North Korea belongs to a dwindling category of countries known as “totalitarian.” Compared to their authoritarian cousins, totalitarian regimes aspire to control all aspects of society. As Italian fascist Benito Mussolini once put it: “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.” In such countries, there is no autonomous business sector or civil society of any sort. Churches and other religious institutions are purely ornamental. Indeed, such countries lack even a handful of independent intellectuals. Totalitarian governments aspire to eliminate all individualism in their construction of a state that is all-powerful and a society that behaves like a single organism.
North Korea came into existence after the end of World War II when the United States and Soviet Union arbitrarily divided the Korean peninsula at the 38th parallel. There have been only three leaders of the country, all part of the same bloodline. Kim Il Sung, the founding head of state, established the pattern of North Korean politics by fusing Soviet-style communism with older feudal and Confucian traditions. He ruthlessly eliminated all potential opposition to his rule as well as any factionalism within the Workers’ Party. He created a personality cult that could channel the religious devotion that had been widespread in northern Korea prior to World War II. He subordinated all social life to the Party, established a prison camp system for those who fell afoul of the Party’s dictums, and carefully restricted the flow of information into the country. Although charting an independent course between Moscow and Beijing, the new country would nevertheless benefit from the economic subsidies and political patronage of both China and the Soviet Union.
North Korea has also survived innumerable challenges. It eked out a stalemate in the Korean War only thanks to a million Chinese “volunteers” who entered the war several months after it began in 1950. The country didn’t collapse when Eastern European communism went under in 1989, or when the Soviet Union passed away two years later. It survived the death of its first leader in 1994, and a subsequent famine that killed as much as 10 percent of the population. And even though its current leader, Kim Il Sung’s grandson Kim Jong Un, was a mere 24 years old when he took over in 2014, North Korea has made it through its third leadership transition.
Despite its reputation for stasis, North Korea has in fact changed a great deal over the years in order to survive these myriad challenges. Perhaps the most critical transformation has involved the market. Even before the famine hit in the mid-1990s, the government established the free-trade zone of Rajin-Sonbong in order to interact more effectively with global capitalism. When the official economy collapsed during the famine years, the government permitted local markets to expand and become an indispensable source of food and income for the population. When the economic crisis subsided in the 2000s, outside experts provided the government with the technical know-how to create the legal framework to support foreign capital investment.
Since the 1990s, an entrepreneurial class has emerged in North Korea. Some members of this class accumulated capital from running import-export businesses with China. Others used their state connections to start up quasi-independent enterprises and non-state services such as the informal “service cars” that operate like private taxis. New semi-private restaurants and cafes have appeared in the major cities. There is even a secondary market in apartments.
This new moneyed elite is known as donju, or “masters of money.” They can exist only through some accommodation with the state – chiefly through bribery. In her new book on Kim Jong Un, Washington Post journalist Anna Fifield describes one such sleigh-of-hand:
“A master of money might buy mining and mineral rights from the central government authorities and then take over mines that have been abandoned because of a lack of electricity and the equipment needed to bring out the minerals. They invest in the mine to get it up and running again. They hire workers who, unlike when working for the state, will receive a decent wage. They pay off ministry officials and buy protection from local party cadres and officials in the prosecutor’s office. Then they take in the cash and pay a share of their profits – about 30 percent – to the regime as ‘loyalty funds.’”
Until recently, North Korea attempted to incorporate elements of capitalism into its totalitarian model. This uneasy marriage produced periodic crackdowns as the state attempted to re-exert control over the economic sphere. The police would break up informal markets. Successful entrepreneurs risked imprisonment. At the end of 2009, the government revalued the currency, limiting the amount of old money that citizens could trade for new. The move wiped out the savings of many small-scale entrepreneurs.
Kim Jong Un, however, has adopted a different approach. As long as the members of this new economic elite grease the right palms, they can enjoy the fruits of their labor. They can even flaunt their new wealth at expensive stores and cafes in Pyongyang. In this way, North Korea has followed the Chinese economic reform path that Deng Xiaoping famously described as: “to get rich is glorious.”
The shift in approach is potentially momentous. A government that previously aspired to totalitarian control of the population is shifting to mere authoritarianism. The state has not dismantled any of its surveillance mechanisms. It still maintains its robust propaganda machinery as well as a personality cult for its young leader. It continues to show zero tolerance for dissent of any kind. But, like more ordinary autocratic states, it is permitting a somewhat more independent economic class to emerge.
These masters of money are still dependent on the state. Indeed, it could be argued that Kim Jong Un has encouraged the growth of this class as a way to build a new base of support for his leadership.
But the transition from totalitarian to authoritarian is not merely terminological. A new space has opened up in North Korean society that is free of absolute government control. In the short term, the allegiance of the new class will not shift away from the government. But over time, particularly as this class grows in numbers and strength, it may well seek political power commensurate with its economic power (as the classic texts on the sources of revolution predict).
In addition, this new class is more cosmopolitan in perspective. Its members wear Chinese fashions, are knowledgeable about South Korean culture, and are even familiar with some trends in Europe and America. The influence of this new cosmopolitanism is difficult to calculate, but it could help pave the way for North Korea to join the global economy with greater ease. This class can serve as the hyphen that connects North Korea to the world.
An authoritarian North Korea is, so far, just as brutal as the totalitarian one. The human rights situation in the country hasn’t improved appreciably. But there is a possibility, particularly if Washington and Seoul succeed in engaging more substantively with Pyongyang, that the country will open up by degrees. In this way, authoritarianism will prove to be a transitional stage between totalitarianism and a more open society.
John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. His latest book is the novel Frostlands.