For those of you with access to a university library or JSTOR, you may be interested in our new study of the political transition in North Korea (Stephan Haggard, Luke Herman and Jaesung Ryu, “Political Change in North Korea: Mapping the Succession,” Asian Survey 54,4 (July/August 2014): 773-800, URL here).
- In the first section, we track the membership in the National Defense Commission, the Politburo, and the Secretariat from the beginning of the Kim Jong Il era through mid-2013, the first year and a half of the Kim Jong Un era. As the succession process went into high gear after 2008, these institutions were revitalized and expanded to provide support for the new leadership. The main beneficiary of this expansion appeared to be the military.
- In the second section, however, we show that while the military’s overall representation did increase in both absolute and relative terms, it did so in the context of significant purges and reassignment of high-ranking military personnel that continued after Kim Jong Il’s death. Moreover, many of the ‘‘military’’ personnel who benefitted from the transition were in fact civilians who had only recently been promoted into the general ranks. These developments suggest that both Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un recognized potential challenges from existing military and security elites and sought to coup-proof the political system. The execution of Jang Song-Thaek can be understood in similar terms: a regent installed to mind Kim Jong Un, he ultimately emerged as a contending center of power.
- In the third section, we show that the succession was also accompanied by the growth of an inner core of the elite holding ‘‘interlocking directorates’’ or overlapping positions within formal institutions. Drawing on a dataset of Kim Jong Il’s and Kim Jong Un’s ‘‘on-the-spot guidance’’ (OSG) tours, we construct an index of de facto rather than de jure status based on proximity and “face time” with Kim Jong Il. We show that the number of insiders is extraordinarily small, that the military did not figure quite as prominently in this informal elite, which was initially dominated by family members. Yet despite the rotation at the top of the military and security apparatus and its somewhat more modest representation in the informal elite, the regime remains beholden to these groups, particularly when compared to the other major Asian communist systems, China and Vietnam.
A major alternative to our approach can be found in the work of New Focus International, including Jang Sin-Jung’s remarkable new book, Dear Leader. In a series of interesting political posts, New Focus argues that the nerve-center of the North Korean state is to be found in the Organization and Guidance Department of the Party, and that Kim Jong Un is in fact a figurehead. At one level, it is certainly true that the OGD is powerful because it controls the recruitment and advancement of personnel throughout the system. But the key question is who directs the OGD and whether its incumbent leadership can be considered autonomous. Put differently, is the OGD a principal or an agent? More on this in subsequent posts, including a review of Dear Leader. But if you are interested in North Korea, it is a must read.