January 29, 2023

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

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.