The Pyongyang Republic

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Amid the recent tumult on the Korean peninsula, a look at Robert Collins’ report for the Committee on Human Rights in North Korea, Pyongyang Republic: North Korea’s Capital of Human Rights Denial, was momentarily pushed back in the queue. (Full disclosure: I’m on the HRNK board.) That delay should not detract from what is an extraordinarily well-researched examination of North Korea’s internal politics and sociology.

Collins’ opens the report with a forceful argument about the very nature of the North Korean regime, then backfills an examination of the composition of the regime’s elite supporters and living conditions in the regime’s bastion capital. Collins argues that the 1973 promulgation of the Ten Principles of Monolithic Ideology, undertaken in the context of Kim Jong-il’s ascension to Party Secretary for Organization and Propaganda, was a fundamental turning point in the political development of the regime. The doctrine enshrined the concept of suryong-juui (Supreme Leader-ism) reconfirming that not only is the state subservient to the party, but reflecting four precepts: “deification of the Supreme Leader, accepting the prestige of the Supreme Leader as absolute, treating the Supreme Leader’s directives as religious dogma, and unconditional implementation of Supreme Leader’s commands” (page 26). It also embraced the notion of hereditary succession, which given the Leninist origins of the North Korean political system, had previously been regarded as a reactionary practice.

From this observation, Collins concludes that the suryong system is fundamentally incompatible with international norms regarding human rights. Indeed, he argues that:

“The DPRK acts as a “front man” for the Kim family regime when dealing with the international community. Agencies, laws, official titles conform to international norms, just enough to uphold the illusion of normalcy of statehood. However, the Kim regime vests all power and authority in the Korean Workers Party, through which it ensures that all government agencies conform to the Kim family regime’s objectives. These same agencies are required to shield the regime from external interference while manipulating international sympathy to obtain humanitarian assistance and other concessions. The dynamics exist because the Party is above the law, as acknowledged in North Korea’s constitution. The state subjugates itself to the Party, thus negating its own authority. Quoting or citing the constitution as a lawful practice inside North Korea is regarded as frivolous, or worse, unjustified” (page 16).

The remainder of the report is devoted to an examination of the composition of the power elite, the institutions of governance and the relative privileges of residency in Pyongyang, including detailed reviews of benefits with respect to food, housing, education, etc. These material benefits play a critical political role, binding recipients to the fortunes of the regime, in particular its Supreme Leader. This perspective illuminates the degree of panic the regime exhibited when following the release of the Commission of Inquiry report, Kim Jong-un’s indictment by the International Criminal Court was being discussed as a real possibility.

In sum, Pyongyang Republic manages to combine sweeping argument with meticulous research. It’s hard for me to imagine a reader who would not learn from it.

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