Want To Be a Successful Dictator? Copy North Korea.
The White House has launched its review of U.S. policy toward the DPRK, making it a good time to dispel with the notion that the regime is unknown and unknowable, unpredictable and irrational, and to consider a number of international developments that dramatically shaped North Korea’s national security policy and domestic political institutions. As isolationist as North Korea’s leaders may be, they are nonetheless keen observers of developments around the globe. And while the regime is shaped in part by its own historical experiences and by the interpretation of Korea’s own past, the character of the regime is also shaped by what three generations of supreme leaders have learned from the experiences of other states over the past several decades. Based on an analysis of the declassified documents from the archives of North Korea’s former communist allies and of North Korea’s own media and publications, it is possible to understand how interpretations of these experiences shaped the current regime.
We consider five of those lessons.
Lesson number one: beware of the pitfalls in disclosing too much information
In February 1956, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev delivered a speech at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union denouncing the crimes and grotesque personality cult of the late dictator Joseph Stalin. The speech had far-reaching implications beyond the borders of the Soviet Union. As details of the so-called Secret Speech spread throughout the socialist camp, questions arose about the legitimacy of the Central and Eastern European regimes established under Stalin’s tutelage and the policy of strictly adhering to Soviet policies without consideration of local conditions. The negative response was sharpest in Poland and Hungary, where hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in opposition to Soviet influence.
North Korean leader Kim Il-sung, himself a beneficiary of direct Soviet support after the country’s liberation from Japan and also the subject of a state-sponsored personality cult which rivaled that of Joseph Stalin, observed the developments in Poland and Hungary with horror. According to Soviet sources, Kim blamed instability on the leaders of the Polish United Workers’ Party for their unwise decision to disclose the news of Khrushchev’s criticism of the late Soviet dictator to lower-ranking party members and, subsequently, to the masses. Determined to prevent a challenge to the socialist order in the DPRK, Kim concluded—incorrectly in the estimation of Soviet officials—that it would be necessary to keep news of the speech and of developments in other socialist countries from lower-ranking members of the ruling Workers’ Party of North Korea and from the population of the DPRK.
Yet, a small group of senior officials in the Workers’ Party of North Korea learned of the Secret Speech through their ties to the Soviet embassy in Pyongyang and criticized Kim’s personality cult at a party meeting in August 1956. The North Korean leader purged these officials, and he took steps to curtail political pluralism in the party. Kim also took steps to make North Korea impervious to foreign influences by minimizing the impact of the Soviet Union and China on the trajectory of political, cultural and economic developments in the country. By the mid-1960s, Kim had succeeded in eliminating political pluralism through the establishment of the Monolithic Ideological System, which made the word of the sovereign absolute.
Lesson number two: choose a successor who will remain loyal
Kim’s decision to make North Korea the only communist country to adopt the feudal practice of hereditary leadership succession is tied to messy succession processes in the Soviet Union and China. As noted above, not long after Stalin died without anointing a successor, Nikita Khrushchev betrayed the late Soviet dictator’s legacy by denouncing him in his Secret Speech. Mao, by contrast, was betrayed by his appointed successor, Lin Biao, while still living when the latter tried to overthrow him in a failed coup. It is not difficult to imagine that Kim—who believed himself a great revolutionary figure on par with Stalin and Mao—would seek to secure his legacy by selecting a trustworthy successor. North Korea’s own literature points to these episodes to justify the practice of hereditary leadership succession. In particular, the book Theory of Successor, published by Chosen Soren, clearly shows that North Korea learned from the mistakes of the Soviet Union in leadership succession.
Despite having learned this lesson from other communist countries, Kim’s decision to appoint his son, Kim Jong-il, as successor was not welcomed by all in the socialist camp. When officially announced in 1980, the People’s Daily, an official newspaper of the Communist Party of China, admonished the North Koreans for adopting the feudal practice.
By establishing the practice of hereditary leadership succession in North Korea, Kim il-Sung’s legacy remained intact. Indeed, the state-sponsored cult of personality has developed a mythology surrounding the Kim family that extends back several generations to include his grandparents and parents, with grandiose tales of staving off foreign invasion or leading resistance to Japanese authority. In doing so, the regime, now under the leadership of the third in the dynasty, Kim Jong-un, sought to reaffirm its legitimacy by demonstrating that the Kim family has fought for Korea for generations, and is therefore morally and politically justified to rule.
Lesson number three: never entrust your national security to others: