Immunity to Resistance? State- Society Relations and Political Stability in North Korea in a Comparative Perspective

By Szalontai, Balázs; Choi, Changyong | North Korean Review, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

Immunity to Resistance? State- Society Relations and Political Stability in North Korea in a Comparative Perspective


Szalontai, Balázs, Choi, Changyong, North Korean Review


Introduction

The survival of the North Korean political system in the face of a wide range of challenges has generated vigorous debates within the academic community. One school of thought, the so-called "collapsists," argues that the leadership's reluctance to introduce radical economic reforms foreshadows a dramatic collapse, as the regime's grip over society is increasingly undermined by the process of marketization.1 In contrast, the "resilientists" expect the regime to "muddle through" the economic crises. In their opinion, the state's unusually pervasive control over society can offset the absence of radical reforms. Since reforms would actually undermine regime stability, the leadership has good reason to refrain from such steps.2

The Arab Spring has reignited this debate. While the collapsists emphasize that the regime might eventually face popular unrest akin to the upheavals that rocked North Africa and the Middle East in 2011-2012, the resilientists argue that the experiences of the Arab Spring cannot be applied to the vastly different socio-cultural environment in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK).

Despite the different scenarios, the aforementioned studies were commonly focused on the capabilities of the North Korean state, rather than the peculiarities of the social environment in which it operated. Their elite-centered perspective reflected both the scarcity of reliable information about the political attitudes of ordinary citizens and the conspicuous absence of mass protests against the regime. To date, the North Korean political system has never encountered any serious challenge from below, serious socio-economic problems notwithstanding.

To be sure, certain scholars, having analyzed the views of North Korean refugees, assessed the regime's durability from the perspective of social stratification. They raised the question of why mass protests have not occurred in the DPRK, and whether they might occur in the future.3 Still, there is a need for further investigation, for some of these studies have lacked a comparative perspective, while others have concentrated solely on the totalitarian institutions of Communist regimes, or compared North Korea with Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, whose socio-political systems had little in common with the DPRK.

Due to space limitations, this article does not aspire to provide a full explanation for the durability of the North Korean regime. Nor does it cover such general causes of non-resistance as political repression and isolation from external influences. Instead, it seeks to examine whether certain specific social and subnational groups that proved able to show resistance against other one-party states might play, or have played, a similar role in the DPRK. The selected groups are: (1) industrial workers; (2) private entrepreneurs; and (3) religious, ethnic, and regional identities. Notably, in various other countries the regimes' general durability, and their penchant for harsh repression, did not preclude the occasional occurrence of resistance. However, in the DPRK, even localized protests have been unusually rare.

To compare North Korea-a hybrid regime combining totalitarian and neopatrimonial features-with countries whose socio-political conditions were sufficiently similar, the scope of this analysis includes both a variety of Communist regimes and the Baathist party-states in Syria and Iraq. These regimes were selected on the basis of the following similarities: one-party rule supported by mass organizations, a strong army, and a formidable security apparatus; use of lethal force to suppress dissent; a period of statist economic policies, followed by greater tolerance toward private entrepreneurship; an ideology of militantly "anti-imperialist" secular nationalism and "Arab socialism"; and extensive political nepotism (including dynastic succession in Syria). By comparing the DPRK with various types of regimes (prereform Communist systems, partially market-oriented Communist systems, and Baathist party-states), the article also seeks to investigate whether the dynamics of North Korean society is largely unique, or if it can be at least partially explained by means of analogy. …

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