Suryong's Direct Rule and the Political Regime in North Korea under Kim Jong Il*

By Kim, Kap-sik | Asian Perspective, July 1, 2008 | Go to article overview
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Suryong's Direct Rule and the Political Regime in North Korea under Kim Jong Il*

Kim, Kap-sik, Asian Perspective

The political system in North Korea has been characterized as a "Suryong Dominant Party-State System." Since the mid-1980s, however, its political system has displayed two interesting aspects. Formally, the broad "Suryong System" has been maintained; in practice, however, the Workers' Party of Korea, the Korean People's Army, and the government have come to acquire respectively different and considerably strengthened roles. Under this new regime, Kim Jong Il (Suryong) directly rules over the party, the government, and the military. Meanwhile, the political-ideological base, the military base, and the economic base are administered respectively by the party, the army, and the government. Interestingly, while the power of the party still overwhelms that of the military and the government, the party's means of influence has changed from giving direct orders to providing provisions or encouraging policy outlines.

Key words: North Korea, Communist parties, East Asian politics


The political system in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) has experienced significant changes since the death of its longstanding leader, Kim Il Sung, in 1994. No plenary meeting of the party's Central Committee (PCC), the highest leadership body of North Korea, has been held since December 1993. In addition, two significant political institutions, the presidency and the Central People's Committee (CPC), were abolished by the constitutional revision that took place in 1998. Specifically, the abolishment of the CPC weakened the consulting channel between the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) and the government. These changes, in turn, reinforced the roles of the cabinet and the Korean People's Army (KPA), both previously controlled by the WPK. In other words, under the rule of Kim Jong Il, "the cabinet responsibility system" on which the administrative-economic apparatus is concentrated, is actively operating, and the "military-first politics," or Songun policy, has become the central theme of North Korean politics. This makes the KPA the driving force of economic development and national security.

Previous literature on the political system in North Korea has shown different findings regarding the Suryong (great leader) system, Suryong's direct rule, party-government relations and party-military relations in the eras of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Specifically, most studies are divided into two perspectives regarding the core issue of socialist political systems, party control. Some scholars argue that similar to the era of Kim Il Sung's rule, the WPK under Kim Jong Il exercises guidance and leadership over the government and the KPA. This is so even though he has bolstered the status of the KPA and the autonomy of the cabinet.1 Meanwhile, other scholars point out that because of the development of military-first politics and the cabinet responsibility system, previous relations among the party, government, and KPA have significantly changed, or at the very least, the formerly direct control the WPK once had has been weakened during the Kim Jong Il era.2

If so, why were previous studies on socialist political systems concentrated on relations between the communist party, the government, and the military? According to Schurmann's seminal study,3 socialist political systems, especially the Chinese communist system in the 1960s, can be analyzed by focusing on the hierarchical structure among the Chinese Communist Party, the People's Liberation Army, and the government. That is, the power structure in socialist countries is characterized by the communistparty dominant pattern within a strict power triangle that consists of the communist party, the government, and the military.4 Thus, Schurmann's study implies that for the analysis of socialist political systems, we need to scrutinize the identity of supreme power and its relations with other actors. In this regard, North Korea is not so different from the other socialist political systems.

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Suryong's Direct Rule and the Political Regime in North Korea under Kim Jong Il*


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