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Stasis and Survival: North Korean Statecraft

“Why should human equality be averted? Supposing that the mechanics of the process have been rightly described, what is the motive for this huge, accurately planned effort to freeze history at a particular moment of time?” 

- George Orwell, 1984

This timeless question posed in George Orwell’s book, 1984, has nigh on universal applicability across political systems and ages where the spirits of revolution and counter-revolution have often violently clashed and spilt much innocent blood in the process. The aphorism that history is violent and there isn’t much that humanity can do about it is a much-worn “observation” that often invites collective apathy or calls for individuals, societies and states to recognise that they play the international game of anarchy, power and uncertainty by its own rules. In the words of American historian of Russia and the Soviet Union Steven Kotkin, “The players change but the game remains”. What happens then when the players stay, but the game moves on? 

For 74 years, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and its ensemble cast of successive Secretary Generals, from Lenin to Stalin, to Khrushchev and on until Gorbachev, monopolised state power in a world where inter-state competition between superpowers thrived, and remained until 1991 the determining principle of the game. The collapse of the Soviet Empire across Eurasia gave way to new players in modern Russia but in one corner of the Soviet-friendly periphery, both the players and the game are yet to change.

The Kim dynasty of the kingdom of North Korea has enjoyed unparalleled political constancy since 1948 and since Kim Jong-Il's death in December 2011. Given that many observers' convictions that “North Koreans would resist “a second dynastic succession, unheard of in communism” have been utterly repudiated, rumours of a new heir in Kim Jong Un’s daughter should be taken seriously. 

North Korea’s recent abolition of provisions concerning “peaceful reunification” with the South from its constitution is yet another signal of an additional hardening of its external posture, as if the occasional intercontinental ballistic missile launch was not enough. Additionally, brinkmanship against South Korea remains a favourite pastime for Kim. Following warnings that war could “break out any time” with the South, North Korean artillery began firing in the direction of the South's Yeonpyeong Island, about 3km (2 miles) from the North-South maritime border, without shells landing within South Korean territorial waters. 

The experience of the Korean War has instilled among many in the South that war is hell and civil war is worse. But the lesson seems lost to Pyongyang. While the North’s pursuit of nuclear proliferation and ICBM capabilities of near-global reach can be said to be largely driven by the regime change threat posed by the US, Kim’s actions will likely force South Korea to develop its own nuclear counter-weight thereby exacerbating the ongoing security dilemma. In turn, this will further intensify the North’s security concerns which interlink with Kim’s own survival. The South’s nuclearisation would most likely entrench the uneasy status quo in the Korean peninsula, rendering even more elusive the prospect of reunification, much like the North’s nuclearisation has done. The DPRK’s entry into the nuclear club, by withdrawing from the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2002 and successfully testing its first nuclear weapon shortly thereafter, severely aggravated the escalation spiral that has seen both Koreas compete fiercely in defence spending and reduce the possibility of reunification to a vanishingly small chance. In this context, South Korea’s nuclearisation seems less far-fetched than self-defence. 

North Korea’s scleroticism abroad and at home is nothing new. Revolution in any name and cause is succeeded by periods of domestic consolidation and in undemocratic illiberal regimes is followed by seemingly endless social engineering to uphold the top-down hierarchies and reshape hearts and minds accordingly. Cultural assimilation and extermination of non-conforming elements, often characterised by the regime as “decadent”, “subversive” or outright hostile and traitorous to its ideological foundations, are almost canon for most repressive totalitarian regimes despite varying ideological determinants. Paradoxically, self-proclaimed revolutionaries tend to live and rule long enough to see themselves become the worst kind of counterrevolutionary reactionaries. As Stephen Kotkin put it: “You can't be half communist. Either you have a monopoly on power, or you don't. And so, when you attempt to reform communism it turns out that people wanna have discussions about other parties... And so, you can't contain the liberalization within the one-party monopoly”. Indeed, as the Communist totalitarianism of the Soviet Empire, in all but name, kindly reminded Hungary’s Imre Nagy in 1956 and Czechoslovakia’s Alexander Dubček in 1968, political liberalisation is an outspoken enemy of like-regimes’ monopoly on power and ideology. 

The latest manifestation of Kim’s incessant cultural counter-revolution involved two 16-year-old teenagers being arrested for watching Korean dramas, often secretly smuggled into the country on USB sticks. This may remind the informed reader of “forbidden” Western music vinyl being smuggled into the Soviet Union and printed over X-ray films, featuring scans of human bones and skulls.

According to the President of the South and North Development (SAND) Institute, "admiration for South Korean society can soon lead to a weakening of the system... This goes against the monolithic ideology that makes North Koreans revere the Kim family”. In typical Orwellian fashion, North Korean state TV issued footage of the teenagers’ arrest as a cautionary tale for their peers: 

"The rotten puppet regime's culture [referring to South Korea] has spread even to teenagers...They are just 16 years old, but they ruined their own future”, the narrator’s voice warned. 

According to a North Korean defector’s BBC testimony, "If you get caught watching an American drama, you can get away with a bribe, but if you watch a Korean drama, you get shot”.

What does this all mean then? At the seams of power politics and ideology, the greater the overlap of states’ ideological and national interests, the greater the potential for repression at home. One need not be reminded of the American Red Scare and the pall McCarthyism still casts not only over the U.S. but worldwide. North Korea’s position in its immediate regional vicinity and in the system as a unit, in which state survival has become tautological to the Kim dynasty’s wellbeing, constitutes a permissive condition for totalitarian repression to thrive and proliferate. 

Image: KCNA/via Reuters

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