No one ever got rich by betting that North Korea was about to loosen up. Kim Jong Un's "kingdom" is one of the world's last totalitarian states, and it's generally safe to assume that next year's politics in a totalitarian regime will closely resemble last year's. A lot of "maybe this time really is different" stories have been written about North Korea over the decades since the peninsula was divided, and so far, they've all been wrong. Waiting for North Korea to crack open is like waiting for the Cubs to win the World Series, and no amount of wishing makes it so. As longtime Korea-watcher Charles Armstrong recently observed, "The status quo remains and is unlikely to change any time soon." Or, in Victor Cha's more bearish take in the pages of Foreign Policy, "The North Korean regime will not change because Little Kim studied in Switzerland, likes Mickey Mouse, and has a hot wife. If anything, another crisis could be looming."
And yet "improbable" does not mean "impossible." Maybe this time really will be different. The USSR wasn't supposed to loosen the screws, and then it did. The Burmese junta was supposed to have battened down the hatches when it crushed the Saffron Uprising in 2007, and look where we are now, just a few years later. Although the money's still on continuity in North Korea, there are sound reasons to believe that the chances for political liberalization in the near future are improving.
To understand why a seemingly stable dictatorship would ever give its political opponents an opening, it helps to consider the political economy of authoritarianism. Dictators repress their citizens because it helps them stay in power. Political rivals can't beat you if they can't get organized, and they'll find it very hard to organize if they can't meet, talk, or reach out for support. Following this logic, we usually think of political liberalization as something that dictators resort to only when forced by restive mobs threatening to end their rule, if not their lives.
What that conventional view misses, though, are the financial and economic trade-offs that harsh repression entails. First, the machinery of monitoring and repression can be expensive, and the information it produces isn't always reliable, so shrewd autocrats will always be looking to cut costs and improve outputs in these areas. Second, and less obviously, repression indirectly imposes drag on an economy by inhibiting productive exchanges among citizens. These market frictions can create a gap between an economy's actual growth rate and the growth it might achieve with a freer citizenry.
When a dictator's revenues depend on the performance of his country's economy, these trade-offs give him some incentive to loosen restrictions on civil liberties. The question is when that incentive becomes strong enough to outweigh the political risks of reform.
The conventional view of political liberalization tells us this shift only occurs when dictators face an imminent threat of revolution. If the end already seems nigh, rulers might try to prolong their tenure by meeting their opponents halfway and hoping that compromise satisfies the mobs at the gates. This process is sometimes described as liberalization "from below," because it's driven by popular unrest.
Careful consideration of the political and economic trade-offs involved, however, suggests another possibility: Dictators might also pursue "liberalization from above," gambling on reform when the economy is stagnating and political opposition is especially weak. Under these circumstances, expanded freedoms of speech and movement can open new avenues for economic growth without immediately producing a serious political challenge. There might be plenty of pent-up demand for political change, but revolutions require organization, and organization takes time, so shrewd rulers might attempt to shoot those rapids in search of calmer waters on the other side.