North Korea: Is Kim Jong-Un “Gangster” Enough to Maintain the Status Quo?

April 9th, 2012
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Much has been made of the fact that, like most dictatorships, North Korea in many ways resembles a “mafia state”:  brutally enforced centralized power, grossly distorted distribution of wealth, general disregard for international laws and conventions, informal and arbitrary taxation system, not to mention  its drug and arms trade, currency counterfeiting, and other illicit activities.  However, the true strength of this analogy, and its real value in helping to predict the future of the country, is in analyzing the factors that make social structures like organized crime syndicates and the North Korean state work and, inevitably, fail.

The sustainability of dictatorships and other organizations with tightly centralized power structures is dependent on a charismatic and heavily-engaged leader capable of simultaneously instilling fear, respect, loyalty, a perception of privilege among the politically advantaged, and a “compliant hopelessness” among the lower ranks.  With inner-city drug gangs, for example, a gang thrives when its leader is actively managing operations, nurturing loyal and capable lieutenants, rewarding success, and immediately and brutally crushing any hints of dissent at all levels.  When the leader is no longer willing or able to maintain his iron grip on control and the exhausting vigilance that is required, the organization begins to fracture and collapse.

It is difficult to find anything positive to say about Kim Jong-Il but if nothing else, he was masterful at maintaining the North Korean “organization.”  Holding the status quo in North Korea requires effective central control of two distinct political and social forces:  first, the inner circle of top leadership – this includes managing relationships and disputes, ensuring loyalty, and preventing a high-level coup; and second, the general population – managing perceptions, information,  and collective action to prevent grass-roots uprisings and mass defections.

With regard to the general population, over the past 60-70 years, the Kims have established three key control mechanisms that enable the survival of the regime, which combined, have created in North Korea what some scholars have called a “culture of non-resistance.” [1] For various reasons, however, each of the three is currently in a state of rapid deterioration and will require remarkably skillful and firm leadership to sustainably manage into the future.

1. Emotional Control.  There is a deeply-rooted historic and cultural element that attaches a powerful emotional legitimacy to the Kim dynasty.  Kim Il-sung was essentially deified in his day and is still symbolically considered the eternal leader of the country.  Kim Jong-il was able to ride the coattails of this reverence and used shrewd and brutal leadership to compensate for his comparative lack of genuine adoration among the people.  Now, as the emotional capital collected by Kim Il-sung gets stretched even thinner by another generation, it becomes more critical for Kim Jong-un to effectively lead on his own merits.  The apparent strategy in Pyongyang in the first few months of Kim Jong-un’s rule is to first, maintain consistency and stability and present an image of seamless transition from Kim Jong-il’s policies; second, brand Kim Jong-un as the “reincarnation” of his grandfather, in appearance as well as personality; and third, to increasingly portray Kim Jong-un  as a young, energetic,  and brilliant modernizer striving to bring North Korea into the technology age and, ironically, back to the “golden days” of the Kim Il-sung era.

However, according to defector testimony, despite advances in white elephant projects such as nuclear weapon and ballistic missile development, the genuine respect and faith of the North Korean people in their leadership has diminished significantly with each succession.  Age demographics will also undoubtedly play a part in the decline of the emotional legitimacy of the regime.  There is currently a whole new generation of North Koreans reaching adulthood who never knew life under Kim Il-sung, who have known only hardship and hunger, and who increasingly see the value of money trumping the value of “pure” ideology.  At this point the people need real and meaningful improvements in their daily lives; without this, it is doubtful that any amount of rhetoric and marketing can save the regime in the long-term.

2. Structural Control.  Since its inception, North Korean society has been divided into a hierarchical “caste system.”  Social status is based on family origins (songbun) and the regime’s perception of one’s loyalty to the state.  Approximately 30% of the population is considered the core class (haeksim kyechung) and enjoy special privileges and favors of the regime.  Generally speaking, members of the core class reside in Pyongyang, are comfortably employed within the government bureaucracy, are supported by what remains of the government social safety net and public distribution system, and have opportunities for advancement such as access to tertiary education.  Approximately 50% of the population is described as being in the wavering class (tongyo kyechung) and 20% in the hostile class (joktae kyechung)[2].  Those in the hostile class generally experience government discrimination including being denied public food distribution or receiving nutritionally inferior foodstuffs, lack of access to employment and education, arbitrary incarceration, limitations on housing, and restrictions on travel.

Although firmly established over the past sixty years, this social structure is now under assault by the rise of private markets and the power of money.  As the ability of the central government to provide for its people continues to deteriorate, those on the margins are finding ways to fend for themselves.  Where one’s personal social standing was previously determined by family history and access to the party and the bureaucracy, it is now increasingly determined by one’s access to money or ability to generate personal income.  The rise of the private economy will eventually lead to widespread corruption, wealth-based centers of power outside of government control, and increasingly, a culture of self-determination among large swathes of the population.  Ham-handed efforts by the regime to rein in the private markets, such as the 2009 currency revaluation (or, more accurately, currency confiscation), accomplished little besides enraging those in the burgeoning merchant class.  Unless Kim Jong-un can somehow stuff this genie back into the bottle, market forces will ultimately fatally undercut the traditional social structure upon which the North Korean state sits.

3. Informational Control.  A key element common to the effective rule of all totalitarian regimes is the control over the flow of information, both from the outside and within the state.  By any standard, North Korea has taken the control of information to a level perhaps unprecedented in human history.  While other regimes have attempted various degrees of information control, North Korea has worked to hermetically seal itself from the outside world.  Not only has it been virtually impossible for North Koreans to receive news and information from outside the country, it has until recently been extraordinarily difficult for North Koreans to communicate with or travel to see other North Koreans outside of one’s local community.   This level of informational control has been critical for the regime’s survival; without any outside information to refute it, North Koreans are immersed in pro-regime propaganda from cradle to grave.  Without the ability for large portions of the population to effectively and privately communicate, the opportunities for developing collective action or grass-roots insurgencies similar to the “Arab Spring” uprisings are virtually nonexistent.

Although the Kim dynasty has done an impressive job to date in repressing personal freedoms, especially those of speech and press, modern technology is making it more and more difficult for the regime to maintain its control over the flow of information both into and within North Korea. In the past decade or so, personal computer use in the country has increased significantly.  Although North Koreans cannot access the global internet and computer use is still limited to a small minority, the use of smuggled USB thumb drives, CDs, SD chips, e-books, and DVDs to share outside, particularly South Korean, news and entertainment is widespread and extremely difficult for the regime to prevent.  The average North Korean today is far more aware of the outside world and North Korea’s comparative conditions than the average North Korean just five or ten years ago.  Additionally, in what was likely conceived to be a revenue-generating venture for the regime, Kim Jong-il in 2008 signed a contract with Egyptian telecom giant, Orascom to create Koryolink, the North Korean cellular telephone service that recently added its 1 millionth subscriber.  While North Korean users cannot make or receive international calls, they can communicate with other North Koreans, which, despite monitoring by security services, opens an important new channel of information and communication that is, to a significant extent, outside of government control.

The importance of this increase in communication and information is that it will inevitably lead to a powerful social force certain to prove highly corrosive to the current North Korean system: widespread feelings of relative deprivation throughout the population.  As North Koreans learn more about the outside world, they will eventually be forced to recognize their own comparative insufficiencies (fraternalistic relative deprivation)[3].  Additionally, as North Koreans learn more about their fellow North Koreans, they will increasingly realize that private markets and the accumulation of personal wealth have permanently altered the traditional social class structures and that wealth and power are not as equitably or logically distributed as they once were (egoistic relative deprivation).[4]  This relative deprivation is a much more powerful destabilizing social force than absolute deprivation.  One will more readily accept going hungry when everyone else is perceived to be hungry as well.  One will not be so compliant when peers are perceived as being comparatively and unfairly well-off.

An Existential Dilemma

What we see in North Korea today is a pitched battle between the “immovable object” of the status quo:

-          The strong and deeply-rooted emotional, structural, and informational controls that create a “culture of non-resistance” among the North Korean general population, and;

-          The historically well-managed, loyal, and disciplined privileged elite and inner-circle leadership

VS

The “irresistible force” of three critical destabilizing factors:

-          The decline in the emotional legitimacy of the regime

-          The growing power of money and private markets to subvert traditional socio-political structures, and;

-          The corrosive power of relative deprivation caused by uncontrolled information flow.

The outcome of this struggle will be determined purely by Kim Jong-un’s ability to: effectively manage and ensure the loyalty of his elites and inner-circle leadership; maintain the historic emotional legitimacy of the Kim dynasty; restrain the power of the private markets and the corrupting influence of personal wealth; lock down the borders, maintain the massive prison system, and regain full control over the flow of information.   Under the current circumstances, these are all hugely difficult assignments that would tax the skills of even the most capable and ruthless of dictators.  The question, in these early months of the power transfer, is:  Who is Kim Jong-un?  Is he a “gangster” like his father or a weak and inexperienced wannabe?  Or, less likely, is he a reformer?  The future of North Korea and the stability of the region rest on the answers to these questions.

Columbia University professor Ian Bremmer created an interesting visual tool for analyzing a country’s relative stability vis-à-vis its level of openness by its position on a J-shaped curve.[5]  Looking at the diagram below, North Korea would be near the very top of the left side of the curve:  extremely closed and oppressive yet also quite stable.  The United States, in contrast would be at or near the top of the right side of the curve:  very open and liberal with a high level of personal freedoms and extremely stable.  As Bremmer describes, a state on the left side of the curve shifting toward the right – either due to a weakness of the central government and its inability to maintain controls or through a conscious effort to reform – will quite precipitously slip into crisis and potential collapse.

Simply put, in a totalitarian state such as today’s North Korea, the long-term prosperity of the people and the long-term prosperity of the regime are diametrically opposed.  The three destabilizing factors discussed above are pushing the North Korean people more and more toward the right side of the curve while the regime has no choice but to cling to the left; it seems certain that the Kim dynasty would not survive a journey into the abyss.  Kim Jong-il certainly understood that substantive reforms were impossible and that oppression and fear were the keys to regime survival.  Any dictator who would allow roughly five percent of his people to starve to death rather than enact any regime-threatening reforms is quite clearly committed to the left side of the curve.

How about Kim Jong-un?  In his first three months in power, young Kim appears determined to champion the causes of the Pyongyang hard-liners rather than those of his diplomats and reformers.  In March, Kim announced that North Korea would conduct a Space Launch Vehicle (SLV) test using its latest ballistic missile technology, violating UN Security Council resolutions and effectively sabotaging a US food-aid deal his own Ministry of Foreign Affairs had been negotiating.  Kim has also beefed up the security presence along the Chinese border in order to crack down on defections.  Also, in his first month in power Kim Jong-un reportedly ordered a violent purge of dozens of top-level military officers, including one assistant chief of the Ministry of the People’s Armed Forces seen drunk during the mourning period for Kim Jong-il who was executed with a mortar round in compliance with Kim Jong-un’s order to leave “no trace of him behind, down to his hair.”[6] Kim Jong-un seems just as committed to holding the status quo as his father was.  Is he skillful and brutal enough – “gangster” enough – to pull it off?  He just might be.

Picture Credit: KCNA

[1] Kim, David Min Sun. “Repression in North Korea: Understanding the Culture of Non-Resistance.” Utrecht University, 2011.

[2] Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU). (2010) 2010 White Paper on Human Rights. Center for North   Korean Human Rights Studies. November 2010.

[3] Runciman, W.G.  Relative Deprivation and Social Justice.  Routledge and Kegan Paul.  1966.

[4] Runciman, W.G.

[5] Bremmer, Ian.  The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall.  Simon and Schuster.  2006.

[6] The Chosun Ilbo. “Kim Jong-un’s Barbaric Purge of ‘Unsound’ Military Brass.” 22 March 2012.

  • mkw

    Incredible article.

  • mkw

    Incredible article.

  • James_c

    Great piece, I really enjoyed that. Lets just hope the kims move away soon.

  • James_c

    Great piece, I really enjoyed that. Lets just hope the kims move away soon.

  • guest

    Rubbish! NKNews says this is a must? This would only satisfy the eyes of dummies on the DPRK. KJU is not in control of the military yet and there are many signs of that. KJU, gangster enough? DPRK as a mafia state? This is so cheap. Please don’t do this, NKNews.

  • guest

    Rubbish! NKNews says this is a must? This would only satisfy the eyes of dummies on the DPRK. KJU is not in control of the military yet and there are many signs of that. KJU, gangster enough? DPRK as a mafia state? This is so cheap. Please don’t do this, NKNews.

  • Robert Boynton

    I think you mean “Gangsta’,” no?

  • Robert Boynton

    I think you mean “Gangsta’,” no?

  • Ecs_various

    Well done article and yes gangsta seems appropriate way to describe the style of rule in north Korea.

  • Charlie Munchford

    Pour out some top-shelf liquor for Uncle Jiang. And his family and his whole damn crew. So hellz yeah he was gangsta enuf to be top dawg of the DPRK. Spaar was spot on while other fools were doubting. But who could have predicted the bromance with Rodman?