuclear ambitions. / AFP PHOTO / Ed JONES (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
People carry flags in front of statues of North Korea founder Kim Il Sung (L) and late leader Kim Jong Il during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
North Korean soldiers march and shout slogans during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father, Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, North Korea April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A soldier salutes from atop an armoured vehicle as it drives past the stand with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
North Korean soldiers march and shout slogans during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, North Korea, April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
North Korean soldiers attend a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, North Korea, April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Attendees carry sheets in colours of the national flag of North Korea during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
North Korean soldiers, some of them on horses, march during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, North Korea, April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Civilian attendees watch North Korean soldiers marching during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, North Korea, April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
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Thae said that although Kim Jong Un would stamp out protests in the street with tanks, outside information and soft power could bring down the regime.

"The chasm between the Kim Jong Un regime and the general public is widening every year, and some day, the two sides will ultimately break like a rubber band," Thae said in August. "I think that day will come within the next 10 years."

Welcome to the free market, North Korea

Rodger Baker, the lead analyst of the Asia-Pacific region for Stratfor, a geopolitical consulting firm, previously told Business Insider that North Korea's government might be stronger than defectors are willing to admit.

"A lot of the West's vision of North Korea is from defector testimony, which is going to have a political bent," Baker said. He added that the idea that air-dropping South Korean DVDs and music into North Korea would eventually sway the population against Kim "overestimates the draw of material goods over nationalism and national identity."

But history shines with examples of people refusing to be repressed and finding prosperity one way or another. North Korea cannot stand comparison to the prosperous, democratic South.

Much like how President Donald Trump calls Kim Jong Un's reign a "cruel dictatorship" and threatens military action against the rogue nation, former President Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an "evil empire" at the height of nuclear tensions between Washington and Moscow in 1983.

Though the US and the Soviet Union both held tens of thousands of nuclear weapons and enough troops to start World War III, no fighting came about. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, the US enjoyed stellar economic growth while the Soviet Union imploded. In 1997, Mikhail Gorbachev, Reagan's former communist rival, starred in a commercial for Pizza Hut in Moscow

The military did not defeat communism in the Cold War, capitalism did. Decades later with North Korea, it may be time for another victory for the free market.  

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