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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on April 12)

All Headlines 07:03 April 12, 2016

NK implosion
Regime change is secondary to soft landing

The recent defection of a group of North Korean restaurant workers to South Korea, followed by the defection of one by the first general-level officers ever, requires the government to think of contingencies with added urgency and reset the existing how-to.

First, is it a sign of implosion by the communist state? Second, if Pyongyang is imploding, what should we do?

"Group defections" by northerners are nothing extraordinary. Kim Man-chul and his entire family defected in 1987, which made big news as the rivalry between the two Koreas was still cresting. The general's defection is portentous but there have been other senior-level defections.

However, the latest episodes appear different. For the restaurant workers, selected through rigorous ideological vetting, complained that they were out of business, their restaurants being boycotted by customers after the toughest-ever U.N. sanctions on their country for its missile and nuclear tests, and under greater pressure from home not to let up on their remittances.

What is notable about the general's defection is that he worked at the core of implementing North Korea policy about the South, a sign that could mean that anxiety pervaded throughout the senior echelons.

The chance is that the U.N. sanctions are starting to bite and, if the pressure is kept up, the North may be pushed closer to collapse than ever. Its 33-year-old dictator, Kim Jong-un, appears short of the charisma that his grandfather Kim Il-sung had. He doesn't have the same experience as his father Kim Jong-il, who apprenticed for a long time under his father.

In other words, the North does not seem to have the "glue" that keeps the faltering nation together, forcing the young leader to resort to Nazi-style self-aggrandizing propaganda. It means that what the outside world had expected 30 years ago _ the North's implosion _ is coming true belatedly as we speak.

But the priority we have about the North's possibility of collapse should be different than it was 30 years ago. Then, the North's self-destruction was an end by and in itself, but now, an uncontrolled implosion will certainly prove to be messy and disadvantageous to us.

So it is time for President Park Geun-hye to prepare for the second phase of her "unification-is-a-bonanza" policy, if there is any, ending the ongoing effort to push the North to the brink until it throws in the towel. The simplicity of Park's chicken game may look appealing to voters but it cannot be a permanent solution, because it always runs the risk of turning Pyongyang into a nuclear-armed suicide bomber.

Then, there is a point in chaos in the after-Saddam Iraq, Gaddafi-absent Libya or Mubarak-removed Egypt, leading some to miss the days of dictators who at least worked as stabilizing factors. Of course, we do not embrace this thought but it is important to at least think about it and try to bring a sense of control to the North's demise because the alternative is too bleak. Imagine that Pyongyang is in a state of anarchy and no one knows who controls the buttons of the nuclear weapons. Also, consider the outpouring of a massive river of refugees, walking through the landmines of the demilitarized zone like zombies, or crossing the shallow border waters into China or heading in rickety boats to Japan.

Then, the ultimate question is: would it become a puppet government operated by China or a pro-consul appointed by the U.S. and a Seoul delegate that is put in charge? These defections may prove to be another false signal of spring but it should be borne in mind that we would be better off to be prepared just in case this time it happens.
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