Four Survival Rules for a Young Dictator

So, Marshal Kim Jong Il, the lodestar of the 21st century, is dead, and his impoverished country is going to be run by his son Kim Jong Un, who might be the world’s youngest four-star general. This sudden power transfer produced much speculation about North Korea’s future. Will the country survive? If so, what will be the policy of the new leadership?

There are hopes for reform – as one should expect. These hopes are not necessarily unfounded, but it seems more likely that the next few years will not produce dramatic changes in North Korea. There is a good reasons for this: the set of policies which was conducted by Kim Jong Il has little if any alternative.

This might sound strange, sicne Kim Jong Il has been often described in the international media as ‘irrational’. This accusation, however, is seriously misleading. Kim Jong Il’s policies were anything but irrational. They served one overriding goal, that of regime survival, perfectly well. And if judged according to that, these policies have been remarkably successful: the Kim Family remained in control against almost impossible odds.

What are the basic rules young General Kim should learn from his father, now late, Marshall Kim? What should he do – or rather, what should he not do – in order to ensure the stability of his realm and enjoy manifold perks of his position?

The major principles of Kim Jong Il’s policies can be summed up in four simple rules.

Rule Number One: Don’t reform, don’t emulate China.

For more than twenty five years, one frequently encountered statements and predictions about the alleged willingness of North Korean leadership to embark on a path of Chinese-style reforms in near future. All these predictions, however, have eventually been proven wrong. Kim Jong Il clearly had no intention of emulating the seemingly ‘irresistible’ Chinese example.

The late dictatorship was probably right to not take the Chinese path. The North Korean situation is very different to that of China. The difference is created by the presence of an unbelievably prosperous (at least, by North Korean standards) rival state which is populated by people speaking the same language and belonging to the same nation.

In case of Chinese-style reforms, the North Korean public would soon learn more about the success of South Korea.Such reforms would also entail a relaxation of social controls. In China this did not produce much impact, to be sure, but China’s situation is different: the Beijing regimes does not face a successful twin (Taiwan is too small to make a difference).

In the case of divided North Korea it seems likely that an attempt at such reforms would not lead to a Chinese-style economic boom, but rather produce results similar to what we saw two decades ago in East Germany. As soon as the East Germans realized that the Soviet Union would not get involved in their domestic affairs, they immediately challenged the regime and demanded unification with the prosperous West.

Rule Number Two: The Nuclear Weapons Program should be kept.

For a majority of the international audience, North Korea is, above all, a nuclear program. This (mis)perception is not entirely unfounded because the North Korean nuclear potential is by far the most important reason why the outside world cares about this small and impoverished country.

From the point of view of Pyongyang, this potential serves two different objectives. First, North Korean leadership needs nuclear weapons as a deterrent. They believe (perhaps correctly) that as long as they maintain a nuclear potential, they are unlikely to be invaded by any or attacked by any foreign state. Frankly, after the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq it is impossible to discard this fear as completely groundless.

The sorry fate of Gaddafi is especially important because Gaddafi did what North Koreans have always refused to do – he swapped his nuclear program for economic concessions. From the North Korean point of view, the Libyan experience is further confirmation that the nuclear weapons program could be useful, decisive perhaps in maintaining the regime in case of an insurrection. Rightly or wrongly, Pyongyang leaders believe that the success anti-Gaddafi forces was due to the support from the West. They also believe that the West would not have dared to intervene had Gaddafi kept his nuclear weapons program.

Another important function of the North Korean nuclear program is its role as a blackmail tool. Without it, North Korean diplomats would have a much harder time of squeezing aid from the outside world. Objectively speaking, North Korea is an impoverished, small country, whose GDP and population are roughly similar to Ghana or Mozambique. Only the existence of nuclear and to a lesser extent, missile programs, make great powers pay attention to the Kim family domain. Needless to say, this attention usually translates into handsome payoffs squeezed from the outside world for real or supposed concessions regarding the nuclear program. Without nuclear weapons, North Korea would become, so to say, ‘Turkmenistan without gas’. It would lose its ability to manipulate and extort its great power donors.

Rule Number Three: Dissent must not be tolerated.

For decades, North Korea has been unique, even among dictatorships, in that it had no known dissent. Since the 1950s, there are no North Korean Sakharovs, Havels, or Liu Shaobios. North Koreans are aware that the best way to bring upon themselves a very painful end is to criticize the government and is ideology. By doing so they also known that it would ruin the lives of their families, and therefore few, if any, are willing to do so.

From the point of view of the government, this policy is extremely important, since North Korea faces a serious existential threat. If North Koreans are allowed to talk politics, they are highly likely – almost certain – to compare their lives with the lives of their Southern brethren. This is of course not what the North Korean government wants them to do. In the peculiar case of North Korea, zero tolerance of dissent is the only way to ensure the survival of the regime. It is made easier by the well-established traditions of survival and control, which were once created by Generalissimo Kim Il Sung, the regime’s founder.

Rule Number Four (the most tricky one): Markets and spontaneous marketization must be contained and whenever possible, rolled back – but this should be done with extreme caution.

Indeed, North Korea has changed much over the last fifteen years. In spite of all government efforts to the contrary, the Soviet-style, hyper Stalinist, centralized economy has collapsed. The industrial output of the state sector is less than half of what it used to be in 1990. Most North Koreans make a living through manifold private business activities. Many, if not most, of these activities are not legal but officials are ready to overlook irregularities in exchange for a bribe.

In the new situation, the average North Korean family gets most of its income not from the state, but rather from this new private economy. North Koreans often skill obligatory attendance at state factories and use all imaginable ways to earn income at the market.

In the long run, these trends are dangerous for the regime –the entire surveillance system has for decades been based on the assumption that every adult North Korean works at some state-run factory or company. If a North Korean does not attend an assigned workplace however, she/he is below the authorities radar, and the authorities, understandably do not like this.

The market is also a place where rumors spread like wildfire, as well as a place where horizontal connections are easily formed. People who work here no longer see the state as they once did, as providers of a livelihood, but rather as a parasite. So markets are politically dangerous and ideologically subversive.

It is not incidental that the North Korean government has done its best to revive the North Korea of 1984 – not only the year of Orwell’s dystopia, but also the last year when the hyper-Stalinist economy worked as intended. In the long run, the growth of markets is dangerous for the regime and the regime’s decision makers understand this quite well.

That said, fighting markets is a delicate balancing act. Whilst the North Korean population appears to be docile, markets have seen many outbreaks of discontent and sometimes even open riots. None of these riots can be described as political, in most cases the riots (overwhelmingly middle-aged women, who make up the vast majority of traders) only minor and local changes in the rules which regulate market activities. Nonetheless, as the Tunisian experience has shown, such a riot can easily get out of control. Therefore it makes sense for the North Korean authorities to be careful. Markets constitute a long term threat and hence have to be kept under control. However, anti-market policies have to be well planned and executed with great caution. Excessive pressure might bring highly undesirable results, even triggering a serious crisis.


These four rules seem to be have been well understood by the late-Kim Jong Il and his advisors. Now Marshall Kim is dead, but his advisors are likely to continue their work with his young son. It remains to be seen whether he will take heed of their advice. But if he does, we can expect that young General Kim Jong Un will probably control his country for years or even decades to come.

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