In December 2011, Kim Jong Il, supreme leader of North Korea, died. He was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong Un, who celebrated the tenth anniversary of his elevation this month. Kim Jong Il was also preceded by his father Kim Il Sung, who ruled from 1945 to 1994. The North has now had three rulers from the same bloodline. It is a monarchy.
Monarchies are rare of course, but unlike Saudi Arabia or Brunei, the North is ostensibly a ‘people’s republic.’ Ideologically, the North speaks of its ‘socialism.’ In practice though, it is orwellian. Much of its state is modeled on Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, most obviously its extreme totalitarianism, but also its massive military, planned economy, and emphasis on ideology. Ideologically, North Korea has been jettisoning Marxism-Leninism since the end of the Cold War, however. It substitutes it with a homebrew of nationalism, personality cultism (around the royal family), and autarky (juche). But much of the remaining Stalinist structure – the police state, the gulags, ‘socialism’ – persists.
The result is a curious fusion – feudalism at the top married to an orwellian, semi-communist structure at the bottom. This awkward structure is beset by chronic economic underperformance, widespread corruption, and isolation from the world economy because of widespread illicit behavior and sanctions over the country’s development of nuclear missiles. All this looks too much to the world as an unstable mix. We routinely talk about whether North Korea might collapse, and scenario gaming on a Northern collapse is commonplace at the conferences on the North.
Durable and Unchanging
Yet the North does not collapse. North Korea is now on its third Kim monarch, and the dynasty seems pretty stable. North Korea has also not opened, liberalized, or otherwise changed its manner of governance. Nor has it ever had an internal revolt, either by its population or by insiders. Nothing akin to the recent Velvet Revolution (of 1989), Arab Spring (2011), or the color revolutions has ever happened. We keep predicting big changes in North Korea, and they keep not happening.
Indeed, that is the most remarkable element of Kim Jong Un’s ten-year anniversary in power: North Korea has barely changed at all under his reign. Repeatedly we heard that he was a reformer (here, here, here), but it is hard to identify anything beyond mild economic changes to support that assertion at this ten-year point. Perestroika and glasnost – the type of deep economic opening we associate with Deng Xiaoping in China, or political opening we associate with Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union – has quite obviously not happened. Even post-Marxist states like Cuba and Mozambique are better governed, more connected to the world around them, and more liberal than North Korea.
Indeed, this third Kim explicitly chose to worsen his relationship with the world by dramatically accelerating the nuclear missile drive he inherited from his father. This resulted in heavy sanctions since 2016 which have cut nearly all legitimate economic links between North Korea and the rest of the world. Nor unsurprisingly, has the North moved at all on human rights under Kim III. The UN compared his gulags to Nazi concentration camps and recommended that he be brought before the International Criminal Court. If the ten-year anniversary has any salutary effect, it should be to disabuse the Korea analyst community of the idea that Kim is a reformer. He is not.
Why Does North Korea Not Collapse, or even Change?
Remarkable durability and adamant refusal to change are the most salient characteristics of North Korea at this anniversary. The country seems to violate so much of what we ‘know’ in political science and economics, that we constantly want to predict its imminent collapse. Instead, it is worth investigating why it never faces a revolt. Here are three possibilities:
North Koreans Believe the Ideology: It is widely assumed that North Koreans can see through the regime’s outlandish ideology. But North Korea defectors have repeatedly testified to the weight and intrusiveness of the ideology and their struggle to break free of it. If you believe your leader is semi-divine, you are less likely to take up arms against him.
The Kims Will Kill Anyone They Must: In 2011, then-President of Egypt Hosni Mubarak refused to deploy the military to quell the Tahrir Square protests which eventually pushed him out of power. Eastern European governments had similar qualms about massacring their own people to stay in power in 1989. The Kims have no such reservations. They let a million people die during the North’s man-made famine of the late 1990s rather than change or reform. Any popular opposition would be meet with extreme force.
Potential Inside Opponents are Weak: Revolutions usually require insiders who defect on the regime and ally with popular movements on the streets. But North Korea’s extreme repression means there are no extra-governmental resistance groups. Unhappy insiders have no recourse to such support. The Kims have also bought off the country’s elite for years with luxuries and amenities, such as houses, cars, and otherwise restricted foreign items. Finally, these insiders are complicit in the Kims’ bloody rule. If the Kimist state collapses, they too may face harsh post-revolutionary justice.
These are just speculations, but the larger point on this ten-year anniversary of Kim Jong Un’s rule stands: he is not a reformer; North Korea is basically the same place – orwellian, poor, cultish, heavily militarized – it was a decade ago; it will probably be the same a decade hence.