North Korea in Transition

By Chong-Sik Lee; Se-Hee Yoo | Go to book overview

1. Political Change in North Korea

B. C. KOH

The winds of change sweeping across many Communist states have produced some dramatic results -- a bold experiment in democracy in the Soviet Union in which a freely elected Congress of People's Deputies permits vigorous criticisms of Soviet leaders and institutions; the first free election in Poland in forty-four years of Communist rule, which led to the formation of a non-Communist government; the transformation of the Communist Party in Hungary; the crumbling of the Berlin Wall and political system in East Germany; and the student-led demonstrations in China that, although brutally crushed, have succeeded in severely undermining the legitimacy of Communist rule there. What impact will all this have on North Korea's internal politics? Is political change feasible in North Korea?

During four decades of its existence the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) has transformed itself from a satellite of the Soviet Union into a state that stridently asserts independence. Internally, however, the most striking feature of the DPRK is continuity, not change. Kim Il Sung has remained the paramount leader of all three pillars of power: the party, the state, and the armed forces.

The continuity of leadership, to be sure, has been accompanied by change of sorts -- namely, the escalation of a cult of personality centering on Kim Il Sung, which has been extended to selected members of his family and clan. Another noteworthy change on the North Korean landscape pertains to political succession. Kim Il Sung's plan to hand over power to his son, Kim Jong Il, has set in motion the process of generational change in the strategic sectors of North Korean society. At the upper levels of the power hierarchy, one sees the ascendancy of what can loosely be described as a technocratic elite. A closely related phenomenon is the natural attrition of the guerrilla generation -- former comrades of Kim Il Sung in the anti-Japanese guerrilla struggle in Northeast China who lack formal education and technical expertise.

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