August 11, 2022
Since June 2021, the National Committee on North Korea and the Wilson Center's Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy have worked together to implement a roundtable series called "Understanding North Korea." The series provided a platform for six emerging scholars to share their research ideas with peers and experts in the field and publish their findings in a format accessible to a general audience. Topics included North Korea's cyber activities, illicit finance, social controls, socioeconomic trends, and intra-elite power relations. Dr. Bejamin Katzeff Silberstein's paper is the fourth of the series. Read the summary below and check out the full report.
North Korea is one of the harshest totalitarian dictatorships in the world. It is, however, not a static society. Dynamics of oppression have waxed and waned throughout the country’s history. The current leader, Kim Jong Un, has made it a priority to strengthen surveillance and social control, and launched an intense crackdown against foreign, “capitalist” culture in the country around one year ago. This runs counter to what many believed—or perhaps, rather, hoped for—as Kim ascended to replace his father, Kim Jong Il, in late 2011.
This essay argues that Kim has sought from the beginning of his tenure to restore the state’s capacity to govern and exercise totalitarian control. North Korea’s particularly difficult economic situation during the Covid-19 border shutdown may explain the timing of the present campaign. At the same time, it was not launched suddenly and continues a pattern from Kim’s first years in power. Kim and his advisors may seek to return to a rule more closely resembling that of Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, who constructed the bedrock of North Korea’s totalitarian system. However, implementing and executing the campaign is likely challenging for the regime. The state likely has limited and often unreliable data about the extent of foreign, capitalist cultural penetration given that people take great care to hide such cultural consumption from the authorities. Additionally, the campaign may pose medium- to long-term risks for the regime. The parallel clampdown on private economic activity is most precarious, but tightened control over information and cultural consumption also carries risks.