How North Korea survived ‘toughest test’ for totalitarians


North Korea’s neighbors, the Chinese, have never expected the DPRK to surrender or collapse, and so far they have been correct, notes Columbia University’s Andrew J. Nathan. At home, the regime recently survived the toughest test that totalitarian systems face, a leadership succession, he writes for The New York Review of Books:

The country was ruled by Kim Il-sung from 1948, when the postwar Soviet occupation of North Korea ended, until his death in 1994; by his son, Kim Jong-il, from 1994 until he died in 2011; and since 2011 by the founder’s grandson, Kim Jong-un. Jong-un was his father’s youngest son and a surprise successor; he emerged as heir apparent only two years before his father’s death, in contrast to his father, who had been heir apparent for twenty years. Kim Jong-il is believed to have run the country’s terrorism, counterfeiting, smuggling, and proliferation operations for most of that time.

Kim Jong-un has surprised the skeptics. In five years he has turned a most unpromising situation into a certain kind of success, adds Nathan, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group:

He has refuted those at home and abroad who doubted his vigilance and ruthlessness, fostered a mild economic recovery, and advanced his country’s position as a nuclear power. UN sanctions have been calibrated at China’s behest so as not to threaten the regime’s survival. If Kim’s economy were to falter, China and South Korea would have to bail him out. The only risk of collapse would be if young Kim’s health declined. Even then, the strong, disciplined army, with its privileges at stake, would maintain order. China would be the beneficiary, which is one reason that Beijing sees no need for the discussions about contingency plans that many Western strategists call for. This is, however, a poor kind of victory, with the young ruler and his countrymen trapped in a self-sustaining nightmare that shows no prospect of ending.


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