North Korean-Style “Democracy” and the Prospects for True Democratisation
North Korean-Style “Democracy” and the Prospects for True Democratisation
North Korea Plots a Course of “Heavy Agony” for 2022
North Korea Plots a Course of “Heavy Agony” for 2022
Commentary / Asia

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?

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.

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.

Workers plant rice at the Chongsan Cooperative Farm in the Kangso district of Nampho City on 12 May 2020. KIM Won Jin / AFP
Q&A / Asia

North Korea Plots a Course of “Heavy Agony” for 2022

The latest five-day plenum of North Korea’s ruling party focused on food insecurity, chief among the nation’s challenges. With the pandemic not yet tamed and other uncertainty on the international scene, Pyongyang may continue refraining from major provocations into 2022, but for how long is unclear.

North Korea has just completed its annual review of its own performance at the fourth plenum of the Eighth Congress of the Workers’ Party, held from 27-31 December 2021. What can we learn from this exercise about the state of the country?

Under Kim Jong-un, Pyongyang politics tick along on a system of five-year “congresses”, the most recent of which was held in January 2021 (and should run to 2026). These five-year cycles are then punctuated by fairly regular plenums, including the one that ended on 31 December. What we got in a lengthy article on 1 January was a report on that plenum, which amounts to a kind of annual review of the party’s performance, and an indicator of the challenges it has identified for the year ahead.

What happened this time is a little different from the usual modus operandi. Under previous chiefs and in Kim Jong-un’s pre-pandemic era, the North Korean leader would deliver a new year’s address either on television or via an editorial in state-run newspapers, and these would mark a waypoint in the country’s politics. In 2022, all we got was a report on Kim Jong-un’s contribution to the plenum; it was a comma compared to the full stops of years past.

The report gave little hope for immediate improvement ... as Kim [Jong-un] mentioned a ‘heavy yet responsible agony’ for the period to come.

It’s difficult to interpret exactly what this means and what new, if anything, has been decided by the five-day plenum. For one thing, the full text of Kim’s speech was not published, and for another, the signals it gave were rather mixed. There was abundant rhetoric about successes and breakthroughs as usual, but all suffused with a sense of insufficiency. Of one thing we can be relatively certain: 2021 was another tough year, in particular due to the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact. Perhaps not quite as tough as 2020, when the coronavirus first triggered fear, border closings and a steep economic downturn, but still very challenging. The report gave little hope for immediate improvement, either, as Kim mentioned a “heavy yet responsible agony” for the period to come.

From what was revealed, it appears the party hasn’t been able to make much progress toward the goals of the five-year economic plan outlined in January 2021. Although it is impossible to conclusively verify from the outside what is happening on the ground, the lack of progress must be clearly visible to the citizenry, many of whom will have seen no sign of promised improvements to “food, clothing, and housing” in a year during which COVID-19 containment measures have suffocated economic activity. But, as discussed below, it’s hard to tell exactly how much the country is suffering or, indeed, upon whom the burden is mainly falling.

Given the concern expressed in the plenum report about farming, we can assume a degree of difficulty for many North Koreans in getting food – either because it is in short supply or because market prices are out of reach for people who have seen their incomes fall. Kim delivered a long speech on what he called “our-style socialist rural development”, or in other words, what needs to be done to improve the agricultural system and bring North Korea closer to meeting the population’s food requirements. As always, the reported speech included a large measure of ideological conditioning of farmers and no shortage of exhortations for agricultural labourers to work harder. But it also touched upon agricultural modernisation and policies to remedy the worst effects of climate change, notably on production of North Korea’s staple crop, rice. It all indicates considerable concern for the state of the country’s agricultural performance.

How bad is the situation for ordinary people in North Korea?

From border regions – which are more accessible to outsiders thanks to cross-border cellular communications, and which we use as a rough proxy for other parts of the country outside Pyongyang – there is plentiful evidence of people facing difficulties in their daily lives. Because of a de facto zero-COVID-19 policy, the country’s border with China has been closed since January 2020, meaning large-scale cross-border trade and flows of people have stopped almost completely. The little reporting that has emerged from the North suggests that the closure has affected incomes, and thus demand seems to have switched from relatively costly rice to the cheaper alternative, corn, while market prices for manufactured goods have risen markedly as supplies dwindle. These phenomena have led to rising levels of poverty and food insecurity. North Korea’s northern neighbour and ally China may well already be sending humanitarian supplies, but if so, it is doing so (as ever) without fanfare, and it is impossible to identify who the beneficiaries are. Whatever the case, humanitarian assistance is no substitute for the restoration of cross-border trade.

North Korea is, however, nowhere near the famine that struck in the period 1995-1997, when as many as a million people may have perished. Back then, Pyongyang was forced to beg for international aid and had to open up its borders to deliveries of food and observers. Under Kim Jong-un since 2011, Pyongyang has taken significant steps toward deepening existing market mechanisms in the economy, even if in recent years it has sought to restore more state controls. The market economy as it is now constituted makes outright famine much less likely than it was in the 1990s, when the population’s reliance on the state’s rapidly disintegrating rationing system left millions at risk of starvation.

What have we learned about how Kim Jong-un has consolidated power over the last ten years?

Before Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, suffered a stroke in the summer of 2008, he had greatly enfeebled the ruling party. In his heyday, the elder Kim ran an autocratic dictatorship in which the executive implemented decisions and the party rubber-stamped them, at best. When he took power in 2011 after a period of co-rule, Kim Jong-un didn’t have the authority to do that, and therefore needed to bring existing elites along with him in a way that his father did not. As a result, he emphasised the role of the party as the organ of decision-making and administration, with the cabinet as the overseer of the economy. By regularising the role of party congresses and plenums, he seems to have invited a measure of collective, if mostly top-down, discussion among officials at the national, regional and local levels, as well as among those working in industry. In a recent visual indication of this institutionalising trend, Kim Jong-un has overseen the removal of some images of his father and grandfather from public spaces, replacing them with party symbols.

But this modest commitment to collective rule doesn’t make much difference to the governing system’s coherence: Kim Jong-un remains supreme leader, and he has now placed faithful lieutenants in all the key party and cabinet positions, freeing him from having to rely excessively on members of his father’s team to rule. In other words, there is still no sign of change in North Korea’s underlying personalist power structure, and since the brutal elimination of Kim’s uncle Jang Song-thaek in December 2013, also no indication of the emergence of anyone with an independent power base or the potential to construct one. If the regime can survive COVID-19 – which it has done so far, at least – it’s hard to see what could trip it up in the short to medium term.

Does the plenum report mean that North Korea will be focused on its internal problems in the coming year, and not on provoking the outside world?

It seems clear that North Korea plans to be internally focused in 2022. The plenum report didn’t mention military or foreign policy matters in any detail. Instead, it focused on the domestic economy, particularly agriculture. This is not, in all likelihood, because the leader wants to focus on agriculture, but because he has to: ensuring the country’s food security remains a major challenge. There’s also much uncertainty in the outside world, which could counsel a wait-and-see approach before Kim makes any major moves. South Korean elections in early March will result in a new leader for North Korea’s most direct rival. COVID-19 could wane, but it could also become an even bigger distraction.

Kim [Jong-un] continues to build and improve Pyongyang’s arsenal.

In any event, Kim continues to build and improve Pyongyang’s arsenal. He laid out the party’s priorities for military strengthening a year ago at the Eighth Congress, when launching the current planning cycle. These priorities, which continue to guide North Korea, were listed as: to keep developing nuclear technology, including tactical and “super-sized” warheads; to achieve accurate delivery of missiles within a radius of 15,000km (that is, the whole territory of the United States); to design hypersonic gliding flight warheads; to advance plans for solid-fuel intercontinental missiles; to possess a nuclear submarine and underwater-launch strategic nuclear weapon; to launch a military reconnaissance satellite; and to build reconnaissance drones with a 500km range (that is, the whole territory of South Korea).

Some of these goals are still remote. But in pursuit of others, North Korea has already done some new, high-profile military testing in 2021 and now also in 2022, including a launch on 5 January of what it claims was a hypersonic missile (possibly of the same make that was shown off at the country’s Self-Defence 2021 exhibition in October). There will certainly be more testing in the year to come, though the tempo and intensity could be affected by what happens with the pandemic and, correspondingly, the country’s economic health.

Does the plenum report suggest more of the same on the Korean peninsula for 2022?

On the whole, yes. But it is noteworthy that the plenum report quotes Kim Jong-un as saying that, as North Korea enters 2022, “we came to know what we can do”. This sentence seems to indicate he feels the country enjoys a degree of stability that was not there at the end of 2020, and that it is now a bit easier for North Korea to plan its international strategy. But it is not a statement of outright confidence, particularly given the unpredictable progress of the pandemic, which overshadows everything.

As best we can tell, North Korea's zero-COVID-19 policy has so far done a reasonably good job of controlling the virus. But the cornerstone of this strategy was sealing off its land borders. The closures have led not just to food insecurity and precipitously declining trade volumes, but also to the departure of much of Pyongyang’s diplomatic and NGO community, which opted to withdraw staff rather than operate under unworkable restrictions on freedom of movement into, out of and inside the country. Repeatedly, North Korea has seemed on the verge of reopening its borders to overland trade, but resurgences of the virus appear to have forced it to delay the measure and rely instead on modest volumes of goods coming into the west coast port of Nampo. There is now talk of a fresh attempt, but that seems unlikely in light of the omicron variant. Each new iteration of the pandemic poses potentially huge risks to a country that has rejected all attempts to supply it with effective vaccines.

The border closure will necessarily continue to affect all North Korea’s economic plans. Indeed, even the modest goal of upgrading the agricultural sector will involve imports of machinery, parts and chemical fertilisers. Any concerted new program of military testing will need hard currency, for which the only good source is trade with China.

What do current conditions mean for our understanding of North Korea?

Due to the pandemic and border closure, we presently know even less about what’s happening inside North Korea than usual. There are few diplomats, businesspeople, tourists or aid workers left. Organisations that maintain networks of citizen journalists inside North Korea or who rely on networks of resettled North Koreans in Seoul have less reporting to work with. These gaps directly affect how much information we have about the situation in the country, and the capacity to cross-reference anecdotal reports coming from the ground. The reopening of overland trade is a classic example. There are a handful of superficially plausible reports that the borders are going to reopen in January, but they’re very hard to cross-check.

For now, it seems likely that because of COVID-19, North Korea has for some time not been in a strong position to “provoke” the outside world as it has often done in the past. There is little to indicate that it has really wanted to, either, though that may be more a consequence of the pandemic forcing the state to review its priorities than its leadership’s tactical preferences. But the 5 January missile test is a reminder that we will be hearing from Pyongyang again.

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