North Korea is the only communist nation to develop a dynastic form of government. The three Kims who ruled since 1948 have been worshipped like royalty and any disrespect is a major crime. This began in 1948, when the Soviet Union (Russia) permanently divided Korea and put Kim Il Sung in charge of the northern portion of Korea that Russia had occupied in 1945. The Americans occupied the southern portion. Russia did not expect Kim Il Sung to found a dynasty and initially neither did their chosen leader of this new “People’s Republic.” Kim Il Sung saw opportunities to gain control of all major institutions in North Korea and outlived the Soviet Union, which dissolved in 1991. That eliminated the economic subsidies that kept communist North Korea going and any control Russia exercised. Kim’s consolidation of power was unusual among post-World War II Russian “satellite states” and considered odd but not unusual.
Kim Il Sung died in 1994 and his son Kim Jong Il succeeded him. His father was declared the Great Leader and his birthday became a national holiday. Kim Jong Il was known as the Dear Leader and so began the tradition of dynastic rule because the third Kim was soon deified as the Young General. The 1990s was a bad time for North Korea because without the Russian subsidies the north could not feed itself. About ten percent of the population died from starvation or hunger-related diseases. When the children born during the 1990s came of age and were conscripted, South Koreans noticed that these soldiers were smaller (shorter and thinner) than South Korean troops. South Korea had developed a working democracy and a booming economy. South Korea troops were larger than their parents’ generation because of better diet and health care.
Kim Jong Il survived the 1990s by invoking the need for juche (self-reliance). Kim Jong Il died in 2011 and was succeeded by his son Kim Jong Un, who was much younger than his father and grandfather when they took power. Because of that, Kim Jong Un took longer to consolidate his power. His father had over a decade to prepare and was 43 years old when he succeeded Kim Il Sung. Despite some early doubts inside and outside North Korea, the third Kim was up to the task, executed officials who opposed him and replaced many with younger men. Kim Jong Un has had health problems and had no adult children to succeed him. He turned to his younger sister Kim Yo Jong as his successor. In many ways the younger sister is more capable of ruling than her older brother, but she has proved loyal and useful for her brother rather than a dangerous rival.
It took more than skill and ruthlessness from the Kim family to turn North Korea into a dynastic communist state. The Kim’s created a communist government that gave credit to some traditional Korean values and exploited that successfully. For example, when North Korea was founded in the late 1940s a caste system was created. This established an official list of 51 social classes. Most (29) of these classes were composed of people considered either hostile to the government or leaning that way. These new lower classes included business people, the most successful farmers, professionals and, well, you get the picture. Most of the population falls into these 29 social classes, and after the 1990s they were getting increasingly hostile to a government that seems to do nothing but create one disaster after another. The people, including many of the soldiers, are hungry. After the 1990s even the secret police began stealing whatever they could get away with and by 2015 senior officials were planning their escape routes. The highest caste people, who had long come to regard themselves, quite accurately, as a hereditary aristocracy, were growing more corrupt and fearful. Many of these high caste families do have talented people, but a lot of those selected for the top castes were chosen because they were loyal communists and willing to be brutal and do whatever they were told. Not the entrepreneurial type at all, which is why they are so wary of all these newly rich lower caste business people (the “doju”) that began appearing after Kim Jung Un took power.
While described as a communist police state, that is only half true. North Korea is a police state, but it stopped being communist in the traditional sense during the early 1970s. At that point North Korea declared that it had developed its own unique form of communism called juche. This development was partly to extricate itself from the ideological battles going on between its two conventionally communist neighbors, China, and the Soviet Union. Juche was described as a more effective nationalistic form of communism, which in its pure form is very international. Juche stresses making North Korea economically self-sufficient and strong enough to defend itself from anyone. Juche still depends on a command economy, where the state owns all commercial enterprises, but uses all this for the benefit of North Korea and, eventually, all of Korea, not anyone else. Communist purists in China and Russia (the Soviet Union) protested but were overruled by their political bosses who saw this as a clever way for North Korea to disengage itself from the growing political tensions between China and the Soviet Union.
Juche came along while China and the Soviets were fighting skirmishes along their common border and some in the Soviet leadership were calling for a nuclear war against the Chinese to settle the matter once and for all. North Korea depended on its two huge neighbors for economic aid, mainly from the Soviet Union, and trade, mainly with China. Both nations tolerated Juche and North Korea’s unwillingness to take sides. After a decade of political and military tension China and the Soviet Union made peace. Shortly thereafter, in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and the aid from Russia stopped. The result was an economic catastrophe that cost North Korea about half its GDP and nearly ten percent of its population to starvation and some migration to China plus, to a lesser extent, Russia.
Juche in a communist style command economy did not work very well. But then a curious thing happened. Despite North Korean hostility towards a market economy, the country developed one that has become more important to more people than the disappearing government handouts. While the government still owns all the major industries and commercial firms, these are declining in their effectiveness and productivity. There had always been a small black market underground economy and it became larger as desperate North Koreans sought food and other goods they could no longer get from the state. The government did not crack down as hard as it could have because it was obvious that the growing black market was keeping people alive and, more importantly, not desperate enough to turn on the state. Moreover, most North Koreans saw this growing market economy as very juche; self-reliant and obviously in the best interest of many desperate North Koreans. In 2014 surveys of refugees in China and South Korea indicated that over 80 percent of North Koreans bought or sold (or both) in the free markets and most North Koreans conducted half their economic activity via the markets.
Unlike most communist nations, North Korea never pretended to be a democratic state, with sham elections and regular meetings of a legislature that had no power and approved what the leader proposed. Those institutions existed in North Korea but were used to glorify the Kim dynasty, not pretend they meant anything else. After the first Kim died, he became something of a god, with the cities and towns full of statues and other images of the Great Leader where people gathered to worship him and the dynasty. After 2011 his deceased son got the same treatment. Kim Jong Un was soon seen in similar images. It was a capital offense to deface these monuments and a jailable offence to disrespect them. Since religion was also outlawed, worship of the Kims was encouraged and until recently attracted believers in each new generation.
After the 1990s this idolatry and blind faith in the Kim dynasty became a major factor in keeping the country under control. North Korea always had a nationwide network of local informers controlled by the secret police. Informant reports were analyzed to gage public opinion and in the last decade those reports have been increasingly anti-Kim. This did not worry Kim Jong Un, not at first.
The East European communist government all collapsed in 1989 when the populations simply refused to let communist rule continue. This terrified many in the North Korean leadership, but Kim Il Sung survived by invoking juche and that was important because juche is intensely nationalistic and so are all Koreans. Kim Il Sung declared that North Korea was different and was able to survive where the European communist governments could not. This was declared a victory for the very special Korean people. The flattery flowed both ways and kept the Kims going through a period later called “The Arduous March” and something all Koreans could be proud of.
Since the Arduous March the loyalty of the North Korean people has declined as has the reliability of government officials, including military and secret police. Corruption is rampant and disrespect for Kim monuments is growing. That includes anti-Kim graffiti and even posters. Cell phones and video players also found their way into North Korea as did video of South Korean TV shows and movies. These destroyed the long-held illusion that North Korea was doing better economically than the rest of the world, particularly decadent South Korea. This sort of thing is usually a prelude to a dynastic collapse. When that will happen is difficult to predict because North Korea really is a unique case.
China began quietly preparing to go in and deal with a collapse, but not stage a coup. Kim Jong Un suspected that and many of the senior officials he executed or removed were openly accused of being too cozy with the Chinese. That did not eliminate Chinese influence inside North Korea. Despite juche China has had to remind Kim Jong Un several times that North Korea is the younger brother to China the elder brother and respect must be shown. These admonishments have been delivered personally when Kim Jon Un was summoned to China to meet with Big Brother in person. On his return, there was a decline in behavior China did not approve of. Despite that Kim Jong Un continued developing ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. Both efforts cost North Korea a lot of cash that was needed for essentials like a national health system and rebuilding decrepit infrastructure like roads, railroads, and electricity production.
When covid19 appeared in 2020 North Korea promptly shut down the Chinese border to any traffic, including road and rail. There was a similar shutdown internally and North Korea declared that covid19 never got in. It did, but smugglers who brought it in were executed if caught with what appeared to be covid19 and more troops were sent to the border, eventually receiving orders to shoot on sight anyone caught in a closed security zone. Soldiers were ordered to leave the bodies where they fell and report the incident so that special sanitary teams could collect the possibly infected trespasser and safely dispose of the corpse. There was a suspected outbreak of covid19 in the armed forces that led to all soldiers suspected of having the disease being sent to special facilities where they would be kept in quarantine until it was obvious they did not have the virus.
In a growing number of cases malnourished soldiers did have covid19 and spread it to others in the quarantine facility before they themselves died. There were many fatalities which were passed off as anything but covid19. North Korea got away with this because the government could not afford to do a lot of testing and only senior officials quietly received covid19 tests and were secretly given Western vaccines smuggled in. Despite offers of free vaccines from China and more effective Western vaccines produced under license by South Korea, North Korea is one of the few nations that has not attempted widespread vaccination. Hunger has grown and more people are dying from that. But not covid19 because North Korea declares that juche has kept covid19, and the need for testing or vaccines out.
Younger sister Kim Yo Jong is more frequently acting like the designated successor to a much thinner and less vigorous Kim Jong Un. She now does most of the negotiating with China, South Korea, Japan, and the United States. She speaks decisively and with authority. The South Koreans admire that because they have elected women to high offices and in 2017 prosecuted a female president for corruption while she was still in office. Such prosecutions of high-ranking South Korean politicians and businessmen are not unusual and that is feared by most of the North Korean leadership.
In China and South Korea, the consensus is that the Kim dynasty is not likely to survive. As always, when the collapse will come is unknown, just the certainty that it is on the way but may still be avoided by someone like Kim Yo Jong simply because she is more competent than her brother and has not had any power long enough to collect many indictable (outside of North Korea) offenses.