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.
PRINCELINGS AND BUREAUCRATS
There is no need to comment on their future if the Kim Jong Un government manages to emulate reforming China successfully. If North Korea becomes a developmental authoritarian state, such a state will almost certainly be run by officials of the Kim government, as well as their children. This is perfectly clear from the Chinese precedent: The so-called “princelings,” the children and grandchildren of bosses from the Mao era, are now a powerful group in the top leadership, with President Xi Jinping himself the son of a vice-premier and one-time head of propaganda department. Many successful businessmen in present-day China are children of successful party bureaucrats. The same is applicable to another above-mentioned scenario: the emergence of a pro-Chinese satellite state after a Chinese intervention. If this happens, the Chinese would probably partially remove the upper echelons of the government, getting rid of those who are too old, too compromised and too disliked, but every bureaucrat outside of this upper circle is almost certain to keep his (seldom her) job.
…back in the late 1940s, (South Korean President) Syngman Rhee had basically no choice but to accept Japanese collaborators into the nascent South Korean bureaucracy
However, the same is also likely to be applicable to possible unification with the South. History has shown that revolutions seldom lead to the wholesale replacement of a political elite, irrespective of the rhetoric of revolutionary firebrands. In political turmoil, some members of the elite might lose their power, or worse. The top leadership is nearly always replaced, but every new government will necessarily face a grave shortage of the personnel with the requisite skills and experience necessary for administrative jobs. Naturally enough, those who have the necessary skills tend to be the staff of the former regime. Thus, even the most radical revolutionaries have little choice but to accept these people into the offices of the new government.
We have seen this, for example, in post-1945 South Korea. A common topic among South Korean left-leaning historians is the domination of former Japanese collaborators in the government, military and police force of the newly independent South Korean state. They usually perceive this as being a proof that South Korea’s first administration was reactionary and/or pro-Japanese. However, back in the late 1940s, Syngman Rhee had basically no choice but to accept Japanese collaborators into the nascent South Korean bureaucracy: These collaborators were the only group who knew how to run a government office, a police station or an army base.
The more recent transformation of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union provides us with even better examples of the staying power of the seemingly “overthrown” elite. It is instructive to look at those people who are now running the former Soviet states. The former Soviet Union consisted of the 15 republics that became independent some 15 years ago now.
Two ex-Soviet republics, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are still headed by their last communist bosses, the “Republic First secretaries” who are now well into their 70s. Once communism collapsed, they made themselves presidents, professed their belief (highly theoretical) in democracy and the market economy, and continue to run their countries up to this day.
In Azerbaijan the incumbent president is a son of his predecessor. He first served as the head of the Azerbaijan KGB, then the top party boss of the would-be nation and, finally, president of the newly independent – and, ostensibly, very anti-communist – Azerbaijan. In Turkmenistan, the current president was handpicked by his predecessor, who predictably was the last Soviet party boss of the republic and then run it as its first president.
So, four former republics are still run by the same people and/or clans which used to dominate them in the Soviet days. But in other ex-Soviet republics we see a similar picture: The summit of state power is still occupied by a person who, in the 1980s, was a member of the medium- to high-ranking nomenclature. The KGB past of Russian leader Vladimir Putin is widely discussed by Western media who do not like him and use his background to show the dubious state of his ideological health. It is less understood, though, that other republics are not much different. If anything, many of Putin’s peers back in the 1980s enjoyed higher positions in the pecking order of the Soviet bureaucracy.
The president of Armenia in the twilight years of the Soviet Union was a senior Party Youth official (well above Putin, then a junior KGB operative). The current president of Moldavia once served as a judge in the Supreme Court of the then-Soviet Republic of Moldova. Belorussia, Kyrgyzstan, (the militantly anti-Moscow) Latvia and Tajikistan are now run by people who, back in the 1980s, were mid-ranking industrial managers.
…more then two decades after the collapse, only two of the 15 top leaders of former Soviet republics have no connection to the old regime
Of the 15 post-Soviet states, only four – Georgia, Ukraine, Estonia and Lithuania – are currently run by people who, in the late 1980s, were not members of nomenklatura. Even these few cases are not always clear cut: the Georgian president was born into the family of a successful industrial manager while the current leader of Lithuania once started climbing the Soviet bureaucratic ladder, only to be interrupted by the collapse of the USSR. The president of Ukraine, born in 1965, is simply too young to be a member of the old elite.
So, even now, more then two decades after the collapse, only two of the 15 top leaders of former Soviet republics have no connection to the old regime. Former Soviet officials are not only leading states that are, rightly or wrongly, seen as the living reincarnations of the former-USSR, but also states that are liberal, pro-Western and very vocal in their denial of the Soviet past.
POST EASTERN BLOC
In Eastern Europe, the ex-communists might be less prominent, but still play an important role in many countries. In Romania and Albania the former apparatchiks have remained in control for the entire post-communist era, and in many other countries they play a very prominent role in local politics.
There is, however, one interesting feature of this picture: the domination of the former communist elite is especially pronounced in countries like Albania and Romania, which were once significantly more repressive than their neighbors. The same is applicable to the former Soviet Union: the ex-communists are most entrenched in the republics of Central Asia, where in the Soviet era government control was far stricter than, say, in the Baltic states.
In other words, the former communist elite tends to fare better in countries where it was more brutal in dealing with its real or alleged opponents in former times. This paradox is actually easy enough to explain: in countries like Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, once known as the “merriest of barracks in the communist camp,” the relative permissiveness of the communist regimes allowed some alternative elites to emerge. In the Poland and Hungary of the 1960s and 1970s, one could be a university teacher, a writer or even a journalist without being excessively sycophantic to the state. According to the then-famous dictum of Kadar, a now forgotten but once genuinely popular communist strongman in Budapest, “He who is not against us is for us.” Passive, if not active alienation from the regime was tolerated in those countries.
Countries like Albania and Romania (or, for that matter, Uzbekistan) present us with an altogether different story. When the Communist Party was in charge, these countries’ leaders did not tolerate anything less than active cooperation with the regime. Anybody who was somebody had no choice but to work within the regimes’ structures actively, if sometimes insincerely, embracing its goals and values. Everybody but the humble masses was a collaborator. Thus, when the system collapsed, the only people available were former bureaucrats, propagandists, military officers and secret policemen. It did help, of course, that in those countries anti-communist revolutions were often triggered by divisions in the top ranks of the nomenklatura. Thus the new leadership, consisting of the former party bosses, had little incentive to be excessively harsh on their junior colleagues.
If we look at North Korea, there is little doubt that trends visible in Albania and Romania are even more pronounced. The North Korean system leaves no space for what Vaclav Havel (pro-democracy activist and eventual present of the Czech Republic) called the “second society,” a society divorced from the communist state. The Czechoslovakian state of the 1970s was mild and permissive even by the standards of the contemporary Soviet Union, let alone North Korea. But Havel saw even the Czechoslovakian state as too powerful to resist openly. In North Korea, where the state is far more omnipresent and powerful, there is no place for a second society, and all must collaborate (sincerely or not) with the current regime. Only those successful enough in their cooperation have the chance to amass the practical experience necessary to make them suitable to hold positions in the post-Kim North Korea.
SOUTH KOREAN CARPETBAGGERS
Of course, one can argue that the South Korean government will dispatch many of its own officials North, just as the West German government once did in East Germany. It is possible that many officials in the post-unification North will be carpet-baggers, urgently dispatched from the South. However, it is plainly impossible to use only South Koreans in all official positions, and their excessive presence in the low or middle-level echelons of the government would in all likelihood seriously annoy the North Korean public as well. Thus, in the likely case of Seoul-led unification, only a relatively small number of key jobs are liable to go to South Korean carpetbaggers. Due to expediency and expectations on the ground, most jobs will still have to go to local candidates, and most of these candidates will unavoidably come from the privileged families of the Kim dynasty. Only these privileged people have the knowledge, skills and social capital to handle the job, while their children are those who have the best available education in the country.
This is a difference from East Germany, where one could get a good education and social skills without serving the regime directly. People like Chancellor Angela Merkel were possible under East German authoritarianism, quite mild and permissive and liberal even by Soviet, let alone North Korean, standards. Such people will be far rarer in the North.
Regime collapse, if it ever happens, is not going to be the end of the world for the majority of these people
Somewhat surprisingly, it is possible that owners of the new North Korean businesses, often presented as harbingers of the coming change, might find themselves in a worse situation. If the regime collapses, South Korean businesses are liable to take over anything of value, pushing the former kings of North Korea’s black market to the social margins. Surprisingly, the advancing South Korean corporations are more likely to hire sons and daughters of the current elite than the black market operators: these “ex-princelings” are likely to have good basic training and social skills of the necessary type. Incidentally, command of English, which is likely to become a major recruitment advantage in post-Kim North (or rather, north) Korea is a quality available only to the scions of the top 5-10 percent of families.
So one can be fairly sure that the current fears of North Korean bureaucrats are exaggerated. Regime collapse, if it ever happens, is not going to be the end of the world for the majority of these people. Instead, they are likely to stay in control even after the Kim family regime is over. Of course, some sensitive positions might indeed be closed to them. Of course, they will have to master new political slogans and ideological mantras, and some will even actually come to seriously believe in these new rituals that they will be obliged to perform. Nonetheless, it will be the same people and their children – at least, this appears to be highly likely if we look at the history of post-communist transitions and also the ways North Korean society is currently arranged.
Main picture: Eric Lafforgue
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
Andrei Lankov is a Director at NK News and writes exclusively for the site as one of the world's leading authorities on North Korea. A graduate of Leningrad State University, he attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University from 1984-5 - an experience you can read about here. In addition to his writing, he is also a Professor at Kookmin University.