In a country where the level of surveillance, coercion, and control is enough to make Foucault blush, the implications of North Korea’s social structure on the behavior of its people go largely uncovered in the literature. In an effort to buck this trend, London School of Economics graduate Alexander James employs the theoretical approach of sociologist and LSE’s former director Anthony Giddens to explore the relationship between the order of society and the actions of individuals in North Korea. His tripartite dissection of North Korea society highlights the restrictions it places on the agency of both elites and common folk. Implications abound for the prospects of reform. - Steven Denney, Managing Editor
North Korea’s Reform Straitjacket: Impossible Choices for Kim Jong-un & Co.
by Alexander James
Since Kim Jong-un came to power, the longstanding dichotomy in North Korean analyst circles between collapsists and reformists has seemingly swung in favor of the reformists. From amnesties and the “6.28 Measures” to short skirts and indigenous iPads, suggestions of change have not gone unnoticed by the more optimistic observer. But what if Kim Jong-un and North Korea’s ruling elite at-large are not free to choose a different path for their country? What if they are as constrained by its myths, its identity, and its conventions as the North Korean populace? Prevailing physical conditions still matter as prophylactics to change in North Korea but more fundamental still is an element that few have held aloft to scrutiny: North Korea’s social structure.
Easily misunderstood, North Korea’s social structure has failed to garner much air-time or column inches in mass media. Admittedly, sanctions, skinny jeans, and increased tourism are far more fun to read (and write) about. But their existence, and their analysis, rarely prompts the key question: have any of these elements, either individually or collectively, fundamentally rebalanced North Korea’s state or society in the last decade? An objective evaluation would indicate not. As Christopher Green and Steven Denney recently put it, “any over-reading [of ‘reforms’ in North Korea] that has gone on reflects wishful thinking and optimistic expectation overwhelming reality.” These are things that Peter Hayes might call “epiphenomenal.”
Toward a Structural View of the DPRK | Rather than getting caught up with microscopic indications of reform, we need instead to look at particular social structures. So what do we mean by social structures? Anthony Giddens, former Director of the London School of Economics (and he of “The Third Way” fame), theorized that our everyday human actions gradually embed a certain framework within society’s consciousness of how we should act, resulting in the formation of particular institutions, language, traditions, and established ways of doing things. Over time these structures create expectations within society and ultimately enforce restrictions on human agency.
A break with these structures is possible, but for a regime dependent on the continuation of the status-quo this is no easy task. Still, a regime cannot rule by fear and hunger alone and the “performance” of everyday actions — for example, schoolchildren reciting the feats of Kim Il-sung or citizens taking the almost ritualistic (and often tedious) trip to the office — normalizes North Korea’s unique way of life for its citizens without an overt need for forcible coercion. For those who question why North Koreans have yet to rise up and rebel, the embedded routine, continuity, and normality of life (as James Pearson excellently highlights) is a good place to look.
North Korea’s social norms are not simply confined to the masses: the ruling elite, Kim Jong-un included, must also be seen to adhere to a set of expectations so as to maintain the social capital of the regime and the legitimacy of the institutions that prop it up. Specifically, Kim Jong-un & Co. rely upon three main social structures:
Regardless of the guiding hand of the regime, North Korea’s ideology and ideological propaganda have now become almost self-perpetuating. From its Juche and Songun philosophies to its cult of personality and anti-Americanism, ideology is a tide that cannot be stemmed. As Lord David Alton, Chairman of the United Kingdom’s North Korea All-Party Parliamentary Group, put it, North Koreans have become “victims of an ideology that has become [a] prisoner of its own rhetoric”.
A central tenet of North Korean ideology, Juche has been defined by Kenneth Quinones, Professor of Korean Studies at Akita International University, as the “essence of self-determination” (from the Chinese character ju, meaning ‘rule’, and che, meaning ‘essence’). Whether this is attributed to the Confucian logics of self-defense and sovereignty, Korea’s struggles with Japan, Marxism-Leninism, race-based nationalism, or even Kim Il-sung’s understanding of Woodrow Wilson’s concept of colonial self-rule, is debatable. One certainty, however, is that Juche allows many of the current elite to remain stakeholders in a regime that must retain control to survive.
In Kongdan Oh and Ralph C. Hassig’s North Korea: Through the Looking Glass, the authors ask:
Do the elite believe in Juche? Probably they believe in the attainability of socialism, the virtues of nationalism, and the heroic qualities of the late Kim Il Sung. Yet even while believing, they realize something has gone badly wrong…. If the truth is ever revealed, the Kim regime will collapse…Thus the elite and the masses are bound by fifty years of ideology and myth… In a larger sense, the content of Juche is not its most constricting feature; rather, it is ideology. (emphasis added)
The persistence of Juche in the daily lives of North Koreans has created an overarching social structure which all must live under — for better or worse. Where all and sundry were originally compelled to obey Juche’s wisdom, Juche ideology is mostly learned for the average North Korean today, leading Brian Myers to claim that the “people are kind of working with the regime.” For the regime’s elite, Juche remains an idealized Weltanschauung used to buttress the existing political culture and legitimize their decision-making. Writing on his return from North Korea in April 2012, Ruediger Frank noted:
I am not alone in arguing that what makes North Korea’s system so sustainable is its ideology…Once accepted, it becomes unchallengeable…To be sure, such a status is difficult to achieve and therefore highly valuable. It takes a long time to be built and for its sustainability needs symbols and rituals that are replicated and performed again and again. Importantly, there is little room for flexibility: in order to turn a process into a ritual and an image into an icon, stability and consistency are key strategies.
For Kim Jong-un and the ruling elite to be seen to break with the central tenets of this ideology would be akin to suicide. Just one sign of acquiescence to its enemies, a loosening of its efforts to blockade information from the masses, or even one Starbucks opening in downtown Pyongyang, would shatter the illusion that the regime has strived so hard to preserve. To protect regime legitimacy, North Korea’s ideology obliges Kim Jong-un to believe the hype.
Whether imagined or real, the idea of insecurity is a powerful political tool — particularly for a totalitarian state. Reactions to threats can easily be taken out of the “normal” political realm and presented to a public as requiring extraordinary countermeasures, e.g. imperial aggressors require nuclear deterrence. The North Korean regime has managed the transition from the very real threat of the Cold War to the largely imagined notion of insecurity today by simply continuing to build its institutions upon militarism, fear, ethnic purity, victimization, and struggle.
The absence of overtly physical threats is largely unimportant. Instead, the articulation of threat through institutions (schools, workplaces, national holidays, media outlets, language) and society’s reactions to these threats are more significant. Hostility towards Japan, the United States, and South Korea’s ruling elite are not just vitriol; they are essential components within a social narrative that physically manifests itself in nuclear weaponry, brinksmanship, and internal violence. Accordingly, the regime’s trick of converting invisible threats into tangible resistance maintains a climate of fear in a society that has largely accepted its leadership as a necessity.
Best highlighting the relationship between human agency and the power of North Korea’s invisible social structures is the institution of class. As deterministic for every North Korean’s life-chances as any other structure, the idea of class and its myriad of unwritten rules reign supreme across the northern half of the Korean peninsula. An unspoken but explicitly understood tripartite system of “core,” “wavering,” and “hostile” divisions presents a set of expectations for citizens where only those who conform wholeheartedly to social norms can hope to prosper.
Money and power can largely exclude one from society’s confines, but even corrupt or powerful elites must bow to certain expectations. Andrei Lankov rightly notes a gradual erosion of the material rewards and pitfalls associated with class in North Korea. Giddens, however, warns that social structures will remain in the memories of individuals who make up a society. One point is assured though: for as long as class dictates the make-up of Pyongyang’s residents, the look of the ruling elite, and even those who may prosper abroad, the social influence of class will remain.
The Show Must Go On | It is clear that the continuation of North Korea’s unique social structure is not a given. Instead, it is an outcome of the active involvement of North Korean society, from top to bottom. The internalization of social rules over sixty years has seen institutions and conventions prosper, meaning that the mutually reinforcing circles of human agency and structure will now be difficult to break. Even if Kim Jong-un’s Western education, love of basketball, and desire for greater foreign capital is as significant to reform as many commentators would have us believe, North Korea’s social structures will continue to confine his ostensibly reformist desires. North Korea’s elite, that is the most powerful first-generation players in its military, economic, and political institutions (termed as “system guardians” by Nicolas Levi) continue to reinforce institutional stability. Whether the capitalist-leanings of North Korea’s growing technocratic class or third-generation elites can reform these powerful institutions in the long-run is open to debate, but for now, the watchword remains “status-quo.” Beliefs and values may not be set in stone, but they do not change quickly, and we would be wise to ease our expectations of change in North Korea for the year ahead.
Alexander James is a graduate of the London School of Economics and a writer for NKNews and Korea Times.
Anthony Giddens, The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration (Oxford: Polity Press, 1984).
Kenneth Quinones, ‘Juche’s Role in North Korea’s Foreign Policy’ In Tae-Hwan Kwak and Seung-Ho Joo (eds.) North Korea’s Foreign Policy Under Kim Jong Il: New Perspectives (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), 15-37.
Kongdan Oh and Ralph C. Hassig, North Korea: Through the Looking Glass (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2000), 39, 186-187.
Categories: Economic Reform
Tags: Anthony Giddens and North Korea, Insecurity in North Korea and reform, North Korea's class-based society and reform, North Korea's ideology and reform, North Korea's social structure, Pierre Bourdieu and North Korea, Sociology, Sociology and North Korea, Toward a structural view of the DPRK, Towards a structural view of the DPRK, Why North Korea cannot reform