For the Kims, the weakest link is family

By Aidan Foster-Carter

I’m a sociologist, by discipline. Or indiscipline, do I hear you sneer? True, my subject has its share of what one eminent sociologist, Garry Runciman, has called ”attitude and platitude”. Plenty of obfuscating jargon, too. Nor is it half as trendy as when I first got hooked, back in 1968 – when I mixed it up with Marxism. These days, subjects like psychology, history and even economics (despite our present discontents) are more highly regarded than sociology.

But my trade has its uses too, as I shall now try to demonstrate. Take Kim Jong-eun, newly crowned dauphin of North Korea. A communist monarchy: that’s a strange beast indeed, and a contradiction in terms. But sociology, I contend, may shed some light here. What is going on? How on earth did it come to this? And can such a peculiar system survive?

Trotsky saw it coming
Let’s start with Trotsky. Lev Davidovich Bronstein (1879-1940), who took the name Trotsky, was by profession a revolutionary, not a sociologist. Before they joined forces to lead the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, he had criticized Lenin’s methods and in particular his elitism.

Despite starting out as democrats, intellectuals who believe they have history on their side tend to get the idea that they know best. The people’s will becomes whatever they say it is. We are progress, we must prevail. You, conversely, who beg to differ, are an enemy of the people, on the wrong side of history – so shut up, or else. (A word for this is ”vanguardism.”)

The young Trotsky’s critique of such arrogance – before he sold the pass and joined the club, seduced by the smell of power – was sociologically sharp, prescient, and indeed fateful:

”In inner-party politics, these methods lead, as we shall yet see, to this: the party organization substitutes itself for the party, the central committee substitutes itself for the organization, and, finally, a ‘dictator’ substitutes himself for the central committee.”

Which is exactly what came to pass. Having seized power, the Bolsheviks betrayed hopes of democracy by quashing all who disagreed with them: not just counter-revolutionaries, but fellow socialists. Before long, the suppression spread to within their own ranks. The logical conclusion was the monster Stalin – whose agents murdered Trotsky in his Mexican exile.

Had Trotsky lived to see the further perversion of communism that is North Korea, he might have taken this further. Soviet Stalinism spawned mini-Stalins elsewhere. Even as the USSR repudiated Stalin, his Korean epigone Kim Il-sung moved in the other direction: to cement control. Moreover the Great Leader resolved that his system should not perish with him.

And it hasn’t. Kim Il-sung was no sociologist, but he understood what it took to grab power and build a tyranny that lasts. Trotsky’s three stages – three substitutions, in his word – take us from democracy to dictator. But history doesn’t end there. The tyrant must secure his power: both in his lifetime and especially after he has gone. Succession is the Achilles’ heel here.

Looking at how North Korea has managed to endure, three factors appear essential. One is force, pure and simple. With all pretence of democracy gone, Mao’s dictum becomes the bottom line: Power grows out of the barrel of a gun. North Korea’s relentless militarization is thus no surprise, nor is its formalization by Kim Jong-il as Songun (military-first policy): even twisting Marxist theory to make soldiers, not workers, the revolution’s driving force.

Unlikely generals

How far Songun has come was clear from the rare conference on September 28 of the nominally ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK). At least the WPK now has a Poliburo and a Central Committee (CC) again; both had atrophied since Kim Il-sung died in 1994. And of course the main point was to hail the new princeling. But first things first. On the eve of the meeting Kim Jong-eun – aged 27, with no known military experience – was made a four-star general.

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So was his equally civilian aunt Kim Kyong-hui, Kim Jong-il’s younger sister, whose field is light industry. Only then did Kim Jong-eun acquire Party rank: as a CC member and (crucially) as joint vice-chairman of the WPK’s Central Military Committee (CMC). (Connoisseurs of comparative communism may care to note that China’s vice-president Xi Jinping, widely seen as President Hu Jintao’s successor, acquired exactly the same position on October 18.)

But back to North Korea. Nephew and aunt look an unconvincing pair of generals – what do real soldiers make of this? – but the symbolism and pecking order are clear. What counts in Pyongyang these days is the Korean People’s Army (KPA). And while Kim Il-sung as an ex-guerilla had the kudos to control the KPA, his pampered son lacked that clout. Indeed, when the Dear Leader dies an actual military takeover looks a distinct possibility. That isn’t the Kims’ plan, however, so two additional strategies have been devised to try to prevent this.

One is family rule. Kim Il-sung took that step as early as 1966. The last time the WPK held a delegates’ meeting like the one we have just seen in Pyongyang – 44 years ago: due process is not North Korea’s forte – it was to be told the startling news that their leader had picked his younger brother Kim Yong-ju – later out-maneuvered by Kim Jong-il, but thought to be still alive at age 90 – as successor. That stuck in some throats, even of those who had seen how ruthlessly Kim purged his foes a decade earlier – they used Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s secret speech denouncing Stalin to try to get rid of him, but failed. The lucky ones managed to flee to the USSR and China. Thereafter Kim’s cult of personality grew apace, but extending this to his brother was a step too far for some. Those rash enough to voice objections were duly purged.

Communist monarchy
Communist monarchy: what a grotesque paradox. Yet there is a double logic to this. First, at the end of the day who can you trust? Especially in a culture that prizes filial piety, your own family looks the best bet. Kim Jong-il certainly thinks so, promoting not only his son but his sister – Kim Kyong-hui also becomes a full Politburo member – and of course her husband Jang Song-taek, now an alternate Politburo member as well as a vice-chair of the National Defense Commission (NDC), the highest executive body of state outranking the Cabinet.

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Second: In a state barely 60 years old, but preceded by centuries of Confucian monarchy and (more immediately) four decades of emperor-worship under Japanese occupation (1905-45), keeping it in the Kim family presses powerful buttons. Or to put it more sociologically, this mode of essentially patriarchal legitimation of rulers is familiar, indeed deeply ingrained.

On October 8 Yang Hyong-sop, a veteran Politburo member aged 85, told Associated Press Television News (APTN): ”Our people take pride in the fact that they are blessed with great leaders from generation to generation… Our people are honored to serve the great president Kim Il-sung and the great general Kim Jong-il. Now we also have the honor of serving young general Kim Jong-eun.”

He sounded deeply traditional: a loyal courtier to his kings. But North Korea’s communist origins mean it can’t admit it has become a monarchy, so this isn’t quite enough. Both the ruler, and even more his successor, have to justify their rule in some other way. This is the third factor, and it takes two forms – or more precisely, stages.

The first is a cult of personality: originated by Stalin, extended by Mao, and pushed to its extremes by Kim Il-sung. Hey, if a guy claims absolute right to rule, he’d better be special. This is what the German sociologist Max Weber called charisma: a term which has entered the language in a looser sense. Or if he’s not so special, you make up stories to pretend he is. These may be ludicrous, but woe betide anyone rash enough to giggle or cast aspersions.

Yet as Weber saw, as a mode of rule charisma has problems. Unlike traditional authority – a monarchy proper, for instance – charisma is vested in just one exceptional individual. What happens when they die? The challenge, in Weber’s rather ugly term, is to routinize charisma.

Immortal presidents
Well, North Korea has done that. One way is to make the hero immortal. Kim Il-sung is still ”eternal president”, despite being dead for 16 years. The final step, logical enough, is to turn adoration into veneration and in effect create a religion. Again the recent WPK meeting is a case in point. Pouring into Pyongyang from every corner of the land, what was the first thing the delegates did? Before the conference came an act of worship. As a group, they all visited the ”sacred temple of Juche”. That’s how the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) refers to Kumsusan Memorial Palace: where Kim Il-sung lived and worked, and where even now his embalmed corpse keeps a glass eye on things. KCNA noted that the delegates ”paid high tribute” even to Kim’s statue, and ”made deep bows to the president” in person.

Weird, yet it makes a kind of sense. To sum up so far. Trotsky’s grimly accurate forecast of what happens when an elite thinks it knows better than the people it purports to represent – first the party, then a clique, and finally a dictator – is only half the story. For the dictator to hold onto power, even after his death, entails three further steps: militarization, family rule, and a quasi-religious cult. Or at least that’s what North Korea’s peculiar evolution suggests.

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Two caveats. This isn’t a complete sociology of power in North Korea, obviously. A fuller account would look more at the role of ideology. This too has mutated far from communism into what Brian Myers bluntly calls ”race-based nationalism”. His book The Cleanest Race examines North Korea’s internal propaganda. The story the regime tells its people about the world and their place in it is even nastier, narrower and more noxious than you’d imagine. Read it, especially if tempted to believe that this regime genuinely wants to make peace.

Can it last?
Second, I dare to hope for a happy ending. Kim Il-sung’s sociological nous has kept the state he created alive longer than many (me included) had expected. But can it go on for ever?

That I doubt. A full answer would loose more hares than there’s room for here. In the 21st century, refusing market reforms is a recipe for self-destruction. Abroad, North Korea’s old game of militant mendicancy, despite some success from the Sino-Soviet dispute right up to the six-party talks, is past its sell-by date; other powers are fed up and won’t play any more.

But just to stick to the processes already mentioned, these too are far from foolproof. The weakest link is familism. Past history, in Korea or anywhere – think of the Borgias in Italy – suggests that monarchies or other forms of family rule can be riddled by strife. Some crown princes just aren’t up to the job. People plot, and before you know it the knives are out.

Specifically, promoting a third son over his elder siblings is asking for trouble. What does number one son think? On October 12 he told us. Interviewed in Beijing by Japan’s Asahi TV, Kim Jong-nam broke ranks, saying: ”Personally, I am against third-generation dynastic succession”. Adding that he didn’t care, and would help little brother ”while I stay abroad”, doesn’t make this any less of a bombshell. Kim Jong-nam has gone off-message, big time.

Nor is he the only one. Even in Pyongyang the mask is slipping. The WPK conference and subsequent military parade seem to have passed off smoothly, but dissent is growing. One recent visiting group (which included a Korean-speaker) heard a full-scale row between their guides – it was evening, and drink had been taken – as to what right Kim Jong-eun had to be foisted on them as leader. That is still dangerous talk; but many more will be thinking it. The young general has much to prove, and may not have long to do so. Interesting times.

Aidan Foster-Carter is honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University, and a freelance consultant, writer and broadcaster on Korean affairs. A regular visitor to the peninsula, he has followed Korea for over 40 years.

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