North Korea: Fading Totalitarianism in the "Hermit Kingdom"*

By Silberstein, Benjamin Katzeff | North Korean Review, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

North Korea: Fading Totalitarianism in the "Hermit Kingdom"*


Silberstein, Benjamin Katzeff, North Korean Review


Introduction

North Korea is perceived by many as the most controlled and oppressed society in the world today. It tops many of the global standardized ratings of political repression, and is in fact considered by some to be the longest-surviving totalitarian regime in the world. The political control incorporated in the North Korean society apparatus is so strong that the North Korean regime has remained stable and unthreatened by political opposition for decades, despite the fact that North Korea is, according to Nicholas Eberstadt, "the first urbanized literate society in human history to suffer famine during peacetime."1

Indeed, North Korean society was-at least when it functioned as intended- almost an embodiment of the textbook definition of a totalitarian society. Pre-1990s North Korea even stood out from other societies considered to be totalitarian, perhaps most notably in its total lack of political dissidence. According to both scholars and refugees who have fled North Korea, no political opposition or dissident movement has ever existed in the country.2 North Korea before the 1990s was not merely "any" totalitarian society-its level of totalitarianism was unprecedented in contemporary history.

But a totalitarian society requires that its institutions actually function as intended in order for totalitarianism to work. This was not a significant problem when North Korea was economically stable. But as the 1990s approached, the dire state of the country's economy took an increasingly larger toll on the public agencies controlled by the regime. It has thus become questionable whether the country that was long considered to be the most totalitarian society of all times is still actually totalitarian. This paper aims to explore exactly that: Did North Korean totalitarianism survive the economic crisis of the 1990s?

If totalitarianism is fading in North Korea, the country may well be becoming what Andrei Lankov calls more "normal."3 A transformation in the social nature of the country would have profound implications for the entire region. A non-totalitarian regime would, in the long run, be forced to answer to the demands of the population in a different way than a totalitarian one. North Koreans would then probably not accept the economic mismanagement and isolationist strategies of the regime, forcing it to reform in order to stay in power.4 And a reformed North Korea would be likely to become economically interdependent, and thus probably more peaceful.5 Should the regime, however, choose not to change, the chances of a collapse in the long run are significant. Whatever the fate of North Korean totalitarianism may be, it will have far-reaching implications for many other countries beside North Korea itself.

This issue is not unexplored. For example, Andrew Scobell has provided a thorough overview of North Korean totalitarianism in a previous issue of North Korean Review.6 I do, however, hope to provide a different framework and focus of analysis than previous researchers have, and that my perspective is able to enrich the discussion on changes in North Korean society.

Theoretical Framework: What Is Totalitarianism?

Totalitarianism is first and foremost a political system in which the ruling regime holds political control over all of society by commanding vital political and social institutions. It tolerates none or very few threats to its mandate to exist, and justifies oppressive measures with the "ultimate end" of the system, the stage when the state's ideological goals will finally be met. Political scientists differ on the exact definition of totalitarianism, but this can be said to be the very core of the concept. It is the dynamic, "organic" cooperation between different totalitarian segments that creates the cluster of totalitarianism. Without one of them, or with only some of them, a society cannot be considered totalitarian.7 It is the purpose of this essay is to explore whether this dynamic exists in the North Korean society. …

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