May 31, 2023

The North Korean bureaucracy is here to stay

Former communist states, post-liberation South Korea show difficulty of replacing experienced public servants

It is impossible to predict the path that North Korea will take in the next two decades. It could become a “developmental dictatorship,” presided over by Kim Jong Un or other members of his family. It might collapse and then be absorbed into the South (still the most likely outcome). Or, a deep internal crisis might trigger a Chinese intervention and lead to the emergence of a pro-Chinese regime. However, there is good reason to believe that, whatever happens, its future ruling elite will consist overwhelmingly of people, or at least the children of people, who have played a significant role in the North Korean government.

This might sound a bit strange, especially since German-style “unification through absorption” still appears the most likely eventual outcome. It is widely accepted that one of the primary motivations of the current elite is to cling to power in order to avoid the loss of their economic and physical security. They believe that they will end up behind bars, or worse, should unification come. Such fears are not completely without foundation: It is indeed possible that some of North Korea’s elite – the less lucky, the most brutal or the most visible – will indeed pay the price for their past misdeeds. Nonetheless, to the present author it appears that history provides North Korean party apparatchiks, and especially industrial managers, with good reason to be optimistic. Some of them might indeed perish, and some groups (like, say, party propaganda specialists) will suffer a great deal of economic and social difficulties, but on balance most of these people are going to be just fine.