About the Author
View more articles by Peter Ward
Peter Ward is a writer and researcher focusing on the North Korean economy, as well as a PhD candidate at the University of Vienna.
No political leader, however powerful, is completely in charge of their country.
When Kim Jong Un is declared an ‘autocrat’ and the country over which he presides a ‘one-man dictatorship’, remember that this is a moral, not a factual statement. The fact that North Korea does not have free and fair elections, a functioning civil society, the rule of law, or a prison system which treats its inmates with basic dignity does not negate the fact that one man cannot govern alone.
Anyone who spends enough time reading about the history of the Soviet Union under Stalin will discover, much to their surprise, that the place was pretty anarchic. The idea of a ‘totalitarian’ state – the all-seeing, ever watchful eye of Big Brother – was actively cultivated by a regime that was substantially weaker, more disorganized and vulnerable to popular pressure than it wanted its people to know.
First of all, there are limits to how much one person can know and what they are able to do with their time. We have no reason to believe that Kim Jong Un has superhuman intelligence, but even if he did, he is still a man. In any political system, the top leaders usually have to make the decisions that no one else dares to, ‘the most difficult decisions’. That’s one of the reasons being in a position of executive power is so stressful – note Obama’s grayed hair circa 2016.
DECENTRALIZATION – TO AN EXTENT
Hence, an administrative apparatus, no matter how authoritarian a system is, makes most of the decisions for the leader. No law, regulation, or directive can fully account for the chaos and unpredictability of actual life. So officials, policemen, factory managers, farm workers, school teachers and every other kind of worker with any kind of discretionary authority has to make decisions every day that the top leader might not be all that pleased about.
There are limits to how much one person can know and what they are able to do with their time
When people at the lower rung of the administration do not feel competent or empowered to make a decision, they pass it up. But the information that they pass about the circumstances – like say, how that machine broke down, why the field is flooded, or how a criminal was caught – is partially at their discretion. In economics, this is called an ‘informational asymmetry’, in polite society it might be euphemistically called ‘tact’.
No matter how well-functioning a surveillance system is, or how many CCTV cameras a city has, information is diffuse and often very difficult to collect, store and process properly. As a result, the Great Leader is unlikely to have an altogether accurate picture about what is going on in his country, and there will be plenty of ‘stovepiping’, information silos, and information bottlenecks behind the facade of the all-seeing eye.
Even when the leader is presented with a decision to make, say, on matters of nuclear policy or economic development, he has his own cognitive limitations. Simply put: he cannot be an expert on everything, or competent in all matters of state policy.
He may decide to micro-manage, but what he decides to micro-manage is directly the result of what his officials, their trusted subordinates, and people on the ground (be they managers, or the people who watch them) present to him as being of his own personal concern.
What’s more, administrators, like businessmen, politicians, workers, journalists, families, children and pretty much all of humanity, are clannish. They have friends, rivals, confidants, and enemies.
Everybody with any kind of discretionary authority has to make decisions every day that the leader might not be all that pleased about
Such rivalries and hatreds translate in a political and administrative system into ‘interagency rivalry’. Turf battles over jurisdiction, like, say, between the secret police and the military, can cause significant friction even in a democracy. But in an authoritarian state like North Korea, such rivalries and interagency conflicts can be deadly: purges are a fact of life and a cost of doing business.
Hence, officials government agencies have additional reason to curry the favor of those up top, because they want to justify their existence and current activities – ensuring that their work is not taken over by another agency.
This can lead to greater efficiency, because an agency that does its job well gets more money, more staff and is more trusted by the leadership. But the line between doing one’s job well and appearing to do it well is not so clear in reality. Interagency conflict can make officials ‘tactful’ in what they tell their superiors and what their superiors eventually report to the man in charge.
TOP DOWN LEADERSHIP?
When all of this is weighed up it leads to an uncomfortable conclusion. The decision-making process in Pyongyang is opaque, and we do not know under what circumstances and with what information Kim Jong Un makes decisions, and even what decisions are made by him.
We can argue, plausibly, that some decisions are too important to be left to subordinates, but that does not mean that Kim Jong Un necessarily puts much thought into them. His close advisors might tell him that all options have their pluses and minuses, and he might decide to give y a shot, for a change.
Judging by how haphazardly foreign policy and economic decisions have been made in recent years, a grand strategy is far from discernable. General priorities like economic growth and an anti-Chinese bias, yes, but Kim Jong Un’s picture of the world (like that of any leader) is likely to be distorted in line with the far from perfect information he has about what is going on inside his country and outside it.
Some decisions are too important to be left to subordinates, but that does not mean that Kim Jong Un necessarily puts much thought into them
If someone says: “this could not have happened without Kim Jong Un saying so. It reflects X about him…” They may be right: he probably did decide personally to have Jang Song Taek killed because Jang had been personally rude to him, and to invite Dennis Rodman to Pyongyang because he likes basketball, but we cannot be sure.
It is dangerous illusion about how North Korea functions to think of the leader as omniscient and omnipotent. Yes, Kim Jong Un seems to enjoy unrivaled power within the system, but his actual understanding of what goes on inside his country is far from perfect, and it is crucial that we understand that when we deal with the country. If we want to improve the lives of North Koreans and deal with the North Korean problem, we must recognize the system for what it actually is.
Featured image: KCNA
Edited by Oliver Hotham