Not Your Father’s Dictatorship

29 Jun

This is the sort of political science research that really is a wonder to read.

North Korea: Total mmbership of the Politburo, Secretariat, and NDC (Wtness to Transformation) We begin with an overview of three important bodies: the National Defense Commission, the Politburo (including the Standing Committee, full and alternate members) and the Secretariat. We do not make any claims about the operational significance of these bodies; it is hard to know if they even meet. But they are made up of individuals that consistently appear as politically significant actors, because:

  • they simultaneously head significant organizations that wield material resources (for example, the presence of Secretaries or general officers on the Politburo);
  • because of official rankings based on order of appearance at various functions;
  • because the frequency of their appearances with Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un-as measured through on-the-spot-guidance tours-suggests proximity to the leadership.


Three simple take-aways:

  • The succession was accompanied by an expansion of core institutions, presumably in an attempt to revive them; most notable in this regard is the Politburo.
  • This attempt at institutional revival did involve the recruitment of new and younger faces into the top institutions, particularly in the Secretariat. It is too early to know if this fact has substantive or policy significance, but is worth watching;
  • At the same time, however, the number of individuals occupying overlapping positions in these institutions has also gone up, suggesting both a controlled expansion of the top elite and an even more controlled expansion of an “inner core” of individuals with multiple institutional roles.

What could this new burgeonng cadre be doing? Perhaps, they will get rich.

Senior Sejong Institute researcher Cheong Seong Chang today joined the chorus of experts believing that change is happening in North Korea, saying, “Since the death of Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Eun has revised six laws relating to foreign investment. This indicates Kim Jong Eun’s positive disposition towards economic reform and opening”.


“In 2009, there were reports that Kim Jong Eun made a ‘reform and opening strategy team’ and this was adjudged to be highly reliable,” he even added, “Through this Kim Jong Eun has carefully prepared for reform, and the number of trucks coming in and out of customs between China and North Korea has actually increased”.

He also said, “Kim Jong Eun visited Dandong in March or April of 2011 to see the progress going on in that area. Dandong residents and ethnic Korean businessmen testified that transportation and personnel around the Crown Plaza Hotel, the best hotel in Dandong, was completely restricted.”

All of which, Cheong concluded, suggests North Korea is opening up. However, he cautioned, “Kim Jong Eun will use capitalism but find the way to control it.”

It looks as if North Korea is changing – into another kind of authoritarian state, one where the ever shrinking ruling classes feed off trade and an anemic market economy.

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