The Best Totalitarian Regime

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Daniel Pinkston at ICG discusses North Korean-Style “Democracy” and the Prospects for True Democratisation.

Under the concept of “democratic centralism” Kim Il-sung began to establish a personalistic system fitting the term “totalitarian” or “sultanistic” in the words of Juan J. Linz.[iii] Others have described the DPRK political system as “Stalinist, corporatist, mono-organizational, neo-traditional.” Charles Armstrong correctly points out that the state has displayed all of these characteristics and the state has transformed since it was founded in 1948.

Daniel Pinkston at ICG discusses North Korean-Style “Democracy” and the Prospects for True Democratisation.

Under the concept of “democratic centralism” Kim Il-sung began to establish a personalistic system fitting the term “totalitarian” or “sultanistic” in the words of Juan J. Linz.[iii] Others have described the DPRK political system as “Stalinist, corporatist, mono-organizational, neo-traditional.” Charles Armstrong correctly points out that the state has displayed all of these characteristics and the state has transformed since it was founded in 1948.

(…)A modern democracy must include free and fair elections, the protection of human rights and civil liberties, freedom of thought and of the press, freedom of religion and a separation of powers with an independent judiciary. The DPRK fails in every single category necessary for a functioning democracy. The DPRK probably has come closer to the totalitarian ideal than any of its predecessors that attempted to build a totalitarian system, and the DPRK has lasted longer than any of its peers.

Dictators and totalitarian leaders always face threats and challengers. The rent-seeking opportunities are extensive in personalistic systems, but even the greatest dictators are victims of the system because of the attention and resources that must be expended to remain in control. Terror is a common instrument in non-democratic regimes. The ruthlessness exercised in these systems and the consequences of losing power, which often results in death—or exile if lucky—lead to a culture of settling political differences violently.

The lack of internal checks and balances, and the very militarized societies built to maintain personalistic systems, often result in dictators using their militaries to settle international disputes. The North Korean case is exacerbated by national division and a sclerotic economy that obstructs any modernization of its conventional military forces. The result has been a long-term commitment to the development weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and their related delivery systems.

The need for critical technologies and materials, and the desire for economies of scale in production have led to the establishment of procurement and proliferation networks for the most dangerous materials and weapon systems.[vii] WMD development, including two nuclear tests, has brought international sanctions that have compounded the DPRK’s economic plight. North Korea’s WMD threat cannot be ignored, but the very sanctions and other international pressure designed to compel Pyongyang to disarm have had little effect. Instead, they almost certainly reinforce hardliners in North Korea. This is not to suggest that sanctions should be lifted. To the contrary—but we must have realistic expectations about the effectiveness.

We should not be very optimistic about WMD disarmament, economic liberalization, the protection of human rights and civil liberties or democratization until there is a change in leadership and a change in the political structure/system. Without structural change—in other words, without a dismantling of the inter-locking institutional arrangement of the KWP, the military, and the security apparatus and the tight centralized control of economic resources—whoever is the suryŏng will not matter. Anyone would rule in a similar fashion in such an institutional environment or risk being toppled from within.

The current DPRK system is doomed to failure, but it could last for a considerable time. The international community could impose democracy through force, but that would require a very costly war that is politically untenable. Deterrence and containment are the primary policy instruments for dealing with Pyongyang for years or decades ahead. That means waiting for change generated from within, but the prospects are bleak.

Democracy in a North Korean context is almost Orwellian. But, the decent comparative analysis aside, is Pinkston implying that North Koreans gave some claim to perfecting totalitarianism, what with all the other examples in human history? What’s missing is the international context that feeds the North Korean state, and that accounts for this “prodigy”.

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Filed under: Korea, Social Science Tagged: dprk, international crisis group, north korea, totalitarianism



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