North Korea’s politics of governing

by December 19, 2010

It is normally a good practice, particularly when dealing with foreign countries one might end up at war with, to try one’s best to understand how they work and how they think. Some nations are more difficult to understand than others, but this is no excuse not to try. In the case of North Korea, however, there is a near-universal tendency to personalize the country’s politics by focusing only on Kim Jong Il, and to write him off in turn as an irrational mad man — a habit which makes it hard for neighbouring countries to weigh their actions against a theory of how the North Korean government views the world, and how it might respond to any given event.

So at this moment of high military tension along the North-South border, Patrick McEachern’s Inside the Red Box: North Korea’s Post-totalitarian Politics promises a welcome dose of realism and analysis. McEachern is a U.S. foreign service officer based in Seoul, and a former North Korea analyst with the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. His book, due for publication in the next few days, argues that North Korea is no longer run as a classically totalitarian state under the thumb of one man, but as a complex of contending powers — specifically the cabinet, the military, and the communist party — over which Kim Jong Il presides with “divide and rule” tactics. From McEachern’s first chapter:

The popular view that only one man matters in North Korea quickly breaks down upon investigation. One may hypothesize that policy reversals are a function of a dictator ultimately unsure of his own decisions and second-guessing himself. Of course, this does not square well with either the popular or the scholarly image of the dictator. Instead, Kim may be playing tactical games merely to sustain a regime lacking any existential purpose. This, too, inadequately explains a host of specific policy programs and general goals, such as reunification and anti-imperialism. Indeed, one may even label this cartoonish view of the North Korean state as a straw man; much more sophisticated views of the North Korean state exist that still present the state as some type of monolith.

A number of excellent accounts have been written about U.S.-North Korean negotiations. These explain in great detail the bureaucratic conflict within the U.S. government during these negotiations but rarely refer to any substate actors in North Korea. While these thoughtful authors recognize that some internal dynamic must operate in North Korea, they admit that this process is unknown. Unknown does not imply unknowable.

Read more from the first chapter here.