North Korea: A Peculiar Failed State

October brought heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Here is the monthly summary from the influential International Crisis Group:

Tensions mounted on Korean peninsula against backdrop of rising nationalism in the region. [South Korea] 7 Oct announced deal with U.S. to extend ballistic missile system range; Pyongyang responded with claim it has missiles that could reach U.S. mainland. [North Korea] 19 Oct threatened military action against [South] if S Korean rights activists dropped propaganda leaflets in [North Korea]; activists carried out airdrop of 120,000 leaflets 22 Oct despite [South Korean] police attempts to block them, and released further 50,000 leaflets 29 Oct. Seoul commenced annual Hoguk joint military exercise 25 Oct, involving 240,000 personnel; [South Korean] satellite launch, planned for late Oct, postponed till Nov. [North Korean] Army Vice-Minister Kim Chol reportedly executed for misbehaviour during official mourning period after Kim Jong-Il’s death.

Even casual observers recognize a recurring pattern of geopolitical brinksmanship from North Korea. The DPRK, you see, is a failed state. And, particularly since the end of the Cold War (and the loss of Soviet support), North Korean rulers have sought to distract their public with externally-oriented fears.

Mass transit in Pyongyang, North Korea

Credit: Joseph A. Ferris III (Creative Commons license)

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a peculiar failed state because it retains significant governmental capabilities – especially in terms of coercive force – even as it suffers from a major deficit of popular legitimacy. It is difficult to know just how unpopular the dynastic regime is. There are no formal surveys of poplitical opinion in North Korea. Nor do most citizens have very good access to independent sources of information.

We can, however, make inferences from events like those of the last month. Kim Jong-un’s government reacted so forcefully to the airdrops because of its lack of domestic legitimacy. The execution of Kim Chol also provides a glimpse of the longstanding tactics of regime survival, which precede Kim Jong-un’s rise.

In the end, there is an intense struggle underway for the hearts and minds of ordinary North Koreans. The prison camps remain for political dissidents, North Korea remains on a war footing despite the immiseration of much of its population, and the militarist regime continues its effort to suppress the free flow of information to its people.

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