- Inside the Red Box: North Korea’s Post-totalitarian Politics, and: The Hidden People of North Korea: Everyday Life in the Hermit Kingdom
Is North Korea a totalitarian state? The two books under review offer contrasting answers to this question. According to Patrick McEachern, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is a dictatorship but not a totalitarian state. Inside the Red Box: North Korea’s Post-totalitarian Politics portrays Kim Jong Il as situated at the top of a pyramid of power composed of the Korean Workers’ Party, Korean People’s Army, and the DPRK Cabinet. By identifying and analyzing the contrasting ways that these three institutions frame political issues in their newspapers—the Nodong Sinmun, Chosŏn Inmin’gun, and Minju Chosŏn, respectively1—McEachern tracks competition between them and attempts to tease out distinctive policy positions within the North Korean central government. He [End Page 313] concludes that while Kim Il Sung was a totalitarian leader, Kim Jong Il is operating in a post-totalitarian framework, playing a demanding game of divide-and-rule by keeping the aforementioned institutions in active competition over policy matters and ensuring that no one organ gains long-term supremacy over the others. Simply put, Kim Jong Il is trying to balance atop of an institutional structure that he himself has kept wobbly so that no one else can easily climb to the summit.
McEachern carefully follows the fortunes of the Party, Army, and Cabinet with respect to three areas of great importance to the North Korean elite: U.S.-DPRK relations, Inter-Korean relations, and the DPRK economy. He argues that none of the three institutions have managed to gain uninterrupted control over any of these areas for the duration of the second nuclear crisis (roughly, October 2002–the present), and no group has been given control over all three issues for longer than a few months at a time. This view of North Korean politics is more controversial than may appear at first glance. B. R. Myers, for example, has decried the notion of competition between hardliners and pragmatists in the North Korean foreign policy apparatus as deluded Western “mirror-imagining.”2 As long as we remain mindful of such warnings about wishful and parochial thinking, McEachern’s approach seems to offer a promising alternative to alltoo-common explanations about North Korea’s volatile foreign policy shifts as a sign of irrationality or outright insanity.
Ralph Hassig and Kongdan Oh concede that policy disagreements certainly exist to some extent between individual North Korean leaders but reject the idea of significant policy competition between government organs (Hassig and Oh, p. 247). In their view, Kim Jong Il is a totalitarian leader, just as his father was before him. DPRK policy on the economy, inter-Korean relations, and the U.S.-DPRK nuclear standoff were all developed under Kim Jong Il’s supervision and implemented by generals and aides that “would not know how to run the country without [him]” (Hassig and Oh, p. 62).
Hassig and Oh depict North Korean politics as driven by corruption rather than policy competition. Kim Jong Il purportedly bribes or blackmails influential figures to maintain their loyalty and keeps those without power struggling to survive so that they lack the energy to protest his rule. According to Hassig and Oh, even as the mechanisms that drive the North Korean state are weakening because of a lack of resources to keep greasing the wheels, power remains firmly centered around Kim Jong Il.
Instead of attempting to choose between these two interpretive perspectives, it might be more useful here to point out how each might be modified or refined to better capture the complexity of North Korean politics. For example, McEachern’s book does not address the interconnections between the competing institutions...