Understanding North Korea’s Sociopolitical Structure
Research Reviews | December 05, 2022
Gyun Yeol Park
Professor at Gyeongsang National University
Gyun Yeol Park, Professor at Gyeongsang National University, highlights that North Korea's one-party dictatorship centered around its supreme leader suppresses political participation and human rights and hinders North Korea from overcoming the hardships of low economic growth, inefficiency, and recessions. Considering that Seoul and Pyongyang should work together to address the issues on the Korean peninsula, Professor Park argues that seeking a nuanced understanding of North Korea is not a matter of choice but an essential task that demands serious research.
For South Korea, North Korea is both friend and foe, in the sense that it is an adversary whose military requires a watchful eye, while it is also a collaborator for cooperation and possible reunification. In particular, with North Korea not giving up its plans to communize the Korean peninsula, it remains a fixed variable for South Korean decision-making. Although Kim Jong-un may lead a different version of the North than those of his predecessors, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests maintain the country’s threating posture to not only South Korea but also to its democratic allies such as the United States and Japan. Additionally, North Korea has been accused of financing its disruptive actions through the sponsorship of North Korean sympathizers in South Korea, cryptocurrency hacking, and the drug trade, which has seen a recent surge in South Korea. Hence, the North has been an important focal point for South Korea’s ideological conflicts.
Against this international and domestic backdrop, South Korea has a responsibility to properly understand the North, as it is both a subject for unification, and an agent for collaboration. This is reaffirmed in the South Korean Constitution, such as per the preamble, the territorial provisions of Article 3, and the mission to reunify in Article 4. First, it is crucial to have an objective and systematic approach for any research on North Korea. These methodologies include realism, liberalism, constructivism, divisional system theory, divisional order theory, a macro-micro approach to North Korea, a data-based approach, a specific issue-based approach, and a meta approach. a combination of these approaches allows greater understanding of North Korea’s political and social environment, such as its “Juche” ideology, “self-rehabilitation” approach, and domestic drivers for its nuclear program. An “ethical competence” model has also recently emerged as a new approach for measuring North Korea’s moral development processes and capability. Alongside the concept of moral competence, such approaches have been suggested as desirable avenues to understanding North Korea, as they enable a more universal and continuous framework. This is because the matter of how to perceive North Korea relies on moral orientation. These approaches were developed to learn a desirable way of perceiving North Korea through the basic constituting principles of the Moral Competence Test (MCT), developed by Professor Georg Lind, a German moral psychologist, to properly measure moral orientations.
It is crucial to understand the essential nature of North Korean society through a meticulous structural and systematic analysis of North Korea’s politics, diplomacy, military, and economy. During the formative years of the North Korean regime’s creation, in which the Kim Il-sung regime emerged following Korea’s liberation from Japan, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin played a prominent role. His influence contributed to the status and authority of the Worker’s Party of Korea as a one-party dictatorship, with Kim Il-sung as the supreme leader over the party and the country. Furthermore, North Korea’s three-generational hereditary succession has constricted its potential to open up, develop, and reform. North Korea’s governing ideologies include Juche (self-sufficiency), Songun (military-first), and Kim Il-sung-ism/Kim Jong-il-ism, with Kim Il-sung-ism/Kim Jong-il-ism, being recently emphasized in particular. As for North Korea’s foreign policy, Pyongyang purportedly operates under the spirit of “self-reliance, peace, and goodwill,” and views the normalization of relations with the United States as a key factor in regime maintenance, even pursuing continuous efforts to improve relations during periods of confrontation. North Korea has also been trying to sign a peace treaty with the United States through direct negotiations to further ensure its regime safety and seek economic payoffs for resolving the nuclear crisis. As for North Korea’s military, it defines itself as contributing to the party’s goal of “unification through revolution,” placings itself under the subordination of the party. Since Kim Jong-un simultaneously holds the title of President of State Affairs, General Secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea, Chairman of the Central Military Commission, and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, he exercises absolute power over all matters in North Korea. North Korea’s economy, moreover, is a planned economy based on a socialist system of public ownership, opposing private ownership. This contrasts greatly with South Korea’s capitalist market economy. As a result, the North Korean economic system, which has been operating for more than 70 years since the two Koreas were divided, now faces great hardships from low growth, inefficiency, and recessions. To overcome this obstacle, North Korea has tried various methods such as “self-rehabilitation” and “Juche farming method” (a mainstreaming of agricultural technologies commanded by Kim Il Sung) but to no avail, due to the inherent limitations posed by the contradictions in a polity that claims a socialist system and a hereditary autocracy.
North Korea’s social structure, furthermore, is run via a caste system that ranks its citizens based on their “songbun” -a term that translates as “ingredient” or “background”- based on their family’s political background (the “core,” the “wavering,” and the “hostile”) as well as sometimes by gender. Although North Korean society does, in principle, emphasize the value of egalitarianism, in practice, it is rife with inequality, uniformity, social loafing originating from collectivism, preference falsification, adherence to the supreme leader, and groupthink. Most of the daily lives of North Koreans are subject to control, carried out in various ways including human rights suppression. Despite being obligated to guarantee minimum human rights as a member of the UN, North Korea’s human rights track record has been dismal. Among others, it continues to suppress political participation because of the country’s one-party dictatorship centered around its supreme leader, thereby denying individual autonomy and choice through its collectivist planned economy and implementing discriminatory policies based on arbitrary classifications according to one’s “songbun.” By teaching the importance of revolutionary ideology, the working class, and communism, North Korea’s education system aims to foster loyal followers to the supreme leader, who would devote themselves to building a North Korean socialist system, rather than self-actualization. In addition, North Korea’s art and literary policy have emphasized the didactic value of spreading the party’s ideology over any artistic value. North Korea has also established the Korean Federation of Literature and Arts, a government-affiliated organization, to oversee writers and artists, and to reflect the party’s guidelines for the field of art and culture.
When Gorbachev introduced the concepts of “perestroika” (restructuring) and “glasnost” (openness) to the socialist bloc, it set off a chain of events that eventually led to the renunciation of socialism in favor of liberal democracy, resulting in political and economic changes in Eastern European countries such as Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic. In East Asia, China’s economic reforms represented by the black cat white cat analogy, and Vietnam’s Doi Moi policy were both showing signs of success, as they both adopted and implemented a capitalist market economic system. North Korea’s prospects for successful reform, however, look slim, as while it tried to adopt a Chinese model of reform through the “July 2002 Economic Management Improvement Measures,” it only made surface-level capitalist reforms rather than changing the fundamentals of the planned economic system, resulting in its ultimate failure. Kim Jong-un also pushed forward the “May 30th Measures” in 2014, the “Socialist Corporate Responsibility Management System,” and the "Economic Management System in Our Style" strategy. Yet these also faced limitations as, rather than brining substantive reforms to the economy, they were only supplementary policies for its underlying, self-supporting economic system designed to maintain the dictatorship. As of now, North Korea rejects both a transition to capitalism and adoption of a market economy, keeping it constrained to a vicious cycle of conducting nuclear missile tests and facing overseas sanctions. The more the international community sanctions its nuclear program, the more isolated North Korea becomes, heightening its desperate sense of possessing nuclear weapons.
astly, in terms of reunification, I would like to emphasize that despite North Korea’s political and social reality, we cannot give up the fateful task of co-prosperity for the peaceful unification of the Korean peninsula. The issue of North Korea is no longer a matter of choice but an essential topic that demands research, and unification is a valuable investment in that it illuminates and guarantees our future. In other words, unification is an imperative that must be sought out for in the years to come, and it is essential to understand North Korea, which lies at the heart of the unification problem.■
■ Gyun Yeol Park is a professor in the Department of Ethics Education at the Gyeongsang National University (GNU), Jinju, Republic of Korea. He teaches political philosophy or political ethics, such as North Korean Studies, International Affairs, Ethics, and National Security since 2007. Before joining GNU, he was a research fellow at the Korea National Defense University. Dr. Park is the author of several books, including Community, Ethics, and Security on the Korean Peninsula (in English), National Security and Moral Education (in Korean), Peace Security and Moral Education (in Korean), National Security and Military Ethics (in Korean), and others. His current research interests are political ethics and its evaluation. Now he is the president of the Korea Association for Public Value which has been published Journal of Public Value since June 2021.
■ Typeset by Junghoo Park, Research Associate
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