Domain Consensus: Engaging the Delury Argument on North Korean Reform

By | June 29, 2013 | 6 Comments

So is this how you form a domain consensus? Kim goes sailing | Image: KCNA

Leaving his charismatic politics ashore, Kim sails out into the waters between coercion and voluntary consensus. | Image: KCNA

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has unveiled grand blueprints for the future, and even intimated (via German intermediaries) that the sclerotic veins of the national economy may soon be open to a transfusion of foreign investment. In the long-suffering countryside, experiments in a few counties may be poised to sweep through the newly-transplanted fields with the winds of profitability. Pyongyang bedazzles with 24-hour electricity and nurtures a growing consumer culture. What’s not to like? According to Chris Green, plenty. Using a theoretical model of consensus developed to describe regime co-opting in massively corrupt Zaire in the 1970s, the Daily NK’s international manager delves into two recent strands of argument over the likelihood of reform with North Korean characteristics. — Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief

Domain Consensus: Engaging the Delury Argument on North Korean Reform

by Christopher Green

About two-thirds of the way into a recent essay for 38 North dealing with inter-Korean relations, Professor John Delury of Yonsei University enters a discussion on “trust-building” in which he asserts the following:

Kim [Jong-un]’s legitimacy is tied to “economic construction.”

Such an assertion may appear to be unassailable, but it nevertheless deserves to be debated on the merits, and from multiple perspectives. Does Kim Jong-un really need legitimacy as we tend to understand it? In theoretical terms, what Delury is referring to is the need for the North Korean ruling elite, like any ruling elite, to forge some form of “domain consensus” with those over whom it rules.

In the political arena, “domain consensus,” as by described by Thomas Callaghy, refers to a set of mutually agreed expectations of what the state can or cannot do. Though similar in appearance to the notion of “legitimacy,” a domain consensus is somewhat different, and more appropriate for use in describing the DPRK, because it does not necessarily come into being as a result of voluntary agreement.

There are three main types of domain consensus.

The first and most ideal type is voluntary and normative. Such a consensus emerges when citizens voluntarily accept the right of a given ruler(s) to rule, and voluntarily adhere to the norms that obtain under the prevailing system of governance. Democratic elections are helpful in reaching a voluntary, normative consensus, whereas in a dictatorship this task dwells predominantly in the realm of propaganda.  In both cases, rulers will use the tools at their disposal to propagate a set of values that may help engender those expectations that the ruled come to harbor (either consciously or subconsciously). In neither case do the values that are espoused need to be idealistic to enlightenment ears; the only requirement is that they be voluntarily accepted by the broad masses.

A second, rather less auspicious form is purely utilitarian, and involves bargaining. Under a utilitarian domain consensus, deals are struck between the ruler and the ruled over what each will undertake to do, but only in the expectation of earning a per-ordained return on the resulting investment in time and resources.

The final, and by far the least satisfactory, style of consensus is coercive. It is to the benefit of neither ruler nor ruled to live under a coercive domain consensus structure, and intelligent parties can be expected to try and avoid it if the cost of so doing is considered bearable. In earthy terms, a coercive domain consensus boils down to this: do what I say or I will shoot you.

The formation of a reliable, hardwearing and mutually understood domain consensus of any type enormously assists both parties in the pursuit of their obligations vis-à-vis the other, because it establishes boundary lines of failure beyond which responses, in the classical form of “voice” or “exit,” are likely to begin occurring.

Glass for every home and vehicle | Image: KCNA

Glass for every home and vehicle! | Image: KCNA

Kim Jong-un and the Framing of a New Consensus | What Professor Delury implicitly states in his 38 North essay is that North Korea is now employing the tools at its disposal to establish a domain consensus for Kim Jong-un’s rule, one that explicitly puts improving the lives of the people on the government’s side of the docket. In other words, Delury’s presumption is that if the government talks ad nauseum about improving the lives of the people, then that helps to frame a consensus — essentially a domain consensus — about what the state will or will not do: in this case, that it will improve the lives of the people. Ergo, the government must be pursuing this goal, because only a stupid or foolhardy government would put its energy into crafting a domain consensus that it had no intention of even attempting to fulfill.

Doin' it for the folks at home. Kim squats to check out the local soju. | Image: KCNA

Doin’ it for the folks at home. Kim squats to check out the local firewater. | Image: KCNA

Professor Delury is quite right when he notes, in a separate essay, that Kim Jong-un’s apparent focus on the economy marks a change from the way his father, Kim Jong-il, had operated. Indeed, the government of Kim Jong-il also pursued the formation of a revised domain consensus following the death of national founder Kim Il-sung in 1994. However, in that case the consensus was unrelated to improving the lives of the people. Foregoing the importance of butter, it pertained to one thing: guns.

Herein lay the value of Songun, the “Military-first political line” that gave ideological backbone (of a sort) to Kim’s 17-year rule. Established early in Kim’s tenure, the political elite, through the state media, used the principle of Songun to frame the limits of a domain consensus on the prioritization of military expenditure.

Of course, coercion played a major role in the day to day enforcement of Kim Jong-il’s rule, as it did in the Kim Il-sung era, and as it continues to do today. Yet the task of coercion is made easier when citizens are mostly able to predict what the government will do: under Kim Jong-il, this meant prioritizing the military at the expense of all else. Content was not critical: predictability was the key.

Delury’s evidence for the development of a new consensus is presented as follows (the numbers in the text have been added by the present author to signpost specific assertions):

1) The post-Kim Jong-il leadership has consistently signaled a commitment to improving the “people’s economy.” As James Church observed, 2) Kim Jong-un ascended to high office with the promise “not to make the people tighten their belts again,” and chided Party officials for their “outdated ideological point of view” in economic management, telling them to be more “creative and enterprising.” 3) Economic policy experimentation at the local levels in agriculture and industry has been carried out since last year, as confirmed recently by DPRK Academy of Social Sciences economist Ri Ki-song. On my last visit to Pyongyang, 4) officials explained that the key message of Respected Leader Kim Jong-un’s recent New Year’s Address was his call to “put all our efforts into economic development.” Even at the height of military tensions this spring, 5) Kim Jong-un held a special Central Committee meeting on March 31 at which he proclaimed a new “strategic line” of simultaneously strengthening nuclear deterrence and promoting “economic construction.” The same day, 6) technocrat Pak Pong-ju was promoted to the Politburo and on the following day named premier, taking up the position that Kim has insisted should have the lead role over the national economy.

With respect to all six of the assertions above, there is no disputing whether these events took place, and it is particularly worth noting that the North Korean people are in full possession of all the same information as Professor Delury. The obvious exception to this rule is (4), which was said in private to a group of foreign visitors, meaning that there was zero expectation on the North Korean side that the information conveyed would be heard by the domestic audience, the group we might here describe as the North Korean government’s “domain consensus partner.” Therefore, five of the six elements form part of what goes into the development of the Kim Jong-un era state-society domain consensus.

However, what Shirley Lee explains in her Sino-NK essay is that Professor Delury may have the “framework wrong.” Lee agrees that the North Korean government is seeking to create a new domain consensus with the citizenry, one sufficiently vague to survive the slings and arrows of the Kim Jong-un era. Problematically, though, she believes that while Delury has his facts straight, his interpretive framework leads him to misread them.

It is not hard to see where problems may lie. For example, 6): Pak Pong-ju. The Pak era of yore has long been described by observers of elite North Korean politics as a time of reform, revival, and hope in North Korea. Indeed, this is the most common interpretation of the early 2000s, when North Korea implemented the July 1st Economic Management Improvement Measure and appeared to the outside world to be making tentative steps toward economic reform.

However, speaking to ordinary citizens, one hears a different tale. To demographics of a certain age, 2002 was a time when people learned that their assets were not safe from the state and must be held beyond its reach. This was for one very good, but oft-unconsidered, reason: the 7.1. Measures raised prices and wages dramatically, which drastically eroded the value of liquid assets. This undermined the foundations of nascent businesses, and pushed people toward foreign currency. As one informant from Wonsan told this author, “We learned right then [in 2002] that you had to hold foreign currency to be secure.”

When he looks at North Korea and when he visits the country, Professor Delury perceives the existence of a tentative domain consensus on economic change, one upon which the state must now strive to make good. If he were right, the presence of that consensus would indeed indicate a growing likelihood of economic reform taking place. However, Lee sees an entirely different domain consensus being created; one linked to the communitarian demands of the pains that are set to continue in the era of Byungjin. Lee presumably does not expect economic improvement to follow, at least not for the reasons espoused by Delury.

Notably based on the results of my own conversations with North Korean informants, the evidence would appear to support the second view.


  1. I do not think Delury or Lee get it quite right here; but they are thinking in generally the appropriate direction. The problem in their analysis lies in 1) an over-emphasis on economy-related rhetoric of the KJU administration; and 2) the lack of analysis on how power-holders actually make decisions within a highly family-clan oriented political elite structure divided on military, pseudo-military, party, and cabinet lines.

    On the first point, I think Lee is correct to emphasize byungjin – after all the first major slogan plastered across the DPRK countryside after KJU took control was “선군조선의 태양 김정은장군 만세!” (it should be noted that this slogan was the direct replacement of “21세기의 태양 김정일장군 만세!” and the reference to the sun remains constant) and it is still an omnipotent presence throughout the country (the other slogan was a quick one character switch from “위대한 령도자 김정일동지 만세!” to “위대한 령도자 김정은동지 만세!”, as this was the economical thing to do after all of the yongsaengtap had to be re-carved at the expense of every local people’s committee and company). My point is that economic slogans and rhetoric are largely not found in isolation from other topics and still are greatly outnumbered by the standard DPRK slogans that people are used to from the KJI and KIS eras. Military first is hardly being replaced by an economic-growth-oriented policy outright, there are far too many influential players connected to (and who greatly benefit from) Military First Politics. Byungjin may be seen as a vague compromise, not as a total shift to economic development.

    This leads me to my second point. Elite politics in the DPRK revolve around family clans vying for influence within a strictly hierarchical structure (more feudal than anything else). [Pyongyang] Families align with other families (often through marriage, close friendships, and of course business relations), and are normally supported by only a handful of patrons in the ruling elite (or economic elite, but there is a decent amount of overlap at that level). Trust is hard to forge, so marriage is useful. What I’m getting to is that one demotion could spell doom for a large number of people within family alignment circles, and in the DPRK the general outlook of progress is within the context of a zero-sum-game. Keeping this in mind, there are certainly players who would like to see a shift – in policy, in focus, in hierarchy, etc – and of course others who would like to keep things (and thus their positions) where they are. This leads to a necessity on behalf of the KJU administration to make some sort of vague compromise – yes, they understand that ideally they would be able to shift towards economic development “grasp the people’s hearts” policies and seal KJU’s legitimacy that way (as Delury accurately points out), but that is a lot easier said than done. The “old guard” will surely fight back; they can escalate international tensions, encourage uncompromising rhetoric, even resort to internal sabotage – and they would like nothing more than to see up-and-coming individuals who could potentially replace them (not related to their family alliance circle) fall on their faces.

    Also, just a small aside, the day “Pyongyang bedazzles with 24-hour electricity” will be a day to remember. For those of us who have spent a significant amount of time in the city in recent years, I can assure you there is hardly 24-hour electricity… only in certain residential complexes (and hotels for foreigners). However, the city is certainly changing and there is a growing consumer culture.

  2. Matthew, these are some great comments!

    I very much agree with your first point, and that is a point I perhaps could have made even clearer – Byungjin is not exactly “reform”, it is “continuity” in very many ways.

    With regards to the second point, I generally agree with what you are saying. That is the point I tried to make by saying “power-politics” is more important in the minds of the players than “reform”. I also think, however, it’s more complex than “old” vs “new” guard, which gets dangerously close in some ways to the establishment view of seeing “reform” vs “hardline” factions.

    Great to see discussion like this.

  3. Hi Shirley,

    I totally agree with you here.

    Byungjin, and correct me if I’m wrong, is about the simultaneous progression of the military with the economy. Or at least that’s how it sounds to me – 並進 – 並 (병) meaning together, simultaneous, coupled; and 進 (진) meaning progress, moving forward, development. The concept is more about continuity (or I said vague compromise) and keeping power-holders satisfied, rather than a shift in any one direction.

    On your second point. Power politics is tied to reform, but not necessarily for reform’s sake, and reform here does not necessarily mean policy reform but rather development/innovation within the bounds of the current system (which I tell them all the time is not realistic). I noticed after KJI died, DPRK officials became a lot more interested in taking (economic) risks that can gain them greater influence. These were not huge, sweeping risks, but significant all the same. The general feeling on the street was (and still is) that if you were to succeed with a project during this time, it was easier to get promoted and garner influence. Now there are some serious concerns that it will fade away as people try to lock down their positions – I’ve been told of a soft “five year window” of greater potential mobility.

    When it boils down to it, factions do exist, but are not divided down “reform” and “hard-line” grounds – they are far less concerned about ideology than jostling for position. The same goes for “old” and “new” guard lines; still partially true, but incomplete as old guard families are generally not goal-aligned (there is no unified block so to speak), and the current system – with the Kim family at the top – is the glue that keeps everything together. However, economic positive and economic constant lines have been drawn (all within the bounds of the current structure, as calling for actual policy reform would be more or less tantamount to heresy unless you were already in a key position, and even then it would be done quietly as to not alert your enemies from within). What I’m getting at is the economy is seen as an essential tool towards improving one’s position (as well as family wealth), so there is a real drive to make improvements. But I would not actually call that reform-orientation. I tell them their problem is largely systematic and I still believe it to be true – unless policy is enacted to safeguard economic creativity, there is no real way to expand upon it beyond pet projects. To their credit, they are (trying to be) more innovative within approach and greatly hope successful economic projects may blossom into policy change. There is also belief among these folks that the administration wants it this way too.

  4. +1: “economy is seen as an essential tool towards improving one’s position.” Perhaps we could do some kind of project regarding this here at Sino-NK…!

  5. Let me know if you have anything specific in mind. I can probably help set it up…

  6. This is a conversation that ought to continue, there’s “boatloads” of potential here.

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