With a spate of missile test launches in January, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has moved back into the consciousness of the broader global community. Some observers may be asking, “You’re still here? Why?”
Seemingly against the odds, the Kim regime persists. The explanation of why involves several factors, both domestic and international. Ostensibly, the North Korean regime should have collapsed by now because of multiple governance failures.
The insistence on hereditary succession seems a serious if not fatal disadvantage. The Kim patriarch, Kim Il Sung, had considerable prestige. The Soviet government installed him in 1945 after deposing the Japanese colonial authorities in the northern half of the Peninsula.
Moscow wisely chose a leader with nationalist credentials. Although his claimed exploits are exaggerated, Kim was renowned as an anti-Japanese guerrilla leader during the Pacific War. Subsequently, he demonstrated skill and ruthlessness in eliminating his political rivals and making his own status unassailable.
The drop-off from Kim Il Sung to his son and successor Kim Jong Il was dramatic. The latter was an uninspiring, self-indulgent princeling who did nothing to earn paramount leadership on his own merits. He presided over a period of economic weakness and food scarcity.
But with his sudden death in 2011, the top post went to an even less qualified successor: his callow, overweight, 30-year-old son Kim Jong Un.
In contrast to his father’s long apprenticeship, the youngest Kim was largely unknown until a few months before his father’s death, when the regime introduced him as the equivalent of a four-star general despite his lack of military experience.
North Korea’s economy has sputtered since the 1970s. The country suffered a long-term contraction with the cessation of aid from the Soviet Union upon its breakup in 1991. Natural disasters have worsened the situation. Estimates of the death toll from a multi-year famine in the 1990s range from 600,000 to two million.
More recently, the Covid-19 pandemic caused the regime to cut off most trade with China, the DPRK’s main economic partner. The biggest problem, however, is chronic mismanagement. North Korea ranks dead last on the Heritage Foundation’s global Index of Economic Freedom.
Although a few well-connected elites get away with operating lucrative businesses, the government has generally tried to prevent private citizens from accumulating wealth, an example being the snap 2009 currency reform that required North Koreans to trade in 100 won worth of their old banknotes for every one won worth of the new banknotes.
In January 2021 Kim Jong Un observed that economic development was failing. Instead of hastening reforms, however, he called for an expansion of state control over the economy.
The DPRK’s GDP per capita of US$1,700 ranks 154th in the world. Most North Koreans know by now that South Korea (per capita GDP: $31,000) is much wealthier than the North. The Kim regime stands in the way of unification with the prosperous South.
To offset such failures, the Kims have implemented governance practices that can help undeserving despots stay in power.
Recognizing that dynastic power depends on the support of civilian and military elites, the Kims take care of them. Most of the elites live in Pyongyang, where they enjoy a standard of living markedly better than is found in the rest of the country.
Based on the country’s Songbun political caste system, perks such as access to the best employment and educational opportunities, the chance to acquire luxury goods and permission to reside in Pyongyang are reserved for families that demonstrate loyalty to the regime.
Although Kim Jong Un has elevated the Korean Workers Party over the military in the making of government policy, the Kims since the start have generally tried to keep the generals happy.
Since the 1960s the regime has officially pursued the Byungjin (parallel development) policy, which assures the military leadership that building up the country’s armed forces has at least as high priority as growing the civilian economy.
To this, the regime added the Songun (military first) policy in the 1990s. The Kims’ acquisition of nuclear weapons and continuous demands that the United States and South Korea halt their annual joint military training exercises accommodate the military’s agenda.
Most elites and high-ranking military officers are likely to conclude that their personal situations are well-off enough under the Kim regime that they do not favor rolling the dice of regime change. Therefore, they link their fortunes to the persistence of the regime. Kim Jong Un is their guy, regardless of his qualifications or lack thereof.
Finally, since Kim Il Sung’s era, the regime has promoted a personality cult that deifies the Kim family. Official commentary has endowed the grandfather, the father and now Kim Jong Un with ludicrously implausible superhuman attributes. This adds another layer of protection against internal overthrow, as a potential usurper could not easily justify fighting against national demigods.
The regime invests heavily in political oppression to prevent an insurgency. State regimentation and influence pervade North Korean society with the objective of precluding and, as necessary, quickly squelching dissent.
Punishment for even minor expressions of criticism of the government is severe. An estimated 120,000 people are incarcerated in prison camps for political offenses, some because they are family members of offenders.
The government operates a vast public security apparatus as well as mass surveillance networks. Under the inminban (people’s group) system, every household in North Korea is supervised by a neighborhood watch officer who daily reports any suspicious activities to the local public security office.
In these circumstances, the likelihood that an organized and sufficiently armed grass-roots uprising could threaten the regime with overthrow is minimal.
The Kim regime also benefits from two fortuitous international circumstances. The first is the DPRK’s proximity to Seoul, which contains close to half South Korea’s population and a huge proportion of its wealth.
The DPRK has caused the international community abundant trouble. Even before it had the delivery capability, Pyongyang signaled a willingness to use nuclear weapons to destroy Tokyo, New York and Washington, DC. The DPRK has threatened for decades to destroy Seoul.
The regime’s harm to its own people, both intended and unintended, amply satisfies the criteria for outside intervention under the United Nations’ “responsibility to protect” (R2P) doctrine.
Since the Korean War, however, foreign governments could never seriously contemplate taking out the Kim regime. Seoul is within range of thousands of DPRK artillery and rocket tubes.
The fear of DRPK retaliation against Seoul has prevented significant South Korean and US military action against Pyongyang, even when missile tests showed the DPRK was getting close to perfecting a nuclear-armed ballistic missile.
The second favorable external circumstance is that China is supportive of the regime. Beijing strongly wants to avoid regime change in North Korea. With the Kim family in power, China has a buffer state that keeps US ally South Korea at a distance.
If the regime fell, China might face problems such as large numbers of Korean refugees and a breakdown of the command and control of the DPRK’s nuclear weapons.
Most importantly, the result might be the absorption of the northern half of the Peninsula into the Republic of Korea, creating a united and stronger Korean state on China’s border – one that could make irredentist demands on parts of what is now PRC territory and might continue to host US military bases.
Consequently, Beijing provides the regime with a living wage by continuing essential bilateral trade even in defiance of international economic sanctions. China also gives the Kim regime important diplomatic support, such as blocking the imposition of additional economic sanctions by the United Nations Security Council and arguing that the United States should respect the DPRK’s security concerns and make peace with the Kims.
How much longer the Kim regime can maintain its unchallenged supremacy in North Korea is unclear. There are no immediate visible threats to its monopoly on political power. Yet the outside world exerts a steady, gradual influence – particularly China’s economy and South Korea’s soft power.
Kim Jong Un may hang on, but hanging on will not get easier.
Denny Roy is a senior fellow at the East-West Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Denny_Roy808