North Korean-Style “Democracy” and the Prospects for True Democratisation
North Korean-Style “Democracy” and the Prospects for True Democratisation
Making Sense of North Korea’s Spate of Missile Tests
Making Sense of North Korea’s Spate of Missile Tests
Commentary / Asia 10 minutes

North Korean-Style “Democracy” and the Prospects for True Democratisation


Recent events in the Middle East have led to speculation about contagion and possible effects on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea). The events in the Middle East began in Tunisia, but were unexpected and progressed mostly in unpredictable ways. The pattern and evolution of contagion showed that each case of rebellion or revolution is different in terms of elapsed time, amount of violence and political outcomes.

No polity is permanent or indestructible. The most sustainable political systems are those that adjust to domestic and international change. Those systems lacking mechanisms for reform and change inevitably face challenges that often are characterized by violence. Past waves of democratization and the recent events in the Middle East raise several questions about the nature of authoritarian regimes. What triggers instability, regime collapse or revolution? Why are some authoritarian regimes more resilient than others? Can we identify ideological, cultural and/or institutional aspects of authoritarian regimes to help understand the prospects for democratization?  Can we predict or prepare for rapid changes in authoritarian systems? And if so, what role should various international actors play in such a scenario?

The North Korean Case

In human history, the concept of democracy was not always popular. It is a recent phenomenon and was often associated with “mob rule” and “disorder.” However, by the 20th century, democracy had become a universal ideal that is espoused at least nominally by practically all governments regardless of structure or regime type.

North Korea is no exception. The DPRK Constitution embraces and guarantees a number of democratic rights, privileges and principles. Article 1 stipulates that the DPRK represents the interests of all citizens. Sovereignty is vested in the working people, who are represented by the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) and local people’s assemblies (Article 4). Citizens are guaranteed direct universal suffrage by secret ballot (Articles 6, 89 and 138) and their representatives are required to have close ties to their constituents or face no-confidence recalls (Article 7). Article 8 respects and protects human rights, and the rights of Koreans are extended when they are abroad (Article 15), while foreigners are guaranteed legitimate rights and interests while in the territory of the DPRK (Article 16). Furthermore, all institutions, enterprises, organizations and citizens are required to respect the laws that enshrine these rights (Article 18).

The DPRK Constitution guarantees democratic rights and freedoms for all citizens (Article 64) in all spheres of state and social life (Article 65).  These rights and freedoms include universal suffrage and the right to be elected to public office for all who have reached the age of 17 (Article 66); freedom of speech, of the press, assembly, demonstration, association (Article 67); of religion (Article 68) and the right to appeal and file petitions (Article 69).

Article 74 grants the freedom to engage in scientific, literary and artistic activities, and Article 75 grants the freedom of residence and travel. Women are granted equal rights and status with men (Article 77). Citizens have the right to privacy in their homes and in their personal correspondence, and they are protected from illegal searches (Article 79).

The DPRK Constitution also includes a number of clauses addressing social welfare issues. For example, citizens have the right to rest (Article 71), the right to receive free medical care and support from the state if unable to care for themselves (Article 72). Citizens have the right to education (Article 73) and maternity leave is guaranteed for the protection of mothers and children (Article 77).

Unfortunately, the constitution also contradicts democratic principles in several ways. For example, it stipulates that chuch’e [主體] and military first [先軍] are the “guiding principles” of the DPRK (Article 3), and the state is organized and managed according to democratic centralism (Article 5). All DPRK activities must be carried out under the leadership of the Korean Workers Party (Article 11), and the state must strengthen the dictatorship of the people’s democracy (Article 12).

The state is required by the constitution to carry out mass movements vigorously (Article 14), and carry out a cultural revolution to train all the people as builders of socialism (Article 40). The state “shall eliminate the outdated society’s mode of life and establish a new socialist mode of life in full measure in all fields” (Article 42). “Eliminating outdated society” has a liberating connotation in the context of the collapse of the Chinese world order in the 19th century or colonialism in the 20th. However, the second diktat of Article 42 justifies the DPRK’s complete eradication of civil society and the construction of mass movements to eliminate individualism and freedoms that are nominally protected by the constitution.

The integration of “creative writers and artists to produce many works of high ideological and artistic value and enlist a broad range of masses in literary and artistic activities” ensures artistic expression is only tolerated within channels sanctioned by the state and KWP. Literature and art must be “chuch’e-oriented, revolutionary, national in form and socialist in content” (Article 52). Rights and responsibilities are “based on the collectivist principle of ‘one for all, all for one’” (Article 63), not on the rule of law.

Collective conformity with state doctrine is extended to the military, which has a “mission to carry out the military-first revolutionary line in order to protect the nerve center of the revolution” (Article 59). The constitution requires the state to “convert the entire army into a cadre army, modernize the entire army, arm all the people, and turn the whole country into a fortress, on the basis of arming the army and the people politically and ideologically” (Article 60).

Individual property rights are severely restricted as “there shall be no limit to the property which the state can own, and all natural resources of the country, railways, air transportation, telecommunications and postal organs, as well as major factories, enterprises, ports, and banks, shall be owned solely by the state” (Article 21).

State control and regulation of resources are primary instruments of social control and regime sustainability. First, the ruling elite can reward loyalists and punish traitors or disloyal citizens by supplying or withholding resources, including food, medical care and other necessities. Second, state control of resource allocation nominally eliminates the need for markets, which can have political effects as well as an economic function. Markets can only function if they have buyers and sellers, and they are more efficient if the actors have autonomy and adequate information to make decisions. However, autonomous buyers and sellers with the capacity to transmit, receive and store information can use that capacity to take collective action. Even if collective action initially is only directed at market activities, it can later be directed towards political aims.

Haggard and Noland note that the North Korean regime is highly insecure about the market, and that so-called “reforms” have been designed to maintain economic control.[fn]Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland, Witness to Transformation: Refugee Insights into North Korea (Washington, DC: Peterson Institute for International Economics, 2011).Hide Footnote The economics measures announced on 1 July 2002 were trumpeted as the beginning of reform and opening, but policies were incomplete and insufficient to cure the country’s economic malaise. The state recognized and tolerated some marketization from below that began during the famine of the 1990s, but by 2005 was working to reverse the nascent marketization underway. The botched currency reform announced on 30 November 2009 is indicative of the state’s will to eradicate markets and reassert control of resources, which is necessary to sustain the current political structure.

The normal, everyday market activities we see in liberal democracies have been criminalized in North Korea. Legal statues, prosecutors and courts are mechanisms to control society and perpetuate centralized control. According to Article 162 of the DPRK Constitution, “the duties of the court are to:

  • Protect the sovereignty of the DPRK, the socialist system, the property of the state and social cooperative organizations, and the constitutional rights, lives, and property of the people through judicial activities.
  • Ensure that all organs, enterprises, organizations, and citizens precisely observe the laws of the state and struggle actively against class enemies and all law offenders.

The DPRK has nominally adopted some international legal standards and procedures such as habeas corpus and nullum crimen sine lege [no crime without law], but no due judicial process seems to apply to political crimes.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Detention, prosecution and imprisonment accompanied by extreme violence are common. Social deviants live under the threat of terror to themselves and their extended families. The deterrent effect apparently has been very effective. But, the discretion extended to the security apparatus [國家安全保衛部; 人民保安部; 組織指導部; 호위사령부] also creates extraordinary rent-seeking opportunities. The corruption in North Korea seems to be increasing as the economy remains stagnant. Rampant corruption, which is structurally created by the legal code and security apparatus, could eventually undermine the integrity of the security institutions that are supposed to protect and preserve the state.

The Personalistic Suryŏng [ 首領 ] System

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.[fn] Juan J. Linz, Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2000).Hide Footnote 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.[fn]Charles K. Armstrong, “The Nature, Origins, and Development of the North Korean State,” in Samuel S. Kim, editor, The North Korean System in the Post-Cold War Era (New York: Palgrave, 2001), pp. 39-63.Hide Footnote

According to state propaganda, the DPRK is dependent upon a “Great Leader” for survival and prosperity. Borrowing from imperial Japan’s kokutai [國體], North Korean propaganda refers to the suryŏng as the “brain” for the “national body.” North Koreans are indoctrinated to believe that “freedom and national independence” are only possible by submitting to and supporting the leader—even if it means sacrificing one’s own life. The ideological pillars of the state promise that in return the leader will protect North Koreans from an impure and hostile international environment.[fn]Brian Myers, The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters (New York: Melville House, 2010).Hide Footnote

The leader is enshrined in the constitution. Kim Il-sŏng is credited with having “reinforced and developed the republic into a popular masses-centered socialist country and a socialist state of independence, self-support, and self-defense by putting forward a chuch’e-oriented revolutionary line.” He is said to have “turned the whole society into one big, single-heartedly united family.”[fn]DPRK Constitution Preamble.Hide Footnote And as a “united family,” citizens cannot opt out of this relationship and have non-negotiable responsibilities:

"Under the leadership of the Korean Workers Party, the DPRK and the Korean people will hold the Great Leader Comrade Kim Il Sung in high esteem as the eternal president of the republic and complete the chuch’e revolutionary cause to the end by defending,  carrying forward, and developing Comrade Kim Il Sung’s idea and achievements".

The constitution’s preamble declares that “Kim Il-sŏng’s chuch’e-oriented idea of state building and his achievements in state building have been made into law.” The constitution justifies hereditary succession, which is now under way for the second time in the country’s history. The current leader, Kim Jŏng-il, is the “supreme leader [最高領導者] of the DPRK” (Article 100), and has the authority to “issue orders” (Article 104) that essentially carry the weight of supreme law immune from judicial review or challenge from any institution or citizen.

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.[fn]Daniel A. Pinkston, “Up in Arms – North Korea’s Illicit Weapons Deals,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, 22 April 2010.Hide Footnote 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.

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