Since the 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapsed and the founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Kim Il Sung, died, experts have warned that the North Korean regime was on the brink of collapse. And since the 1990s, the experts have been wrong. North Korea has been remarkably resilient in the face of war, international sanctions, famine and natural disaster. Twice has a system that supposedly functioned only by the will of its supreme leader transferred power to a chosen successor, and in doing so it has created a dynasty that is, for better or worse, unlike any other. Now, under its third leader, Kim Jong Un, the grandson of the founder, it is commanding the world’s attention like never before. In the following report, we set forth to answer a simple question: What explains the longevity of the government in Pyongyang?
North Korea as we know it was created by an agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1945. Before then, the peninsula had been occupied by foreign powers off and on for years, but it had never been divided like it is today.
Visions of Korea
The Soviets installed Kim Il Sung in 1948, shortly after the partition, and conditions were ripe for his ascension. North Korea had been occupied by the Japanese for nearly four decades, and the country was eager for a Korean leader. He lived, perhaps ironically, most of his early life outside Korea – his parents escaped the Japanese occupation, so he grew up in Manchuria in northern China. When he grew up, he became a guerrilla, fighting the very people his parents had fled.
Once it was founded, North Korea couldn’t escape Soviet influence; Moscow propped it up, and in any case the countries share a border. In fact, Kim Il Sung was educated in the Soviet Union and served as a major in the Soviet military during World War II. He left the Soviet Union only after the war ended.
And though the party Kim would lead was, in part, a consequence of Soviet influence, it was not simply an extension of it. It’s best thought of as an instrument of “oriental despotism,” an oft-forgotten political philosophy popularized by Karl Marx that describes an extremely centralized regime with absolute power of its central bureaucracy. The government in this system is the sole business proprietor and organizer of economic activity. It uses coercion and military force to govern. The people who live under it have no personal liberties. Oriental despotism concedes that, for a variety of reasons, including geography, despots of the “East” simply function differently from those of the West – predisposing them to anti-colonialism, nationalism and fierce self-sufficiency.
Indeed, Kim Il Sung was, at his heart, a Korean nationalist. It didn’t take him long to subvert Soviet interests to his own. He was, after all, responsible for the invasion of the South in a failed bid to reunify the peninsula. Kim never fully endorsed the measures Nikita Khrushchev introduced to break the cult of personality that surrounded Stalin – it was a tool that had served Kim well – and never really took part in China’s Cultural Revolution. Put differently, his regime was never prototypically communist – power rested in the Kim family and a handful of elite party members, not the party writ large.
Kim’s philosophy is perhaps best captured by a policy known as Juche, which was the foundation of the North Korean regime. Usually translated as “self-reliance,” Juche emphasizes the role of the individual as the master of his or her destiny, the driving force behind, in Kim’s words, the “revolution and construction.” It rests on three pillars: independence in politics, self-sufficiency in economics and self-reliance in defense. In some ways, it was just what Koreans needed to hear after decades of occupation: “Reject foreign powers, and create the country you want.”
After Kim died, his son and successor, Kim Jong Il, reinforced one particular aspect of the Juche policy: the military. In what came to be known as the Songun policy, Kim prioritized the development of the North Korean military and gave its leaders more power in the government. The policy harkens back to the anti-imperialist sentiment that existed even before North Korea became a country, and so it was relatively easy to enact what the policy called for: arming the nation, training all soldiers to fulfill responsibilities above their rank, fortifying the country and modernizing the armed forces.
The transition from Juche to Songun was fairly smooth – it was less of a radical departure than it was a natural evolution of one policy to the next. Songun merely elevated the military, with Kim as its leader, to a higher role in government. And though the policy may have empowered the military over the other aspects of Juche – political independence and self-sufficient economics – it didn’t forsake them. Kim Il Sung’s vision for the Korean Peninsula was still intact; it just featured the military more prominently than it once did.
This vision of Korea evolved further when Kim Jong Il’s son and successor, Kim Jong Un, introduced Byungjin in 2013. An early attempt for the newest Kim to make his mark, Byungjin called for the parallel pursuit of economic development and nuclear weapons. (Observers of North Korea initially thought Byungjin would open the North Korean economy to the rest of the world. It did no such thing.) Pyongyang had, of course, been pursuing a nuclear weapon for some time, conducting tests as early as 2006. Much like Songun had done to Juche, Byungjin formalized and prioritized aspects of North Korean policy that were already there: self-sufficiency in economics and self-reliance in defense.
With so much power placed in the supreme leader, it’s little wonder that the North Korean government is structured for one purpose above all others: survival. State organizations exist only to support the supreme leader and a select group of officials (read: the regime) and serve one of two specific purposes. The first is to create policy and regulations that align with Kim’s philosophy and advance his agenda. The second is to enforce government policies and ensure compliance by military members, government members and civilians.
The legislature, the Supreme People’s Assembly, is the highest organization in North Korea, at least according to the constitution. It has 687 members and a presidium that can perform the same functions as the assembly when it has recessed. The assembly has the power to change the constitution, set basic policies for domestic and foreign policy, pass laws, ratify budgets and treaties and, ostensibly, elect and recall officials. In theory, the chairman of the State Affairs Commission (whoever is the supreme leader, in this case Kim Jong Un), the State Affairs Commission, the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, the Cabinet and the Committees of the Supreme People’s Assembly can submit legislation to the assembly for consideration. But in practice, the assembly’s actions are largely dictated by the supreme leader.
The State Affairs Commission is the source and arbiter of all policy. It is primarily responsible for defense and economic development – unsurprisingly, the two components of Kim Jong Un’s Byungjin policy. As chairman, Kim not only is responsible for the commission’s general operations but also is the head of the armed forces. This role confers on him the power to call a state of emergency, declare war, mobilize the military inside the country and, in times of war, direct the National Defense Commission. (The State Affairs Commission replaced the National Defense Commission in 2016, but it can be revived in wartime.)
Kim Jong Il (R) and Kim Il Sung (L) inspecting a soccer ground in Pyongyang in 1992. AFP/Getty Images
There are other areas in which executive political powers bleed into military powers. North Korea even has structures in place to harmonize political affairs and martial affairs. One such structure is the Korean People’s Army General Political Department, which is controlled by the party. It liaises between the party and the military to ensure that the supreme leader retains control of the armed forces, and it monitors military behavior, discipline, promotions, indoctrination, education and general administration. It also surveils the public.
It coordinates its actions with the Central Military Commission, the institution that puts the party’s military and defense policies into action. It works closely with the State Affairs Commission. The CMC has the authority to commission research projects, weapons development and manufacturing, outside acquisition and defense spending. It also determines how resources from military-controlled production units will be allocated. Under Kim Jong Un, the CMC has been reduced from 15-20 members to 12 members, many of whom are senior officials either in the Ministry of State Security or the Ministry of People’s Security rather than the military itself. Some reports suggest that some members also occupy seats on the Political Bureau, giving them even more influence over military and state affairs.
Other notable entities include the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces and the Korean People’s Army General Staff Department. The ministry oversees the logistical, political and personnel aspects of the military. It also coordinates relations with foreign militaries, regulates military-owned businesses ventures and helps to indoctrinate servicemen.
The General Staff Department, on the other hand, is the traditional institution of military management. It coordinates the different branches of the military, formulates strategy and issues orders to the branches. It also manages specialty bureaus such as electronic warfare, weapons supply, equipment, training and transportation.
Policy and procedure, of course, are meant to be enforced, and North Korea has a variety of ways it can enforce them. The Ministry of State Security is North Korea’s primary counterintelligence service and reports directly to Kim. It operates prison camps, investigates cases of domestic espionage, repatriates defectors and conducts overseas counterespionage activities. (This differs from the Ministry of People’s Security, which is responsible for public order and civilian control.)
The Military Security Command, on the other hand, is the eyes and ears of the military. It monitors the activities of military commanders and political loyalists – a mandate that gives it far-reaching powers to investigate and arrest in a variety of jurisdictions.
There are also government agencies meant specifically to protect the supreme leader and the government. The Pyongyang Defense Command, for example, is a corps-level mobile unit that protects the capital city and secures select buildings in the event of a coup. The command has tank divisions, an artillery brigade and heavy weapons brigade. It is linked closely to the Supreme Guard Command, the Kim family’s personal security service, and the III Corps, an army unit that defends the areas immediately outside Pyongyang. (The Supreme Guard Command also monitors the electronic communications of the country’s leaders.)
A New Complexion
The structure of the regime is built around a single leader with absolute authority. But even absolute leaders need supporters. He is therefore compelled to purge, appoint and reorganize upon assuming control. Subsequent purges and appointments are used to maintain control. (Since the party and the military are the only vehicles of power in North Korea, there are always people willing to fill vacant posts.) The process takes about three to five years, and once he consolidates power he formalizes his policy priorities and tailors the system by making changes in the constitution.
This goes a long way to explain the Kims’ staying power. Specific roles, titles and offices have changed, but the general apparatus has remained the same. There is strong party leadership, a strong military and total control over civilian life. What differences exist under each Kim reflect only subtle changes in political philosophy.
Kim Jong Un’s tenure is a case in point. After assuming power, he spent the first two years or so dismissing and executing potential rivals. In May 2016, during the 7th Congress of the ruling Workers’ Party, Kim reinstated the Workers’ Party chairmanship and several vice chairmanships. (He was, naturally, elected its chairman.) He also reduced the number of military personnel on the Political Bureau. Then in June 2016, during the 13th Supreme People’s Assembly, he modified the constitution, formally replacing the National Defense Commission with the State Affairs Commission. (Kim was, naturally, chosen to head it.) The new commission assumed the responsibilities of the previous one and added things like the economy and foreign policy to its portfolio.
Kim Jong Un appears to have given his government a new complexion that de-emphasized the military and brought the economy back to the fore. That’s partly true, but the larger point is that he installed people who would be loyal to him, just as his father had, albeit in slightly different ways.
And so the current incarnation of the regime survives because it’s loyal enough to the founding principles of the country but just innovative enough to adapt to the times. The power of its leader, who reigns absolute, is fueled by nationalism and sustained by a structure that has every reason to keep him in place. That, and a zero-tolerance policy toward dissent, explains why the regime has stood stalwart these many years.