North Korea’s Regime Security and Coup Proofing Politics
North Korea’s society is a personalist dictatorship regime, in which the leader has access to unlimited discretionary power. In such a regime, the fate of the political elite is directly connected to that of the dictator’s political survival and because they can afford to ignore the cost of public opinion, dictators are able to acquire absolute power. However, there is something that even the seemingly fearless dictator is particularly worried about – regime security. If state security refers to a well-functioning maintenance of an efficient state system, process, and structure, regardless of the structure of the ruling elite; regime security pertains to the unchallenged, absolute authority of the ruling elite. For a regime that depends on a strong concentration of power, regime security is an issue of survival.
The weakness of the individual dictatorial regime lies in the insecurity dilemma. A dictator and its ruling elite must always be vigilant towards the inner threat as well as the external threat, because of the possibility of becoming a failed state from economic collapse and civil war, or an anarchic state from a violent transfer of power, riots, and military coup d’état. The ruling elite must anticipate and eliminate in advance the rise of opposition forces and any other threatening factors within its commanding structure. A careful scrutiny of its military is especially important. Based on studies of Saudi Arabia, Libya, Iraq, and Syria, a common regime security strategy and coup proofing mechanism is the control of the military. These dictators do not rely on conventional generals and weapons, but create secret military organizations, parallel military bodies, and secret police in order to block the military from forming an opposition. These countries are believed to have proactively developed weapons of mass destruction primarily as
a means to deter internal rebellion rather than external threats.
The ‘Byungjin Policy’ of Kim Jong Un, which consists of nuclear and economic prioritization, frankly surpasses North Korea’s economic capacity and therefore, may create potentially dissenting forces against the dictator’s leadership. During the early stages of the regime, an effort to make up for the inadequate legitimacy and authority resulting from the short succession process led to a form of terror politics. Kim Jong Un effectively eliminated any potentially threatening individuals, including his own guardian and uncle Jang Sung Taek and his supporters, as well purging and substituting his father’s main officials, thereby changing the power structure of the main elite in multiple levels. Also, by changing the power structure, Kim Jong Un took down the Defense Committee; strengthened the authority of the Central Military Commission; built a tight relationship with the high party officials through offering them key military positions; inspired loyalty to the army through purging military authorities, rank degradation, and reappointing; and controlled the military elite by substituting the entire original military leadership with a new generation of army leaders. Also, the ruling elites were used as a means to suppress the domestic political opponents, thereby concentrating on the party’s suppression of the development of military authorities in charge of conventional military strength.
One interesting fact is that the inspiration for North Korea’s nuclear weapons development and nuclear capacity heightening strategy has been to provide a coup proofing mechanism which would suppress the development of the professional military organization. Conventional military power allows the military leadership to rise as potential challengers. But nuclear weapons development weakens the need for conventional military power and only makes conventional weaponry a means of supporting nuclear arsenal. In North Korea, the Central Military Commission is in charge of nuclear weapons production decisions and all issues related to the military sector; the party’s Department for War Industry is responsible for nuclear weapons development and munitions industry; and the state relies on the scientists for nuclear capability, not the military authorities. The Supreme Commander, Kim Jong Un, is in charge of all decisions regarding nuclear force; and separate from the regular army, a strategic force is set up to execute the wishes of the Party and the Suryeong under a unitary command and control system. This is similar to the coop proofing mechanism in other countries.
Understanding how the Kim regime controls the military and structures his command system is a stepping stons for comprehending the reality of North Korean regime security and a foundation for approximating the present condition and future direction of the North Korean government. If Kim Jong Il opted for a cooperative military control strategy through his Songun Policy, in which he created an elite military class, Kim Jong Un seems to have chosen a military exclusion policy, in which he has intentionally weakened and prevented the growth of the military that had gotten considerably “fat” from the Songun Policy. With a military power focused on strengthening his nuclear arsenal and missiles, Kim Jong Un has formed a linear and unilateral chain of command system and basis for domestic politics. In North Korea, nuclear power is a security mechanism to prevent foreign intervention, but also a means to suppress any domestic political forces. Considering the encroachment of internal danger and the unconditional influence that it has on regime stability, North Korea will continue to maintain its asymmetrical strategy track that includes the nuclear policy rather than conventional military power.
***The views herein do not necessarily reflect the views of North Korean Review or YINKS.