Tightening the Screws: Kim Jong Un’s Clampdown on “Capitalist Tendencies”

Image: NCNK / Wilson Center – Korea Center

Although North Korea is one of the harshest totalitarian states in the world, it is not as static as observers often claim. This report examines the roots of Kim Jong Un’s crackdown on so-called “capitalist tendencies,” a term the regime uses to describe its citizen’s consumption of foreign culture, primarily from South Korea, as well as other tendencies the state perceives as threatening to its authority. Because of his age and stint as a high school student in Switzerland, many hoped that Kim might take North Korean society in a less oppressive direction when he came to power in late 2011.

Instead, Kim seems to have been bent on making state surveillance and censorship stronger and more effective from the very beginning. North Korea’s apparatus for social control and surveillance was badly damaged by the famine of the 1990s as some of its most central functionaries, such as border guards, became susceptible to bribes. This has made smuggling of foreign culture, most popularly South Korean TV dramas, both possible and common. A majority of North Koreans have, according to survey studies, watched foreign media content illegally while in North Korea. But specifically under Kim Jong Un’s tenure, defectors say this has become increasingly difficult and dangerous.

Indeed, Kim has made censorship and social conformism important policy priorities. In 2014, for example, Kim gave a speech at a meeting for “ideology officials,” most likely propaganda cadres, accusing “imperialists” of infiltrating “corrupt reactionary ideology and culture” into the country. This issue has remained center-stage. At the Eighth Party Congress in early 2021, for example, Kim delivered a report underscoring the “need for a firm political climate” and “the struggle for eliminating all kinds of anti-people factors,” and other expressions.

This report traces the historical background of the current state campaign, and discusses some of the implications it may have for North Korean society going forward. While the regime sees foreign information and culture as one of its most pressing social threats, the campaign may either lose institutional steam or face public discontent should it continue and intensify.

The full text of “Tightening the Screws: Kim Jong Un’s Clampdown on ‘Capitalist Tendencies,’” a report by 38 North Nonresident Fellow, Dr. Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein for the “Understanding North Korea roundtable series,” a joint program of the National Committee on North Korea (NCNK) and the Wilson Center’s Hyundai Motor – Korean Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy, can be found here. The original report and others in this series can be found here.

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