Ronald Wintrobe of the University of Western Ontario has developed, in a book and a number of professional articles, a theory of dictatorship. He recently turned his attention to North Korea in a paper titled “The Logic of the North Korean Dictatorship.” With all the recent talk about North Korea’s possible collapse, I thought it might be worthwhile to review his argument.
Wintrobe argues that dictatorships use two instruments to maintain power: repression and loyalty. Relative to civilian or party leaderships, the military has a comparative advantage in supplying repression, and a comparative disadvantage in generating loyalty.
He interprets the rise of the songun, or “military-first”, policy under Kim Jong-il as a response of a new leader to the massive negative economic shocks of the 1990s to militarize society and ramp up repression when loyalty may be in short supply.
The question is how does the military govern once it replaces the civilian leadership? Wintrobe argues that the nature of the military is such that the career options of its personnel tend to be limited outside the military sphere, and the hierarchical nature of militaries means that there are limited spaces at the top. So the universal response of military dictatorships is to expand the military budget and raise military salaries as a means of keeping the organization content.
The irony is that, in doing so, they raise the cost of repression. Wintrobe even has a diagram showing what I would describe (though Wintrobe does not) as the governing possibility frontier (equivalent to the production possibilities frontier in production theory) shifting inward and flattening in response to this cost increase. The consequence is that the bureaucratically logical behavior of military regimes undermines their own means of governing and contributes to the instability that we historically observe.
So, confronted with this conundrum, Wintrobe argues that the North Korean/Kim Jong-il response in the 1990s was to militarize the whole society via the establishment of the largest military (in per capita terms) on the planet and the elevation of this mass army to the vanguard via the songun policy.
But is it sustainable? In the long-run, with the military consuming an increasing share of resources, the military needs a growing economy to maintain stability. Wintrobe argues that militarization makes the shift toward market-oriented reforms executed by China and Vietnam difficult. Export-oriented development has been pursued by military regimes such as the ones that existed in South Korea, but would seem incompatible with juche, or self-reliance. So the economic development strategy that seems most compatible with the political nature of the North Korean regime would be what Nick Eberstadt has called “nuclear blackmail.”
It is stable? Wintrobe thinks that the key to stability is the control that the Great Leader (whether it be Kim Jong-il or Kim Jong-un) can exercise over the military. The most dangerous situation is one in which some kind of dual authority emerges (as could arguably be the case in contemporary Iran). In this context, it is useful to recall the research done by Steph Haggard and Luke Herman which shows both an increase in military representation in the core elite under Kim Jong-un, as well as the growth in military-related public appearances during his rule.
A second key driver is the ability to satisfy the military’s ever growing demands for resources. As I have argued previously, as long as metals and minerals prices remain elevated and Chinese growth remains strong, North Korea ought to be able to generate enough export revenue to muddle through. Indeed, there might be enough revenue to start buying back some loyalty in the civilian sector, as at least appears to be occurring in Pyongyang (another focus of Kim Jong-un’s public appearances). Of course, if commodity prices and/or Chinese growth weaken, then things could get difficult.
In terms of what this all means for the rest of the world, in the end Wintrobe ventures that engagement is preferable to isolation, but he is “gloomy about the likely success of either policy in getting the regime to liberalize politically or economically.”
It’s pretty easy to quibble with some of the specifics of Wintrobe’s theory and the particulars of its application to the case of North Korea. But regardless of whether it is entirely persuasive or not, it is very helpful in pointing out in a systematic way some of the constraints that the North Korean leadership faces in governance. Its rigor is notable in relation to some of the casual talk about collapse.