Academic journal article North Korean Review

North Korean House of Cards: Leadership Dynamics under Kim Jong-Un

Academic journal article North Korean Review

North Korean House of Cards: Leadership Dynamics under Kim Jong-Un

Article excerpt

North Korean House of Cards: Leadership Dynamics Under Kim Jong-un Gause, Ken E. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), 2015. 344 pp. Paperback $24.95. ISBN: 978-0-98-564-8053 North Korean Confirmation Bias

For decades, Ken Gause has been wading through the subtleties of totalitarian leadership. With his new book, North Korean House of Cards: Leadership Dynamics Under Kim Jongun, Gause draws an interesting, and complex, picture of the world's in-fashion regime, and the running-challenges presented by its third-generation transfer of power. In late 2011, Kim Jong-il died suddenly on a train journey outside Pyongyang, North Korea. His son, Kim Jong-un, though already chosen as heir to the regime-and in the early stages of succession- was working at a deficit that neither his father nor grandfather before him had to deal with. The young Kim did not yet have a personality cult to draw legitimacy from, just as he did not have an in-depth relationship with the elite of the country. His time abroad in Switzerland, relatively young age, and insufficient time for internal propaganda to build-up a reputation equal to that of his father, made this impossible.

Walking through this uneasy transition, with all its convoluted decision-making and layer-upon-layer of bureaucratic structure, has brought Gause to develop a self-referential "model" for piecing it all together. Beginning with the execution of Kim's uncle, Jang Songtaek, then edging slowly through descriptions of key institutions, and finishing with an analysis of the internal security apparatus, Gause draws on his previous work in the field to try and show the reader just how messy and uncertain a leadership transition of this kind is. Essentially, Kim's leadership position and the regime seemingly buttressed around him, are in fact fluid, and in a state of "transition." The legitimacy is absent, the loyalty is questionable, and "necessary connections" haven't been forged. The title, as clichéd and unimaginative as it is, does spell out for the reader just how Gause sees North Korea under the new leader- "in danger of collapse." Every purge, promotion or demotion seems to validate this for Gause. The book reaches for something new, something important about the secretive country and its leader; but fails almost entirely to grab hold.

North Korean House of Cards picks up from where Ken Gause's previous books have left off, and it feels like this is a significant part of the problem. Gause is the director of the International Affairs Group at CNA (not an acronym for anything), and the author of North Korean Civil-Military Trends: Military-First Politics to a Point, North Korea Under Kim Chongil: Power, Politics, and Prospects for Change and the 2012 publication, Coercion, Control, Surveillance, and Punishment: An Examination of the North Korean Police State. Each book has been steadily better received.

Talking about his current book, Gause acknowledges that the final sections are nothing more than updates from Coercion, Control, Surveillance, and Punishment, and that the overall presentation "leverages past research." As the reader is edged through the internal workings of the North Korean security apparatus, of a regime stacked upon an elite core of cadres, of built-in institutions for maintaining that elite where they are (and the masses where they are), and of contingency planning for unexpected challenges-all with regular mentions of the State Security Department (SSD), Seventh Bureau (Prisons Bureau), the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), and the Military Security Command (MSC)-it is hard to avoid the feeling that Gause is simply putting a new spin on an old publication. And this is a feeling that is forced upon the reader, whether they are aware of the author's past works, or not.

Gause's North Korean "model" is leveraged around regime purges. Not just Kim's uncle, Jang Song-taek, but also those of numerous high-ranking officials across different levels of government. …

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