Ken Gause on the North Korean Leadership



Two weeks ago, the Committee on Human Rights in North Korea released a new book by Ken Gause on the North Korean leadership called North Korean House of Cards: Leadership Dynamics under Kim Jong Un. Few books on North Korea qualify as must reads, but this is one of them. Gause provides an encyclopedic treatment of the leadership, presenting not only an exhaustive portrait of the structure of power but of the recent dynamics within the regime as well.

Gause’s starting point is the fact that while the North Korean regime is obviously personalistic, any dictatorship rests on two foundations: an elite support base; and a set of strategies for managing challenges that might emerge from below, whether through partial accommodation or surveillance, control and coercion. His analysis of the transition in the first section of the monograph focuses on the fundamental dilemmas of succession in personalist systems: that it is difficult if not impossible to transfer personal networks from one person to another (my take on this is outlined in a piece at Asian Survey with Luke Herman and Jaesung Ryu and outlined here). Purges of both the regency system and high-ranking military and internal security personnel were a virtual inevitability, and Gause traces how those went down in extraordinary detail up to and including the most dramatic purge of all: the execution of Jang Song Thaek.

Gause takes seriously the Jang indictment, too often read as a set of trumped up charges. In fact, the indictment lays out quite clearly the threat that Jang posed to the succession. Gause has a masterful discussion of how the purge unfolded, affecting not only Jang and his networks but sending powerful signals to other potential challengers. The fact that Kim Jong Un could have his uncle executed spoke volumes to the power of the Kim family franchise and the risks of challenging it. Unlike Gause, I do not read the Jang episode as a sign of weakness, but rather as the outgrowth of the need to send unmistakable signals to potential challengers about the power that Kim Jong Un could wield.

The second section of the book takes a more structural approach, looking at the organization of power. Gause tends to favor a consideration of the more immediate decision-making structures and therefore quite rightly focuses on the personal secretariat, the royal economy and the internal security apparatus, the key to dampening any challenges from below. Each of these receives sustained and detailed treatment. The discussion of the secretariat is particularly significant because of the control it exercises over the flow of paper. The royal economy section is worth the price of the book on its own—it is a monograph within a monograph—as it lays out clearly the political economy of the system, the sources of revenue, and the significance of rents and the allocation of rents for holding the entire system together. The analysis of the internal security apparatus reprises his earlier work on this topic (reviewed by me here) and addresses the all-important question of both the leader’s personal security—the challenge of coup-proofing—and the capacity to meet potential challenges from below.

However he also notes the efforts to revive party institutions, through the Third Party Conference in September 2010 and a quite dramatic expansion—at least for North Korea—of the Politburo, Secretariat, CMC, and the Central Committee. As Gause’s accounts make clear, it is difficult to know whether any of these institutions matter because of the power of the leadership to forge altogether new and informal institutional arrangements that bring together key centers of power—and support. However important the secretariat, royal economy and internal security apparatus are, it is very clear from the membership in formal institutions that strong efforts were made both before and after Kim Jong Il’s death to assure the military that it would have a voice at the table; this has important implications for policy.

So what’s not to like? The first question is whether the title is in fact an accurate portrayal of what Gause’s study demonstrates. Contrary to appearing fragile, the evidence points to a quite contrary conclusion: that the regime is in fact consolidating if not fully consolidated. Gause closes the book by leaving this question open, as his title suggests. But the view that the regime is consolidating is based not only on the power that the purges of the first four years revealed, but on a dimension of authoritarian resilience that Gause omits. Kremlinological analysis has the benefit of close scrutiny of the internal power structure, but the resilience of the regime also rests on its relationship with the broader public. Consider how the life had drained out of socialist ideology in Eastern Europe well prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Kim Jong Un’s power may increasingly rest not only on the internal lineaments of the regime outlined by Gause, but on a broader political economy: on Chinese support, on his acquiescence to the new market economy—however strategic—and his ability to project a forward-looking, young and even dynamic leadership. Kim Jong Un’s 70th anniversary speech is exemplary in this regard.

Second, the analysis of the structures of power always confronts the problem of the implications for regime behavior. Does tracing the second, third and fourth levels of the regime hierarchy really provide insight into this question if decisions are ultimately made at the top as a result of strategic games among major corporate actors? Here, I think more definitive conclusions are possible. If we move beyond the court economy and security apparatus to the wider support base for the regime, it is clear that the new leadership had to make compromises with the military. This does not mean that individual military leaders were protected; to the contrary, the had to be purged. But as one Minister of Defense is purged, a new one has to be brought in to replace him and the new face is quite naturally going to be grateful—and loyal. Despite the formal organizational charts, serious questions can be raised whether North Korea should be considered a hybrid dominant party-military system. The byungjin line is not just a strategic choice for the country; it is a strategic choice for the regime, doubling down on the military support base. The unfortunate conclusion: that North Korea is not only stable, but likely to remain recalcitrant over the immediate time horizon.

Ken Gause on the North Korean Leadership: A Bibliography

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