WASHINGTON—The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is regarded as the most oppressive political system in the world. Isolated from the rest of the world, with malnutrition of the general public, slave labor, and the absence of individual rights and freedoms—North Korea lies ranked at the bottom of nations, where the human misery is unfathomable.
How does the current regime under Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un maintain social control and perpetuate itself? In a report released on Feb. 10 at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), author Robert Collins has provided an inside look at the DPRK, a comprehensive analysis of North Korea’s unique totalitarian control system.
In “Pyongyang Republic: North Korea’s Capital of Human Rights Denial,” Collins explains the system of sanctions and incentives that maintain the Kim Dynasty rule, culling data from a vast number of sources, including his own interviews for over 30 years of defectors in their native Korean language. All conclusions are backed up by 510 footnotes. The 177-page report is sponsored by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK).
The power structure of the country is wholly centralized. At the top of the pyramid is the Supreme Leader and people closest to him. Geographically, the capital city, Pyongyang, is “the power center of the Kim family regime,” says Collins.
The people who are most important for the Kim family political control are predominately located in Pyongyang. The Korean Workers’ Party, all government and security agencies, and the military are run out of the capital city. It’s where Koreans enjoy the most privileges, the best food and housing, health care and schools, and culture, with Pyongyang’s gyms, museums, playgrounds, and exhibition halls. Naturally, North Koreans want to live in Pyongyang.
Residents are issued a Pyongyang identification card, with assigned dates of validity. Whereas it is not difficult to travel to the provinces, those outside Pyongyang must obtain a permit to visit the capital.
Life in the provinces, which have far fewer resources, is shabby, impoverished, and harsh. This separation of the capital from the rest of North Korea is quite pronounced, and it is the reason Collins titles his report “Pyongyang Republic.”
Collins’s thesis is that only one individual has “rights” in North Korea and he is the Supreme Leader (“Suryong”), who has absolute authority and is looked upon almost as a deity. The ideology and institutions “compel complete loyalty to the Supreme Leader’s decisions and directives,” he writes.
Citizens must either obey or else face deprivations in food security, quality of food, quality of housing, education, careers, health care, and energy. If a North Korean wants a better life, he or she must prove loyalty to the Supreme Leader and show enthusiasm for the regime.
“Pyongyang residents have to choose between privilege and human rights, and the price for privilege is loyalty to the regime and the Supreme Leader.” Collins writes that “those who do not show sufficient loyalty [or in some way fail to fulfill expectations] will have their privileges suspended, usually permanently. … If the mistake is severe, the loss of privilege can extend to three generations of one’s family.”
The regime’s reputation is well-known for its prioritization of food to the elite in Pyongyang, and the use of food distribution as a major tool of political control. Collins notes that in 2011, on the same day that U.N. reports were coming in on millions starving in North Korea, Reuters reported that Pyongyang residents were enjoying a “life of luxury,” with some residents enjoying a beer-drinking party and riding roller coasters in an amusement park in downtown Pyongyang.
Collins devotes a chapter to outlining the “power institutions,” which serve the Supreme Leader. The most important are the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP), the Organization and Guidance Department (OGD), and the Propaganda and Agitation Department (PAD). The latter two are inside the KWP.
The KWP—today 3.2 million in a nation of 25 million—runs the country as the arm of the Supreme Leader. It decides on policy regarding domestic, military, and foreign affairs and economic and social issues. “The Party is embedded in every organization within North Korea, regardless of type, size, or location.”
The OGD “is the most influential and powerful organization in North Korea,” states Collins. Although other state agencies contribute to policy formulation, “all policies must pass through the KWP OGD.” Even high-ranking generals are subject to the OGD’s control. Every Party member, including every Party leader, is evaluated by the OGD, including those in leadership positions, based on their demonstrated loyalty to the Supreme Leader. The OGD numbers about 1,300 and most of them reside in Pyongyang, Collins said at the AEI.
“The PAD is responsible for all ideological training and indoctrination at every level of North Korean society.” North Koreans first encounter a KWP PAD representative at school at the age of 7. These encounters with a PAD representative will continue for the rest of their lives.
The regime’s propaganda stresses the struggle of socialism against imperialism, and that the Republic of Korea, the United States, and Japan are enemies of the Korean people.
Pyongyang Republic Established
The exclusive nature of the capital city dates back to the regime’s first Supreme Leader, Kim Il-sung, who led in the establishment of the communist state. Following the war with Japan in 1945, he wanted only revolutionaries to reside in Pyongyang, not “impure” elements that served the Japanese or religion or capitalism. Kim Il-sung undertook to classify every single North Korean into 51 groups, ranking them according to his perception of their loyalty to his communist revolution regime. So, war veterans and their families were high on this “songbun” (socio-political classification). Those who were trusted were welcomed to Pyongyang, the preferred place of residency, and those lower in classification were excluded.
Prioritization became the rule in Korea’s national economic planning following the Korean War, during which Pyongyang was devastated by the American bombings. In the construction of housing,”urban areas were prioritized over rural villages, and Pyongyang was prioritized over all other cities.”
“Kim Il-sung rebuilt Pyongyang in both the physical and ideological image of the revolution. By portraying Pyongyang as the capital of the revolution, he shaped the thinking of every North Korean into seeing Pyongyang as the heart of the Kim family regime,” Collins writes.
Rewarding With Gifts
Kim Il-sung’s son, Kim Jong-il, built the “political” Pyongyang, according to Collins. As Kim Jong-il was KWP secretary for organization, director of the OGD, and director of the PAD in 1974, he was in a position to direct the aim of the Party and political surveillance to loyalty of all Party members toward the Supreme Leader, which also enabled the transition of power from Kim Il-sung to himself.
Kim Jong-il, who lived a luxurious lifestyle, used gifts, such as Mercedes Benz cars, Swiss gold watches, and other luxuries, to reward those high on the songbun.
“Kim Jong-il controlled the privileged class through gifts. … Individuals competed to show greater loyalty to receive more and greater gifts, and Kim Jong-il manipulated this competition,” Collins writes.
To reinforce loyalty to the Supreme Leader, all North Korean families receive gifts, such as liquor, eggs, rice, meat, and cigarettes, on the birthdays of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.
“The regime relies on 50,000 cadres of the Party, government, and military in Pyongyang to maintain power.” They constitute the core class who receive the greatest privileges.
Kim Jong-il instituted new policies that moved out of Pyongyang those of lower songbun and those with disabilities. Kim furthered the policy of favoritism toward Pyongyang’s residents “so that the core class would support the transition to [his son] Kim Jong-un.”
The songbun system seriously impairs social mobility, and as such is a violation of human rights. Collins writes that the overwhelming testimony of 28,000 North Korean defectors to South Korea has shown that discrimination against the lower songbun impedes their ability to succeed in North Korean society. The defectors also widely asserted that “the average North Korean holds strong grudges against those that exploit them.” The North Korean elite know this and devote much effort to suppressing rebellion by the masses.
Kim Jong-un, who assumed power in December 2011, continued his father’s policies of supporting the regime’s elite in exchange for accepting the hereditary transfer of power. The focus of government resources was directed to Pyongyang, to the exclusion of the provinces. His projects involve building apartments, streets where foreign goods are traded, high-class restaurants, riding clubs, and amusement parks.
“Pyongyang’s elite and new rich brag amongst themselves on who has better accommodations, including marble and wood floors, double windows, high-class windows, and custom furniture,” Collins writes.
Despite the extreme political control, indoctrination, and elaborate system of punishments and rewards, Kim Jong-un has not succeeded in consolidating his power. We see the regime’s preoccupation with its internal security.
“Purges, executions of senior leaders and middle-level bureaucrats, extra-judicial task forces, and the reorganization of key institutions are all signs that Kim Jong-un has little confidence in popular or institutional support for his rule.”
Collins writes that South Korea’s intelligence services state that 70 to 90 officials have been executed since Kim Jong-un took power in December 2011. “Kim has demonstrated considerable distrust toward the military leadership,” he writes.
Collins’s interviews of mid- and high-level defectors from Pyongyang indicated that “the Pyongyang elite’s loyalty to Kim Jong-un is weakening … The majority of North Korean cadres feel North Korea has no future.”
Nonetheless, Collins concluded that the power elite wants to maintain its lifestyle, which is only possible under the current system. They realize that the regime’s collapse will result in their own collapse.