The Future of the North Korean Regime: A Conversation with James Church and Jennifer Lind

38 North recently talked with author James Church, and Jennifer Lind (Assistant Professor of Government, Dartmouth College) about the future of North Korea.  

38 North: In the 1990s there was a flurry of speculation that North Korea would collapse. We saw this again two years ago, after Kim Jong Il’s stroke. What do you think the chances are that the regime will survive?

Church: “Don’t bet against the house.” Isn’t that what we are all taught in graduate school? I can recall more than thirty years ago, in a meeting chaired by a high ranking military official with assembled leading lights around the table, the argument being made and accepted by nodding heads that the North “could not tighten its belt any more.” Apparently, it could. And did. The chances are very good that the North Korean regime will survive until, at last, it doesn’t. Park Chung Hee looked like a good bet to stay around for a long time, until he invited the head of his security service to dinner. 

Lind: Authoritarian regimes face many threats to their rule—both external (overthrow by an outside power) and internal (coups or revolutions). It’s clear from the Cheonan incident that the U.S., ROK, and others do not want war—that Kim is not threatened by external regime change, even for pretty serious transgressions. As for the threat of coups or revolutions, it’s hard for us to say given the lack of transparency in North Korean politics. We do know that the regime relies on several tools to stay in power. For example, to prevent revolution, the Kim regime has socially engineered a society where the classes that typically lead revolutions (such as students and the bourgeoisie) are neutralized or simply absent. They ruthlessly monitor students and others to keep them scared, or they buy off people to keep them invested in the regime. Dictators from Chile to Yemen to the USSR have relied on these tools for centuries—and so does Kim.

38North: What are some other tools that the Kim regime relies upon, and where else in the world do we see them? 

Lind: Another example is ideology—North Korea is famous for its juche ideology and its suryong (Great Leader) system. All dictators rely on ideological tools, and these are the ideas that support the Kim regime. Externally-oriented, chauvinistic nationalism—which stokes fears of international threats—works symbiotically with another important tool of authoritarian control—security services and the use of force. The Kim regime can tell the people they are very threatened externally in order to justify high military spending—which is then devoted in great part toward buying forces for internal security: quelling coups and revolution. This same pattern was apparent in Saddam’s Iraq, and we can see it today in Iran as well.

Church: Ideas are good for keeping people in line—in any society, at any time. Of course, use of force is good to have in case anyone steps over the line, but any security agency worth its salt knows that excessive use of force can cause as many problems as it solves. It’s better to have most of the controls on people come from within. Fear of punishment is more effective for controlling a lot of people than troops in the streets with fixed bayonets. Self-regulating citizens, that’s the ticket! Ideas help lead to self-enforcement of social norms. Ideas shape existence, define goals, furnish the moral universe with some sort of meaning. A close cousin of ideas, myths are handy, too. The ruling myths (all societies have them) are never to be tampered with lightly. Dictators, kings, and presidents all depend to some extent on the ruling myths to underpin their legitimacy.  

38 NorthWe’ve seen a great deal of North Korean bellicosity—missile tests, nuclear tests, and of course the Cheonan sinking. Can we make any inferences from these events about the domestic political strength of the Kim regime?

Church: Nothing that would make much sense, as far as I’m concerned. Interesting question, though, to the extent it gets things off on the wrong foot. Why is a North Korean missile test defined as “bellicosity” while one by other countries is not? Maybe the reaction to some North Korean actions tells us something about the domestic politics in, oh I don’t know, say South Korea. 

Lind: True, the same actions that someone might call “bellicosity” might be seen by more sympathetic eyes as the desperate, defensive acts of a threatened state. Although a deliberate torpedoing of another country’s warship, if that’s indeed what happened, is clearly bellicose behavior.

When North Korea engages in these “provocations” or whatever you want to call them, North Korea analysts lately have been saying that they are intended for a domestic audience. I think this perspective is a useful contribution—people who study international security tend to highlight external, strategic motivations (such as signaling toward the ROK or the U.S.). North Korea analysts remind us that jingoistic nationalism is part of North Korea’s identity and is one of the regime’s tools for staying in power.

At the same time, I think people speak more confidently than their actual evidence would permit—when I hear commentators assert that “Kim did this because of succession,” or “this is an act to placate the military,” I wonder what this argument is based on—aside from a guess. 

Church: There is usually an explanation de jour, and analysts flock to it like small birds zeroing in on breadcrumbs scattered by an old woman from a bench in Hyde Park. These days it is “succession.” A few months ago, everything was pinned on the currency redenomination. 

38 North: Looking toward the future, the regime will sooner or later face the challenge of succession. Do you think the regime can navigate this as it did in 1994? 

Church: Life’s a crap shoot. A lot depends on the personality of the successor, on his ability to command respect (and inspire fear) in an important circle of military and security leaders. If he is politically savvy, and can get through the initial birthing period for the new regime, I’d say he has a good chance. There was nothing to navigate in 1994, incidentally. Kim Jong Il was already in power. The tests for him came much earlier, in the 1970s.  

Lind: An interesting difference between the 1994 succession and this upcoming one is that—if it happens anytime soon, as we thought it might upon Kim’s stroke in 2008—the regime does not seem as well prepared. As Mr. Church says, Kim Il Sung laid the groundwork for the previous transition well in advance. This gave Kim Jong Il time to build a coalition of supporters within the military and Korea Worker’s Party, and to machinate against those who might have opposed him. During those years, Kim Il Sung’s regime built up a cult of personality for the younger Kim—conducting “on the spot guidance” visits and reporting them with the kind of adulation that previously had been confined to the Great Leader’s activities. The regime also created a personality cult for Kim Jong Il’s mother. 

We hadn’t seen much of any of this in North Korea until very recently—now we’re hearing reports of a nascent personality cult for Kim Jong Un, and of Kim Jong Il’s convening of the Worker’s Party congress possibly for the purpose of presenting Kim Jong Un as his successor. Perhaps Kim Jong Il’s stroke in 2008 jolted him as much as it did the rest of us. 

38 North: People have speculated that the successor will be Kim’s third son Kim Jong Un or perhaps Jang Song Taek as a sort of regent. How should observers feel about this? Will the personality of the successor play an important role in shaping Pyongyang’s policies? 

Lind: Of course it will have some effect—everyone thinks the personality of the ruler has important effects on a country’s foreign policy. The only ones who don’t seem to think it matters are political scientists! – at least, judging from the literature. Because it’s hard to theorize about individuals, scholars regrettably tend to neglect the influence of individual leaders.

In this particular case we don’t know much about these men, and even if we did, it’s hard to make reliable predictions about how they will behave. As I’ve written before, however, what we should do is always keep the regime’s own interests in mind when we think about which foreign policies Pyongyang is likely to adopt. 

Church: “Observers” should relax and drink a beer. Over-analysis based on thin air is the bane of my existence. I think that’s exactly what Professor Lind said earlier, but with more finesse than I can muster at the moment.

Lind: After the “birds in Hyde Park” gloriousness, I think you’re far ahead in the finesse department. I’m just trying not to use words like “dependent variable.”

Church: Please don’t. It scares the horses. 

38 North: How will Inspector O fare in a collapsed North Korea? Will he survive a purge?

Lind: Maybe he will be the hero that Korea needs?

Church: I haven’t spoken to O on this matter and am loath to answer for him. You can be sure, however, that a lot of educated North Koreans will be unhappy because of the discrimination they will inevitably face from South Koreans. Their status will disappear; their education will be sneered at; everything about their former lives will be considered by southerners as worthless and shameful. In a unified Korea, the north could end up being a Cholla of the 21st century, and might even become a regional voting bloc that (irony of ironies) South Korean politicians will court. 

38 NorthYou two are an unusual pairing. In your view, what is the value of area studies and of political science theory to understand the Korean peninsula?

Lind: To understand North Korea we need to understand its history, politics, culture, and people. And we also need to understand patterns in domestic and international politics in countries like North Korea—those that are weak, poor, authoritarian, and feel threatened. So we need information about both the particular and the patterns. Area studies specialists tend to be stronger on the former; political scientists stronger on the latter. Frankly, neither approach has a sufficiently good record at prognostication to exclude help from the other. I think the field of political science is trending alarmingly toward training analysts who only study the patterns, and have no knowledge of (or interest in) the countries whose behavior they purport to explain.

Church: Regional studies, all to the good. Political science theory, I’m not a big fan. For one thing, I find it hard to read articles that have equations or Greek letters in them. 

Lind: Oh, come now—I’m not a huge fan of the formal modeling stuff either, but are you really saying there is no value to studying the broader patterns of interstate behavior or of authoritarian governments? I don’t think you really believe that. It would be like trying to forecast the outcome of the U.S. elections this November by looking only at candidate campaign strategies, while ignoring historical patterns in midterm elections, or the effects of economic downturn on election outcomes.

Can we agree that there are excesses in both camps? My camp has the modelers who don’t know their bibimbap from their Lee Myung Bak; on your side, the excesses are the folks who predict North Korean behavior based on who stood next to Kim Jong Il at the last parade. Frankly, one of the best strategies for avoiding the “birds flocking to the breadcrumbs” problem is to constantly evaluate North Korea’s actions with the behavior of other states like it. That will help us see which of the morsels scattered on the ground are worth chasing, and which are not.

So I’m in favor of a Sunshine Policy for area studies and poli-sci theory. But I’ll give you the last word.

Church: Last one in the pool buys drinks for everyone at the party conference!


James Church is a former intelligence officer stationed in Korea and the author of the Inspector O novels, the most recent of which is The Man With the Baltic Stare (Minotaur Books, 2010). Jennifer Lind (and co-author Daniel Byman) published an article about the survival of the North Korean regime in the summer 2010 issue of International Security. Lind is also the author of Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics (Cornell, 2008). 

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