Inside the Red Box: North Korea's Post-totalitarian Politics (Contemporary Asia in the World)
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North Korea's institutional politics defy traditional political models, making the country's actions seem surprising or confusing when, in fact, they often conform to the regime's own logic. Drawing on recent materials, such as North Korean speeches, commentaries, and articles, Patrick McEachern, a specialist on North Korean affairs, reveals how the state's political institutions debate policy and inform and execute strategic-level decisions.
Many scholars dismiss Kim Jong-Il's regime as a "one-man dictatorship," calling him the "last totalitarian leader," but McEachern identifies three major institutions that help maintain regime continuity: the cabinet, the military, and the party. These groups hold different institutional policy platforms and debate high-level policy options both before and after Kim and his senior leadership make their final call.
This method of rule may challenge expectations, but North Korea does not follow a classically totalitarian, personalistic, or corporatist model. Rather than being monolithic, McEachern argues, the regime, emerging from the crises of the 1990s, rules differently today than it did under Kim's father, Kim Il Sung. The son is less powerful and pits institutions against one another in a strategy of divide and rule. His leadership is fundamentally different: it is "post-totalitarian." Authority may be centralized, but power remains diffuse. McEachern maps this process in great detail, supplying vital perspective on North Korea's reactive policy choices, which continue to bewilder the West.
engagement. The critically important U.S.–South Korean alliance failed to produce a unified view of policy toward North Korea. President Bush reversed course after the October 2006 nuclear test and the November 2006 elections that gave Democrats control of both houses of Congress. As the United States reached out to North Korea diplomatically, South Korean public opinion turned against engagement, and its lame duck president could do little to stem the tide. By the end of 2007, South Korea had
2009, there were some indications that political evolution from this divide-and-conquer ruling style had begun. North Korea’s three institutions started to speak with unprecedented unison on all strategic issue areas. Inter-Korean relations had long since soured, and all three organizations lambasted the South. Economic policy too had moved into the party’s orbit, but socialist economic policies advanced more quickly and the cabinet started to strongly endorse the policies it had previously
not cost free, given the extreme punishments the regime can impose on those found with an illicit radio, cell phone, or even foreign videos, though these “crimes” have become sufficiently common that bribes often settle the problem. 7. “N. Korea’s 1st Uni Delayed,” Straits Times, December 30, 2008. Powell, “The Capitalist Who Loves North Korea.” 8. Regime reversals of marketization over the last four years in favor of administrative controls over the economy seemed to be intensifying at the
Not all policy innovation originates with the nerve center, but it is an overstatement to suggest that none of it does. With his centralized authority, Kim has the ability to accept or reject advice. His institutions can present three distinct options, any of which he may accept. Or he can reject them all and go with his own fourth option. He is not simply a passive broker of low-level bureaucrats, and he enjoys access to additional sources of information that most of his subordinates simply
segment the three policy issue areas under consideration. Pyongyang viewed Washington’s policy as fundamentally hostile and committed to regime change. As these ideas became increasingly accepted in Pyongyang, internal debate on U.S. policy faded away. External events effectively silenced cabinet advocacy on U.S. policy. Short-term gains in diplomacy had little prospect for success and did not have long-lasting impact during this time. Though not responsible for North Korea’s sovereign choices,