So how much power would he really have?
Much of that depends on his personal ability and how much time he has to establish his own coalition of supporters. The more I look at the North Korean system, the more it’s becoming clear to me that with the institutional structure, the way the party and the military and security apparatus is structured, the leadership is reinforced.
It’s difficult to get your head around if you haven’t been exposed to a system like this. In liberal democracies, market economies, so many things that are usually delegated to the private sector are in the North still controlled by the institutional mechanisms. You have the prominence of the military and the security apparatus. And then you have the Party, and they also have their own security institutions. They’re all spying on each other and checking each others’ power. So there’s extraordinary inefficiency for the economy and extraordinary misallocation of resources, and if you’re a manager or decision maker at a local co-operative, military unit, or factory, for instance, because of the institutional structure, all the directives and policies you have to adhere to create information barriers. You’re just always stuck.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The way it ends up working with this command structure is that you have to resolve the information problems by getting directions from above. I remember reading years ago government propaganda glorifying the state and Kim Il-sung and talking about how he was the brain, and the rest of the party was the body. We might laugh at that, but when I looked more at the structure, it actually seemed true in many ways. One individual has to resolve the information and resource allocation problems. Even if you’re dissatisfied with that and recognize it’s suboptimal, it’s necessary to have a brain who can unlock those roadblocks.
So the elite—the top 200 families—it’s in their interests to have one dictator to decide and issue directives to allocate resources and move on. Otherwise, they’re stuck in a bureaucratic, institutional sclerosis. So it’s reinforced institutionally. There’s an ideological side to the system, which the media and many analysts tend to focus on, but there’s also an institutional side that reinforces the system in many ways.
You mentioned that a key factor in how much power Kim Jong-un has will be how quickly he can build a support base. Was the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island on November 23 part of an effort to boost his credentials?
That’s only part of it. This issue has been brewing for quite some time—since the end of the Korean War. The North started challenging the ‘Northern Limit Line’ in the 1970s, then more aggressively in the late 1990s. But this particular issue has emerged now for a number of reasons. The North Koreans have some legitimate claims according to international law, and the maritime issues haven’t been resolved because the South Koreans claim the Northern Limit Line is the de facto maritime boundary.