Thursday, August 10, 2017

Why North Korea is NOT a Monarchy

North Korea has been in the news a great deal recently and though I have addressed this before (five years ago), it is something that comes up again and again: is North Korea a monarchy? Obviously, people ask this question because the dictator of North Korea is the son of the previous dictator who was the son of the founding dictator of North Korea. Leadership in the country is hereditary and this is associated with monarchy so people tend to make the leap that the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” is therefore an absolute monarchy rather than the communist dictatorship it is alleged to be. The simple answer to this question is, “no”. Just because the leadership of the country is hereditary no more makes North Korea a monarchy than the fact that the Holy Roman Emperors of the German Nation were elected makes the First Reich a republic. Korea, like most countries, has its own monarchical tradition, its own style of kingship and system of traditional authority which existed prior to its annexation by the Empire of Japan. What exists in North Korea is very clearly not that and nothing at all even like it.

To understand why North Korea is the way it is, it is necessary to go back to the founding dictator of North Korea; Kim Il Sung. Sung was a communist partisan leader in the employ of the Soviet Union, fighting the Japanese at the end of World War II. When the Soviets occupied the northern half of the Korean peninsula, Sung became the communist dictator of North Korea as the protégé of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. He also had ties with the Chinese Communist Party but, in those days, the Chinese communists were themselves heavily dependent on the Soviet Union and so while it was the Chinese who intervened in the Korean War against the UN and South Korean forces, the DPRK was always a Soviet satellite and received a steady flow of foreign aid from the Soviets for about as long as that regime existed, after which Communist China became the primary patrons of North Korea. Kim Il Sung, in many ways, took Stalin as his example but it is important to note that Sung outlived almost all of the other post-war communist dictators. He died in 1994 and so he had seen Stalin, Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, and others go to their deaths and had witnessed the aftermath.

Kim Il Sung was not best pleased by what he witnessed in the Soviet Union following the death of Stalin. He saw Nikita Khrushchev try to put a kinder face on Soviet Communism with his admission of past mistakes and campaign of de-Stalinization. Kim Il Sung thought this was horrible and he never got along terribly well with Khrushchev because of that. It also made him determined that his work would not be undone by his successor the way Stalin’s had been. In 1980 he publicly declared that his successor would be his son Kim Jong Il. It would later be firmly established in law that the leader of the country must be a descendant of Kim Il Sung, though not strictly hereditary as the leader can choose which of his children are to succeed him. Each has taken care to choose the heir most like themselves and the least likely to change anything. All of this, of course, was seen as quite outrageous in the rest of the communist world and for the very same reason it is being discussed here; a son succeeding his father as leader seemed much too monarchical for any sort of communist regime to consider.

Nonetheless, Kim Il Sung was adamant and could easily point to the changes in other communist countries to justify his actions. How else could he be sure that another successor would not do to his image what Khrushchev had done to that of Stalin? No, far better to restrict the possible candidates to his own offspring who would be most like himself, both genetically and by upbringing. He also began to cultivate a cult of personality more grandiose than was seen in any other communist dictatorship and that too would play a part, making him, his wife and son a sort of unholy trinity for the officially atheist country. By doing this, Sung also ensured that his successors would not stray from the path he had forged for if they did, it would discredit their father and thus discredit themselves in the process. The entire concept was based on political calculations and not respect for tradition. Sung’s own wife, for example, always referred to Sung as “General” rather than “husband” because, as with any Marxist state, your individual identity is only worthy in its relation to the state, not to other people. Terms such as ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ or ‘mother’ and ‘father’ were also, particularly in Confucian societies, inherently hierarchical and thus out of step with the egalitarian ideals of communism. Pol Pot would have people killed for using such terms in his communist state in Cambodia which is why everyone referred to each other as ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ with Pol Pot famously known only as “Brother Number One”.

By the time Kim Jong Il succeeded to the dictatorship of North Korea upon the death of his father in 1994, this whole system and the mythology built up around Kim Il Sung was more firmly cemented in place than ever before. They were determined that nothing should change. They had seen the Soviet Union try to reform and collapse in on itself in the process. They had seen the dictator of Romania executed on camera and they had seen China abandon its Maoist roots under Deng Xiaoping. Nothing of the sort would happen in North Korea where the promise of Kim Jong Il was that absolutely nothing would change under his rule. He did not, however, become the President of North Korea which is another way in which North Korea does not follow any sort of monarchical pattern. He inherited leadership from his father but not the political office of his father. Kim Jong Il was never the President of North Korea because his father Kim Il Sung was the President and would always be the President (and so he still is, despite being long dead). Rather, Kim Jong Il ruled North Korea as General Secretary of the Worker’s Party of Korea (which is to say the communist party though even North Korea no longer even pretends to be communist but claim to operate on a purely unique system of their own design).

Usually, the people in North Korea simply refer to their dictators by their honorific titles. Kim Il Sung was “the Great Leader” and Kim Jong Il was “the Dear Leader”. Likewise, just as Kim Il Sung was declared “Eternal President”, allowing for none to come after him, following the death of Kim Jong Il in 2011, he was declared, “Eternal General Secretary” and his son and successor, the current dictator Kim Jong Un, was made “First Secretary”. Despite all of the “Dear Leader” nonsense, there is evidence that Kim Jong Il was never very popular in North Korea and that he himself knew that the outpourings of affectionate devotion from his people was coerced and not genuine. This seems likely given that he came to power just after the fall of the Soviet Union when the generous financial support Moscow had always provided to its client in Pyongyang suddenly stopped coming and the North Koreans were finally forced to confront the effects of their economic policies which were the height of financial stupidity.

There were also rumors (and that is often all one has to go on concerning the DPRK) that the rule of Kim Jong Il had been bad enough that, before it was over, some wanted to be rid of the “Kim Dynasty”. However, not only would the members of the family be expected to oppose this, it would also go against the wishes of their founder Kim Il Sung who had ordered that the leadership remain with his family until the revolution was “completed”, whatever that means. Kim Jong Il certainly intended things to carry on as they had done but he was presented with a problem in finding a suitable successor. His oldest son, Kim Jong Nam, was suspected of wanting to change things, to perhaps make North Korea a communist dictatorship more like the Chinese model. This was not acceptable. The second son, Kim Jong Chul, was also considered unworthy though we know very little about him other than he’s a fan of Eric Clapton and was described by the dictator’s former Japanese cook as acting “like a little girl”. So, in the end, it was the younger son, Kim Jong Un, who was deemed the most reliable and least likely to change anything. He even adopted a hair style similar to that of his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, to associate himself with North Korea’s founder and most popular dictator.

In 2011 Kim Jong Il died and power passed to his son Kim Jong Un, continuing the dynasty in this nightmarish regime which describes itself as a “thriving socialist society”. Kim Jong Un was originally described as a puppet of the military or older relatives but lately all such talk has mostly vanished, particularly after having an uncle and his own older brother killed. Whether the Kim family will carry on remains to be seen but for our purposes here, it is sufficient to understand that the hereditary nature of this regime is based entirely on pragmatic politics and nothing else. Monarchy is officially classified as a form, indeed the most common form, of “traditional authority” and there is nothing “traditional” about the rule of the Kim family, by Korean or any other standards. The succession is not strictly hereditary but rather restricted to the descendants of Kim Il Sung nor is the highest office hereditary as each dictator has assumed power with the title of a different office than the one before. It is simply a mechanism for maintaining a regime in precisely the manner envisioned by its creator, as a way to ensure that there will be no innovation, no changes and no loss of power for the leadership. In that regard, and perhaps none other, one must admit the Kim family has been successful. They have outlasted the Soviets, the Warsaw Pact countries and have remained on their own path unlike other Asian communist states like China or Vietnam. Despite what many have said about the leaders of this regime, portraying them as silly and laughable, they are not funny, they are not stupid and they know what they are doing. Were it otherwise, they would not still be here, still bedeviling countries far more powerful than their own.


  1. Well said. I was stationed at Osan AB in the Republic of South Korea during the year of 1976. As we all know, there is no state of peace with North Korea, it is merely a "cessation of hostilities." Well, that is the biggest lie Pyongyang tells at any rate. They perpetuate continual hostilities every year against both South Korea and the USA. Now, I am not in favour of Trump's off-the-wall rantings; but, North Korea is a serious threat. Two US Army officers were brutally murdered at Panmunjom in 1976 for no reason by North Korean troops. I will always remember this. We (USA) lost a lot of "face" to the South Koreans by not responding adequately.

  2. Isn't calling North Korea a monarchy like saying rape is the same thing as an arranged marriage?

  3. Words like "necrocracy" and "thanatocracy" have been used to describe North Korea's political system. Succession to the highest office within a nation, on the other hand, is more reminiscent of monarchy.

  4. I think having a pseudo-wannabe monarchy is far better than having no monarchy at all. Trust me, living in a republic without monarch is very lame. I would kill to have a very capable "monarch" as my ruler.

    -North Korea at least have an "absolute monarchy" under the Kims.
    -The U.S. have Donald Trump as its God-Emperor.
    -Russia have Putin as its Tsar.
    -Turkey have Erdogan as its Sultan.
    -Singapore have the Lees as its prince.

    1. No, because they in fact harm other actual monarchies. People say North Korea is a monarchy, which although false allows them to discredit real monarchies by saying they're the same

  5. One does wonder if, given ample time to establish new "traditions", the rulers in North Korea mightn't progress to something really resembling monarchy.

  6. I have a morbid fascination with the DPRK. Whether or not it fits the definition of an "absolute monarchy" is not that important it's just mere semantics What's more intriguing is the quasi-religious component involved the juche "philosophy" set by Kim Sung as a guiding principle for this new experiment of government. Juche is nonsensical and gobbledygook, it is forever changing to meet whatever needs to fit the official State's story for the moment and is beyond blasphemous to even question, even though it was specifically designed to never be understood. There is an almost Christian Nativity recreated for the Kim Dynasty that involves sacred mountains, double rainbows, wild animals making a Manger-like pilgrimage to honor the new born Kim Sung, a miraculous warming in the dead of winter and a growing young Kim who shows Messianic qualities. Kim Sung as the President would make his famous on-the-spot inspections of every art craft and industry in the nation and offer pearls of "wisdom" to his silly subjects who breathlessly awaited to be talked to like children.
    I think the DPRK is a quasi-Theological Dictatorship. Thoughts��?

  7. I often wonder how North Koreans feel about their country, government, leader, and the kinds of things we read about them on the news.


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