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.