by Giorgio Falchi, Antonella Lena, Michela Masciocchi, Roberto Talenti
Much has been said on the current leader of North Korea Kim Jong-un: a crazy rocket man or a genius, a feared dictator or a beloved leader? Be as it may, it is undeniable that he is heading the more durable totalitarian regime in recent history. In the same period in which several authoritarian regimes crumbled away, the government of Pyongyang was able to consolidate its power and stability from the post-World War II years up to date. It could thus be useful to investigate why the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is so stable. Is the regime invulnerable as its ruler says or are there any looming threats to its survival?
On 9 September 1948, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was proclaimed under the auspices of the Soviet Union. Kim-Il Sung, a former Korean Red Army officer, was appointed as the Republic’s first leader in Pyongyang. While presenting himself as a bulwark of communism against the American-aligned South Korea, domestically he established a personality cult which glorified him as the Supreme Leader. With the transfer of power to Kim Jong-il (1994), the government based on the charismatic power of the leader turned into a hereditary traditional authority. However, since Kim Il-Sung is still officially the Eternal President, we could label DPRK as the only necrocracy in the world.
According to Freedom House, the DPRK is a one-party state led by a dynastic totalitarian dictatorship. In fact, North Korea is based on an elaborate guiding ideology, called Juche; there is a single mass party led by Kim Jong-un, who controls a system of terror to rule over citizens; the regime has the monopoly on weapons, means of mass communication and economy through state planning.
The coherent strategy of DPRK
The history of the DPRK was almost immediately marked by the outbreak of the Korean War (1950-1953), which caused the death of nearly three million people and massively affected north Korean culture. At that time, the US general Mc Arthur declared his intentions of dropping the atomic bomb on Pyongyang. Thus, the North Korean supreme leader Kim Il-Sung understood that, if its regime wanted to survive in the long run, it had to obtain an atomic arsenal. Indeed, from the outside, seventy years of North Korean history can be read as a coherent set of policies, strategies, agreements and dissimulations mainly aimed at securing a nuclear arsenal.
The confrontation between the US and DPRK has continued ever since as an opposition between two kinds of regimes: the oldest democracy vs the most resilient dictatorship of our times. While the US can enjoy the benefits of being a democracy (e.g. continuous international cooperation, high levels of international trade), the DPRK can reap the benefits of being a dictatorship, such as fast decision-making processes and the possibility to implement a straightforward strategy in the long run. Indeed, in seventy years of DPRK’s history, there have been solely three different supreme leaders, and one coherent strategy of international politics. By contrast, just in the last twenty-five years of US history, there have been four different presidents (Clinton, Bush Jr., Obama and Trump), with four distinctive strategies.
One possible way to interpret the evolution of North Korean foreign policy is through the lens of John Mearsheimer’s offensive realism (Mearsheimer, 2010). Although the DPRK has never tried to become a regional hegemonic power given its proximity to the People’s Republic of China, the regime has developed an aggressive foreign policy since its inception. Indeed, it is thanks to this “offensive” policy – entailing an ambitious plan of investments in the arms sector – that it has been capable of developing the atomic bomb in 2006 and can now directly challenge the security of the most powerful western country.
The vulnerabilities of the Pyongyang regime can be sorted through by distinguishing internal and external threats. Considering internal vulnerabilities, the most threatening occurrence is the outbreak of intrastate conflicts, with insurgent groups revolting against the central government (Fearon and Laitin, 2003). This can explain why the North Korean regime is particularly concerned with contrasting the formation of potentially destabilizing groups.
With regard to external threats, a realistic menace could be cultural globalization, since information, as well as cultural products (e.g. movies, books, etc.), coming from the external world might have a disruptive effect on the solidity of the DPRK. For instance, the NGO Flash Drives for Freedom aims at smuggling pen drivers in the country in order to spread information on people’s living conditions outside North Korea.
Another vulnerability for the regime comes from the economic leverage: Pyongyang has not managed to reach economic self-sufficiency and it must rely on foreign trade to keep its economy run. Thus, international sanctions might challenge the stability of the regime. However, until Beijing continues breaking international obligations, trading (both legally and illegally) with Pyongyang, there will be no way to make the sanctions effective.
Actually, under the shadow of a threat of atomic holocaust, no state will launch a direct attack against Pyongyang. Actually, this is the most important achievement of seventy years of DPRK: to make an aggression coming from another state impossible.
Following the above-mentioned distinction of internal and external threats, one could divide the measures adopted by the DPRK in internal and international security policies.
Internal security policies
The history of DPRK has been characterized by a popular revolt that led Kim’s regime to settle right before the Korean war. This event has strongly affected the attitude of the regime towards internal security policies, that aim at preventing popular revolts and coups d’état. In this regard, we can focus on four main tools, already categorized by Byman and Lind (2010): restrictive social policies; manipulation of ideas and information; use of force; institutional coup-proofing.
Restrictive social policies. After the establishment of the regime, social engineering was conducted in order to control society. This latter has been divided in three main classes - the core, the wavering and the hostile - further divided into more than 50 sub-categories which determine individuals’ chances to achieve better jobs, accommodations and livelihoods. The society is additionally monitored through social organizations created by the Workers’ Party of Korea and the system of Inminban, a Neighbourhood Watch-like form of cooperative local group.
Manipulation of ideas and information. The regime has the power to inculcate ideas to citizens through education, entertainment, monuments, arts and memorialization. From a propagandistic point of view, the central core is played by the Juche ideology. The latter is the official state doctrine postulating the man as the master of his destiny: he has to work in order to build a self-reliant and strong society that will allow North Korea to protect itself from its capitalist enemies. The political doctrine constitutes the 35-40% of the school teaching program. Moreover, the access to information is strictly limited and controlled: radios and televisions are constantly fixed to government-run stations, while the access to the Internet is almost null or monitored by the intelligence. Even mobile phones are hardwired to record and transmit calls and text messages back to state security agencies. Finally, only members of the upper classes can travel abroad for work purposes, while tourists entering North Korea must be accompanied by local guides (Robertson, 2009).
Use of force. The regime has created an effective system of punishments, which is the main cause of the lack of rebellions inside the country. Depending on the gravity of the offences, those accused of breaking the law can enter in programs of political re-education, be dispatched to prison camps or immediately executed. Moreover, according to the “three generations” policy, not only the accused individual is punished, but his whole family.
Institutional coup-proofing. In order to protect itself from a military coup d’état, the regime has created a parallel military structure (more than 300.000 units), independent from the national army and ready to intervene and protect Kim Jong-un in case of rebellion. Within the military and governmental structures, the leader holds all the key positions and is surrounded by men of known loyalty and family members. In addition, the Central Committee of Workers’ Party of Korea oversees nine bureaus involved in intelligence activities addressed not only to private citizens but also to government officials.
International security policies
Dealing with DPRK’s international security policies one cannot help but focusing on its nuclear strategy. The first announcement of a successful nuclear test goes back to 2006, but the most alarming test was conducted in 2017 when an intercontinental ballistic missile demonstrated its ability to strike anywhere within the continental US. Although in the last two years Kim Jong-Un and Donald Trump met and agreed to work towards denuclearization, no concrete action will probably be implemented, given the DPRK’s strategy to be recognised as a nuclear power by the international community.
Besides this, Kim Jong-Il “Military first” reform in 1997 redesigned the grand strategy. Nowadays the army, which reached one million troops, is shown by the regime’s propaganda as a model for the whole society. In addition, investments in chemical and biological weapons and in cybersecurity have increased the dangerousness of the DPRK for the international community (Berger and Mount, 2019).
Thanks to its security policies, the North Korean regime has secured itself against both internal and external threats. However, two more challenges must be considered.
The first one comes from the high costs of the security policies themselves. Globally, the average military budget is 2.14% of the GDP. According to the 37th edition of World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers (WMEAT), the DPRK military expenditures in 2017 amounted at 13.6%-24% of the GDP. After the disastrous famines of the 1990s, the regime introduced Chinese-style reforms of agricolture and some form of authoritarian state capitalism. As a consequence, the economy started to grow. However, as the expectations of the population rise due to globalization, the state might face a difficult decision: on one side, the nuclear sector and the military class are two fundamental pillars for the maintenance of the regime; on the other side, ideology and terror might prove unable to prevent unrest if it is unable to provide for the economic needs of the population.
The second problem that the regime might have to face in the long run is due to its excessive economic reliance on China. At present, 91% of the DPRK exports go to China, while 94% of the imports come from China. If the Chinese regime decided to apply the international sanctions, then the North Korean regime might experience an economic collapse.
This scenario might rise three main issues. Firstly, there would be immediate concerns in the international community over the disarmament process of DPRK’s nuclear arsenal. Secondly, the fall of the current regime might lead to the emergence of a new despotic ruler. Finally, the collapse of the DPRK regime could give rise to concerns about the “Korean reunification” (O, 2016). Who would be willing to pay its huge cost, estimated between 541 billion and 3 trillion dollars? What would the state emerging from this process look like?
To conclude, the DPRK has proven its resilience for 70 years. Thanks to its political configuration, unique international strategy, and security policies, there seems to be no probable threat to its survival looming on the horizon. Could we really say that the Kim dynasty managed to create the perfect system to stay in power? Kim Jong-un should manage to preserve the nuclear weapons, keep China happy, satisfy the basic needs of the populace and maintain his position within the regime: perhaps this is too much even for an "unparalleled genius" like him.
Berger, A. and Mount, A. (2019). International Study Group on North Korea Policy. Washington: Federation of American Scientists.
Byman, D. and Lind, J. (2010). Pyongyang's survival strategy: Tools of authoritarian control in North Korea. International Security, 35(1), 44-74.
Fearon, J. and Laitin, D. (2003). Ethnicity, insurgency and civil wars. American Political Science Review, 97(1), 75-90.
Mearsheimer, J. (2001). The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
O, Tara (2016). The Collapse of North Korea. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Robertson, J. (2009). North Korea and non-traditional security challenges. Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security Section, 2.
Cover photo "Looking North" by JDKEUP is licensed under CC BY 2.0
About the authors:
Giorgio Falchi is a master student in International
Security Studies at Sant'anna School of Advanced Studies, with a BA in Political Science from the University of Florence.
Antonella Lena is a master student in International
Security studies at Sant'anna School of Advanced Studies, with a BA in Diplomatic and International Science from the University of Trieste.
Michela Masciocchi is a master student in International Security Studies at Sant'anna School of Advanced Studies, with a BA in Middle East Studies from Ca' Foscari University of Venice.
Roberto Talenti is a master student in International
Security Studies at Sant'anna School of Advanced Studies, with a BA in Diplomatic and International Sciences, from the University of Bologna