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In North Korea, The Dynasty Holds Firm

Most of what appears in the press about North Korea is either obvious (horrible regime, starving people, psychotic diplomacy, nukes) or speculative (it will reform/it won’t reform/the Kims are secure/they aren’t secure). Much better than the usual swill is a recent piece of  analysis from B.R. Myers in the NYT that highlights the stability and traditions that hold North Korea together:

[T]here is no evidence of significant disagreement inside the ruling elite in regard to any issue…

In any case, the notion that army generals or any other important faction would object to Kim Jong-un’s takeover was an improbable one to begin with; no North Korean could oppose the hereditary succession without being opposed to the state itself. Such an attitude is unlikely to be held by anyone in the ruling elite.

What outsiders often don’t get about North Korea (the DPRK in dipspeak, for the “Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea”) is the graft of modern totalitarianism onto very traditional Korean roots that shapes the way the rulers and their lieutenants see their task.

Historically, Korea had three characteristics still on view in the North.  It was legitimist: before the Kim family popped up, there had been only three ruling dynasties in two thousand of years of Korean history.  Few cultures have shown this kind of attachment to their rulers; it is not all that surprising that the North Korean elite likes to rally around the ruling house.

Second, Korean regimes have been ideological.  In some ways traditional Korean rulers were more Confucian than the Chinese.  Often, Korean Confucian ideas were more rigid and more highly developed than in China; as Kim Il Sung became more rigidly Red than either the Soviets or the Chinese, he was following a well trodden path in Korean cultural history.

Third, Korean history has often been marked by suspicion of the outside world.  Known as the “Hermit Kingdom” because of its reclusiveness in the 19th century, Korea opened late to trade and ideas from abroad, and was almost immediately dragged into the Japanese Empire.  The experiences of the twentieth century — Japanese occupation and devastating warfare — probably confirmed many North Koreans in their desire to keep the external world at bay and strengthened the desire of the elite to secure a nuclear deterrent.

One useful way to understand the DPRK is to see how the Kim dynasty is using the tools of modern totalitarian technology to enforce a distorted version of a very traditional Korean reality on its society.  Tales of supernatural wonders and preternatural powers in the ruling house also fit the traditional bill. This cocktail of moral philosophy bound with dynastic rule is strong.

I make no predictions about the future of North Korea.  But those who don’t look at the present in the context of Korean history may overestimate the fragility of the regime. Like its predecessors the Silla (57BC-c 918 AD), Koryo (918-1392) and Joseon (1392-1910) dynasties, the Kim dynasty (1945-??) lives on.

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  • Toni

    Off topic: Prof. Mead, I believe that in Via Meadia’s early days, you published a sort of mission statement. Might it not be a good idea to do so again? You have many newcomers, and frankly I don’t remember well enough to know whether my frequent, and frequently garrulous, posts are on point.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    The contrast between North and South Korea, is as stark as any where on Earth. The North is stagnate with population of 24.5 million that barely grows, a GDP of $40 Billion and per capita income of $1,600, while the South has double the population at 48.8 million which is growing, and a GDP of $1.459 Trillion 36 times the Norths, and a per capita of $30,000 18 times the impoverished North. These numbers argue against you, the North’s government would have been secure in the distant past, but in the present environment with their fellow Koreans to the South thriving, and even the Chinese doing much better than them, the North Koreans must be chaffing under the incompetence of their leadership. I believe that the only thing keeping the Norths Government in power, is blackout of information getting to the people, because if the could see the contrast between how they live and how the South lives, they would revolt.

  • Gary L

    Very interesting – so the three previous Korean dynasties ruled for 975, 474 and 518 years, respectively, a mean of 665 years. This means that we can confidently predict the Kim dynasty will utterly collapse into total oblivion early in the 27th Century – unless they can somehow unlock the survival secrets of the Silla dynasty, and prolong their rule into the early 30th Century. The clock is ticking!

  • Lorenzo from Oz

    Jacksonian Libertarian: if mass starvation does not shake the regime, comparison with states the local populace has no access to knowledge about is hardly likely to do so.

    Prof: nice summary of the relevant patterns in Korean history. I recently posted on the atavism of totalitarianism, so I found your informative post analytically reassuring.

  • Gary L

    Jacksonian Libertarian is like:

    “I believe that the only thing keeping the Norths Government in power, is blackout of information getting to the people, because if they could see the contrast between how they live and how the South lives, they would revolt.”

    According to the article I’m linking to, there is a fair amount of South Korean culture that is finding its way north, particularly the sublime genre of opera.

    Soap opera, that is.,8599,1933096,00.html

  • Anthony

    AI: Policy, Politics, and Culture – Focus and Themes subsume proportion and contemporary place ancillary given specific historical and contextual American condition (contemporary predilections/changes notwithstanding – reflection of unsolved American identity problem and psychological malaise).

  • Anthony

    Post @6 incorrectly placed in wrong Quick Take.

  • Derek Footer

    And yet, South Korea is Korea too, and their experience is quite different than that of North Korea. Dynasties last because they satisfy the basic needs of the population and no alternative is seen. I suspect this is true of past Korean dynasties, and is certainly not true of the current one. While I think that the points the professor makes help explain why the Kims have lasted so long, it is not nearly as predictive regarding their longevity as is implied.

  • ed

    My ancestors were farmers for 5000 years. I’m an accountant. Funny how modern life does that to traditions.

    South Korea (also part of the ancient Korean dysnasties) has dropped the concept of hereditary leadership in the post war period. Funny how people accept democracy when given half a chance.

  • Punditarian

    Delighted, Professor Mead, that you succinctly and correctly identify the old Korean roots of the DPRK’s monarchy. My only quibble would be to say that the ancien regime (like the present regime) was not Confucian, but rather neo-Confucius. The Master Kung emphasized the obligations of the father to the son, of the husband to the wife, of the older brother to the younger brother, and of the ruler to the people. In contrast, although emphasizing the importance of these same relationships, the neo-Confucians emphasized the obligations of the son to the father, of the younger brother to the older brother, of the wife to the husband, and of the people to the ruler.

    Identity cards, punishing 3 generations for crimes of disloyalty, xenophobia, and near-starvation poverty were prominent features of late Yi Dynasty Korea — and very obvious in the DPRK today.

    The transformation of the RoK into a modern, largely free-market, largely democratic republic, however, indicates that this cultural heritage can be transcended. Let’s hope sooner rather than later.

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