Kim Jong Il and North Korea: The Leader and the System
Authored by Dr. Andrew Scobell.
In the first decade of the 21st century, few national security challenges facing the United States is as vexing as that posed by North Korea. It is a paradox because it appears to be a very powerful state—possessing the world's fourth largest armed forces, a sizeable arsenal of ballistic missiles, and a worrying nuclear program—but it is also an economic basket case in terms of agricultural output, industrial production, and foreign trade exports. Virtually every aspect of the Pyongyang regime is mysterious and puzzling. In short, North Korea is difficult for Americans to understand and analyze, beginning with confusion about what kind of political system North Korea has and what kind of man leads it. The author explores Pyongyang's political dynamics and seeks to shed light on the political system of North Korea and its leader.
Much hyperbole surrounds the political regime in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea). Many analysts argue that North Korea is a unique political system. What kind of regime is the DPRK, and what kind of leader does it have?
A variety of labels are given to the North Korean regime. These include likening the regime to an organized crime family and to a corporatist organism. There are certainly merits to each of these approaches, but each has its limitations. Pyongyang does share some of the attributes of organized crime and certainly engages in criminal activity in a systematic and calculating manner. This pattern of illicit behavior includes the production and distribution of narcotics as well as the counterfeiting of foreign currencies, cigarettes, and pharmaceuticals. But the DPRK is more than a crime family—it possesses a massive conventional military force as well as significant strategic forces. Moreover, the regime continues to brainwash, imprison, or starve North Koreans, inflicting untold misery and death on its people. Corporatism, meanwhile, may provide insights into certain aspects of the system, but its utility is limited by the confusion that surrounds understanding of this concept.
Certainly North Korea is distinct politically, but it also has significant commonalities with various regime types and authority structures. Pyongyang is a highly centralized and militarized bureaucratic regime organized around an all-powerful leader. This monograph examines the leader and the system, and identifies the regime type. The author contends that the North Korean political system is best conceived as a totalitarian regime that, although weakened, remains remarkably resilient. After analyzing the key elements of totalitarianism, he argues that the system’s greatest test will probably come after the death of Kim Jong Il.
While the totalitarian regime may not long survive Kim’s passing, one cannot assume that the system will collapse. Rather, the end of totalitarianism may simply mean that the DPRK will enter a new “post-totalitarian” phase similar to the paths taken by other communist systems such as the Soviet Union and China. While the latter term may be a good fit to describe China’s political system in the 1990s and first decade of the 21st century, it seems inaccurate to describe North Korea. North Korea has not undergone any process of “de-Kimification”: Kim Il Sung remains a deity in 21st century North Korea and criticism or reappraisal is unthinkable. Moreover, no one has contemplated criticizing or challenging his legacy because, by all accounts, he remains universally revered by DPRK citizens, including defectors. Furthermore, any official reevaluation of Kim Il Sung is extremely unlikely because the regime is currently led by Kim’s son. The most accurate way to characterize North Korea today is as an eroding totalitarian regime.
While totalitarianism is a powerful and intimidating system, it places tremendous strain on a state and a society—demanding constant activity and mobilization of personnel and exploitation of resources. The costs of maintaining heightened ideological indoctrination, an ever-vigilant coercive apparatus, and a large national defense organization are high and ultimately debilitating. To maintain this for decades results in fatigue and burnout. Eventually leaders and followers reach a point where both are physically and mentally exhausted, and the country’s infrastructure and resources become devastated. North Korea’s elite and ordinary people appear to be approaching this point. But this fatigue and burnout does not appear to produce much in the way of protest or dissent, let alone revolt; most likely the majority of people in North Korea are simply too tired to do much more than focus their time and energy on providing for the basic needs of their families.
An absolute dictator still rules the regime. While the regime continues to hold a monopoly of the instruments of coercion, there has been some slippage or erosion in the defining features of totalitarianism. First of all, Kim Jong Il, although he is virtually an absolute dictator, appears to take into account the opinions of others the way his father did not. And ideology no longer appears to be so focused on transforming the state and society and more on the instrumental goals of economic recovery, development, and firming up regime power. While a condition of terror remains palpable, it is no longer all pervasive, and individuals are able to navigate or circumvent the system without fearing that they face dire consequences. As a result of the shift in ideology and alleviation of the climate of terror, the regime has become “corrupted” literally as bribery is rampant, and figuratively as the regime seeks to preserve its power and status. Meanwhile, the Stalinist centrally planned economy has been seriously eroded, and the monopoly of mass communication has loosened significantly. The regime has attempted to repair the latter two elements, but it is not clear to what extent this will be successful.
The regime appears to be stable and not on the brink of collapse. While it is difficult to speculate about the longevity of North Korea as a political entity, it is more manageable to forecast the future of totalitarianism in the DPRK. Totalitarian regimes rarely endure longer than several decades and almost never survive the passing of the absolute dictator. In fact, Pyongyang is unique in that it is the only totalitarian regime to weather a leadership transition (from Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Il). Indeed, North Korea is the world’s “longest lasting totalitarian regime, having spanned some 4 decades and surviving generational leadership succession.” Perhaps none of the numerous challenges the regime faces is more daunting than the succession question. Kim has probably at most 10-15 years in which to pave the way for one of his offspring to succeed him. If he lives long enough, it is possible he could be successful. What is less likely is that totalitarianism could survive another leadership transition. At some point, the totalitarian regime will simply collapse or weaken to the extent that it becomes a post-totalitarianism system.
Possibly the clearest indication of the status and fate of Pyongyang’s totalitarian regime over the next 10 years or so will come in how the arrangements for the succession to Kim Jong Il are handled. Is there evidence that a particular individual is being groomed to succeed Kim? The answer appears to be “yes.” Some other key indicators to monitor are signs of dissent among elites and masses, especially fissures that might occur within the party or military. By carefully charting trends, observers can make it less likely that they will be caught off guard by the actions of North Korea’s leader or changes in its political system.
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