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  • Inside the Red Box: North Korea’s Post-Totalitarian Politics by Patrick McEachern
  • Balázs Szalontai (bio)
Inside the Red Box: North Korea’s Post-Totalitarian Politics, by Patrick McEachern. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010. 301 pages, illustrations, tables, notes, bibliography, index. $38.00 cloth.

A former North Korea analyst for the U.S. State Department, Patrick McEachern makes a bold and impressive attempt to analyze the linkages between the DPRK’s domestic and foreign policies from a new angle. His model of interpretation is far more sophisticated than those conceptions that describe the present North Korean political system either as an ideologically driven totalitarian monolith or as a kleptocratic personalist dictatorship. McEachern focuses his attention on the DPRK’s three most influential political institutions—the cabinet, the Korean Workers’ Party, and the Korean People’s Army—arguing that since the introduction of the 1998 constitution, these organizations have achieved such a degree of relative autonomy that the regime can no longer be regarded as a totalitarian one.

Having reviewed the speeches and articles that the most senior members of each organization presented in 1995–2009, McEachern meticulously documents a number of cases when these institutions adopted markedly different standpoints on the same policy issue. In his opinion, “the cabinet’s Foreign Ministry is the only institution that consistently presents the benefits of engaging with the Americans” (p. 7), for both the KWP and the KPA oppose negotiations with the United States. The attention McEachern pays to these asynchronies is highly commendable, not only because of the novelty of his approach but also because he devotes as much space to Pyongyang’s cooperative gestures as to its confrontational acts, instead of concentrating disproportionately on the latter. Furthermore, the scope of his investigation encompasses both economic policies and diplomatic/military issues, rather than being confined to only a single sphere.

On the basis of these case studies, McEachern concludes that none of North Korea’s three main organizations has been able to gain the upper hand over the others on a long-term basis: “Each institution has won and lost bureaucratic battles, but the war has no clear end in sight” (p. 223). In his view, such oscillations ultimately reinforced the stability of the regime, because they rendered it possible for Kim Jong Il, unable as he was to dominate the political scene to the same extent as Kim Il Sung had done, to pursue a divide-and-rule policy. As he notes, “Much of the policy innovation comes from below. … Authority is centralized, but power is diffuse” (p. 13).

Perceptibly more familiar as he is with post-1994 North Korean politics than with the Kim Il Sung era, McEachern seems to have overlooked [End Page 256] that the very phenomenon he so accurately describes in the case of the Kim Jong Il regime—that is, the conspicuous asynchronies between the simultaneous actions and statements of different North Korean apparatuses—had been a recurring feature of Kim Il Sung’s rule, too. For instance, in 1954 and 1958 Kim Il Sung combined his autarkic and hard-line economic measures with an essentially non-nationalist cultural policy. In contrast, in late 1955 and early 1957 he launched campaigns to enhance cultural nationalism, but at the same time adopted a relatively flexible stance in the economic sphere. In the fall of 1966, when defense expenditures underwent a dramatic increase and the KPA launched commando raids in the Demilitarized Zone, the authorities held an extensively publicized art exhibition that was conspicuously focused on family life and peaceful economic production rather than armed struggle. In the fall of 1978, the conclusion of the Sino-Japanese Treaty of Friendship was cautiously welcomed by some North Korean civilian officials but sharply disapproved by the leaders of the Ministry of Defense. These inconsistencies seem to have reflected partly the different perspectives of the various bureaucratic apparatuses and partly Kim Il Sung’s efforts to avoid simultaneous confrontations in several spheres and/or to manipulate his Soviet bloc allies.

On the one hand, this element of continuity clearly confirms the validity of McEachern’s description about the complex nature of North Korean politics and supports his...


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pp. 256-259
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