Red Box, Blue Box, Green Box: Arguing against Institutional Pluralism

By | February 08, 2013 | 4 Comments

Morning Aurora at the Juche Tower in Pyongyang, December 2012 | Image courtesy KCTV/KCNA

Morning Aurora at the Juche Tower in Pyongyang, December 2012 | Image courtesy KCTV/KCNA

In a recent post entitled “Bad Institutions,” Stephan Haggard suggests that the Korean People’s Army is likely behind the fiery official rhetoric and threats of a third nuclear test that Pyongyang is now producing on a daily basis. By way of evidence, he points to a belligerent statement put out by the National Defense Commission, an institution stacked with military personnel, and an enlarged meeting of the Central Military Commission. Whatever else these events may imply, however, what they tell Christopher Green is that now is as good a time as any to challenge the notion that Kimjongilist North Korea ever moved into a post-totalitarian institutional age.– Steven Denney, Managing Editor

Red Box, Blue Box, Green Box: Arguing against Institutional Pluralism

by Christopher Green

Introduction: Haruki’s “Guerrilla State” | In the early 1990s, while South Korea was starting along the road to democratic consolidation, North Korea had become, according to Japanese historian Wada Haruki, a “guerrilla state.”[1] And so it remains. The regime holds to a fluctuating state of emergency, providing itself with just cause to force people into never-ending “marches” towards unattainable goals, or from one “arduous” state of affairs to another. This is then rhetorically justified with recourse to external, and existential, threats to the country’s sovereign autonomy.

This bunker mentality has long justified both the regime’s militaristic orientation and the fact that an extraordinary number of military officers are billeted with key political institutions– a trend that, according to Stephan Haggard and Luke Herman, has increased since 1996. The composition and outward orientation of the regime is a natural reflection of the preeminence of the songun (선군정치/“military-first”) political line that governs domestic policy priorities. While some of the threats regularly cited on the pages of Korean Central News Agency (조선중앙통신) and Rodong Sinmun (로동신문/Workers’ Daily) are arguably real, prioritizing the military is primarily a domestic concern: keeping tensions high thwarts any potential challenger to the regime, provides a good excuse to clamp down on the societal spread of external information, and allows prior claims of impending economic development to lapse into insignificance without serious social consequences.

Songun, then, is predominantly about power. Or, as Daniel Pinkston would have it, “Power is not only critical to songun politics, power is the only thing in songun politics.” In a rigidly centralized political system where power is concentrated in the suryong (수령님/supreme leader) and his closest confidants, the notion that a plurality of opinions from competing power centers would be tolerated, much less entertained, defies both intuition and, according to our research, investigation. There is no debate—not one in bloom or in the making.

Image via Global Times

Image via Global Times

Stamping out Debate and Stepping Outside the Box: Challenging the Post-Totalitarian Thesis | Scholars do generally agree that the North Korea ruled by Kim Il-sung between 1945 and 1994 (ruled physically and in-person, rather than supernaturally[2]) showed, from the 1960s onwards and broadly in lockstep with the growing power of Kim Jong-il, all the major traits of a totalitarian state. This meant the unification of the three major hierarchies (those of power, money/property, and knowledge/science), an amalgamation that dramatically limited the personal sphere of the nation’s subjects and reduced to vanishing point the ability of a civil society to exist, much less to come to terms with and restrict state power. This, in the words of an entry in the Big Soviet Encyclopedia, led to a state with “absolute control over all aspects of life… complete regulation by the state of all legal organizations, discretionary power in the hands of the rulers, prohibition of all democratic organizations, and liquidation of constitutional rights and freedoms.”[3]

Conversely, the “post-totalitarian institutionalism” thesis that has dominated the latter Kim Jong-il era points toward something different: a debate, played out in part on the pages of the state media, wherein different actors compete for Kim Jong-il’s ear in an attempt to win him over to a more, or less, belligerent policy position. Unlike perfect totalitarianism, which leaves no room for external actors to affect internal policy decisions, post-totalitarian institutionalism allows for divergent views on a single issue- some more liberal, and others more hardline. As such, the actions of third parties can be crucial in drawing the body politic in a preferred direction.

Alas, however, a thesis born largely of analysis of the North Korean state media is fraught with danger, and this one is no different. We know that Kim Jong-il abandoned Politburo gatherings and Central Committee plenums, instead meeting with individuals. He solicited reports from the heads of Central Committee departments, read them, and then decided what actions should be taken. Power flowed down from his signature to departmental heads, then to the section chiefs and individual bureaucrats who unquestioningly implemented his decrees.

One such former high-ranking bureaucrat in Pyongyang scoffed at the very thought of a competition in the state media, declaring unequivocally in an interview for this paper that nothing of any import has ever been published in the North Korean state media without the suryeong’s assent; to do so would be unimaginable.

In short, therefore, post-totalitarian institutionalism represents a substantive overstating of not only North Korea’s progress out of Kimilsungist totalitarianism in the era of Kim Jong-il, but also of the role of the state media in the policy discourse.

Kim Jong-un In Command of Communications, December 12, 2012. Via CBS News.

Kim Jong-un In Command of Communications, December 12, 2012. Via CBS News.

Not Even Weber Could Have Known: Beyond Charismatic Politics | The deep roots of North Korean totalitarianism lie not only in the undisputed political acumen of Kim Jong-il: in addition, there is nowhere on earth where more effort or per capita resources have been poured into attempting to maintain and continuously refresh a form of charismatic leadership than in North Korea.[4] Primarily due to the totalitarian imperative to maintain a vice-like grip over inflows and outflows of information, external researchers are only just catching up with the complex web of interrelated propaganda methodologies that have been in constant use since the death of Kim Il-sung in July 1994 to keep the totalitarian flame alive.

As noted by Kwon and Chung, the charismatic and, thanks to his background as a partisan guerrilla battling Imperial Japan in Manchuria, uniquely legitimate leadership of Kim Il-sung has been transformed from a historical dead end into a genetic fait accompli for the so-called “Mount Baekdu bloodline.” They have stretched every sinew of the notion of a charismatic leader, and in that way extended the Kim family’s ruling legitimacy backward as far as Kim’s parents, and forward to his son, Kim Jong-il, and grandson, Kim Jong-un. This has not allowed the leadership to maintain a complete monopoly over the country’s 24 million hearts and minds, but it has certainly granted them the levers of hyper-centralized decision-making required to control policy from its conception through to implementation.[5]

This act of going beyond charismatic leadership has evident implications for the post-totalitarian institutionalism thesis. To explain by way of example, there is in reality almost no evidence to suggest that North Korean nuclear and missile policy in late 2012 and early 2013 has been influenced in any way whatsoever by an institutional debate carried out on the pages of the North Korean state media, as the post-totalitarian institutionalism thesis implies should have been the case. Rather, if we look at just the most recent events in that particular drama, it is clear that there is an orchestrating body controlling which institutions (조선로동당/Korean Workers’ Party, 내각/Cabinet (and subordinate entities), and 조선인민군/military/국방위원회/National Defense Commission) speak at which times, what they say and, equally critically, what they do. By incorporating information received from civilian sources inside North Korea, the signs of totalitarian decision-making become even more visible.

  • December 10, 2012: The Korean Committee of Space Technology (조선우주공간기술위원회) whose specific institutional make-up is not known, releases a statement announcing that the window for a long-range rocket launch previously scheduled for some time between the December 10 and 18 is to be pushed back to a period ending on December 28th.
  • December 12, 2012: The rocket launch goes ahead, within the original launch window.
  • January 7, 2013: Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, arrives in Pyongyang. The trip follows a visit by North Korean officials to the headquarters of Google on April 1, 2011.
  • January 10, 2013: Eric Schmidt departs Pyongyang.
  • January 15, 2013: Seoul-based Daily NK reports that the Korean Workers’ Party Propaganda and Agitation Department (a Party entity) describes the visit as the head of a “famous Internet company” coming to congratulate North Korea on its successful rocket launch.
  • January 22, 2013: The UN Security Council adopts Resolution 2087 in response to the December 12 missile test, which was performed in violation of existing UN resolutions.
  • January 22, 2013 (two hours later): North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (a state administrative entity) releases a statement criticizing the UN decision.
  • January 23, 2013: North Korea’s National Defense Commission (a military entity) releases a statement condemning the UN decision in harsher words and stating North Korea’s determination to conduct further missile launches and nuclear tests “targeting the United States.”
  • January 25, 2013: Kim Jong-un leads a meeting of security and foreign affairs officials in Pyongyang (spanning the Party, state administration and military), during which he announces that the North will take “great national steps” in response to the UN resolution. It is widely reported on state television.
  • January 29, 2013: The National Defense Commission (military), which Kim chairs, declares a state of martial law, requiring added security measures on the ground, the calling up of reservists and halting of all leave for enlisted men.
  • January 30, 2013: Local level civilian lectures overseen by the Korean Workers’ Party cell structure (Party) inform assembled citizens, “The alliance of imperialists including the UN are sanctioning us to try and crush socialism in the only such country left in the world,” and that “The new Park Geun Hye administration wants to start a war with us, so people from every organ, enterprise and Worker and Peasant Red Guard unit must prepare to meet the threat.”

We do not yet know with any certainty whether decisions of national importance such as these are now being made by Kim Jong-un alone or by a clique of main players (Kim, Kim Jong-il’s sister Kim Kyung-hee, her husband Jang Sung-taek and possibly others), but it is clear that they are not the outcome of an organic period of debate and inter-agency wrangling. The range of agencies involved in creating the overall narrative also extends far past the military, which is normally singled out when North Korea takes a harder line position on matters of national security. Rather, it shows the hallmarks of inter-agency pre-planning, top down decision-making, deliberate deception and a focus on unequivocal pursuit of the national interest. As a revolutionary state with a genetically pre-ordained charismatic leader applying the logic of a guerrilla army to all state functions, this is not surprising: there is no room for debate here, only strict obedience to orders from above. Sources in Pyongyang agree.

However, caveat emptor, for it is interesting to note that sources in Pyongyang also assert that decision-making structures lower down the order of importance are finally beginning to fray in the post-Kim Jong-il era. They say that although the missile launch and nuclear test issue is being carefully choreographed by people accustomed to the guiding hand of Kim Jong-il and who are clinging tight to his last instructions (유훈정치/rule by the last injunctions of the dead), minor decisions are now going un-decreed; there appear to be stovepipes buckling under the weight of a transitional dictatorship. In the parlance of a mafia organization, there are the soldati and the consigliere, but is the new capofamiglia up to the task? With the right balance of incentives, the inspired propaganda of charismatic politics and outright threats of violence, stability will return. But for now, there are cracks in the edifice.Kim Jong Il 1942-2011 Photo Biography 007

- This is an abridged excerpt from “Towards a Developmental Understanding of North Korea,” an article currently on the docket of SinoNK Assistant Editor Christopher Green and Managing Editor Steven Denney. The article seeks to explain why North Korea has failed to follow the same path as its fellow East Asian neighbors through an institutional approach focusing on the state bureaucracy (the “pilot programs” made famous by institutions like MITI in Japan and the EPB in Korea). Further excerpts will be posted on SinoNK following publication, including transcripts of research interviews and the main findings.


[1] Wada Haruki, Kim Il Sunggwa Manju Hangil Cheonjaeng.

[2] Famously, Kim Il-sung remains “Eternal President of the DPRK,” just as Kim Jong-il is now both “Eternal Chairman of the National Defense Commission” and “Eternal General-Secretary of the Korean Workers’ Party.”

[3] Alexander Korchak, Contemporary Totalitarianism.

[4] Heonik Kwon and Byung-Ho Chung, North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics.

[5] Among the many titles and posts held by Kim Jong-un, the positions of First Secretary of the Workers’ Party and First Chairman of the National Defence Commission are most indicative of the total control the young dictator holds over the decision-making process. The only people outranking Kim Jong-un, at least on paper, are his father and grandfather. Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il were awarded posthumous eternal positions of a rank higher than Kim Jong-un’s.

4 Comments

  1. Very nice stuff.

    With reference to: “Scholars do generally agree that the North Korea ruled by Kim Il-sung between 1945 and 1994 (ruled physically and in-person, rather than supernaturally[2]) showed, from the 1960s onwards and broadly in lockstep with the growing power of Kim Jong-il, all the major traits of a totalitarian state.”

    It may perhaps even be said that the rise of Kim Jong-il was a crucial factor in *cementing* North Korea’s totalitarianism (as opposed to loosening it)!

  2. Chris Green’s is an interesting perspective in the ongoing debate about institutional pluralism in North Korea. Green argues that North Korea may yet be a totalitarian state. I agree that the “charisma” part of “routinized charisma” (thank you Weber) gives rise to these occasional waves or extra-procedural meetings and top-down initiatives. But we cannot underestimate the effects of the “routinized”, day-to-day bureaucratic operations of the state, military, and party. It’s easy to analyze what sticks out and what is new. The challenge when studying North Korea at any level is getting a handle on the routine, ordinary institutional and private life as it quietly carries on, largely unobserved by the outside world.

  3. Many thanks for this thoughtful and useful piece. One small slip, that you probably already know about: the family name of the author of the guerilla state analysis, the Japanese historian, Wada Haruki, is Wada.

  4. Thank you, Richard!

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