Second Soh Jaipil Circle – Jai Kwan Jung

For our second SJP Circle meeting, we had Dr. Jai Kwan Jung present his working research: “Why Is There No Rebellion in North Korea?” Dr. Jung is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Korea University. Prior to joining Korea University, he was an Assistant Professor of our own George Washington University in the Department of Political Science and the Elliott School of International Affairs. His research interests include political conflict and violence, party politics, and inter-Korean relations. He is now working on a book project on a comparative study of the North Korean Regime’s durability.

North Korea is the longest existing “non-monarchy dictatorship” country to have avoided any large scale rebellion. Therefore, a topic that explores possible explanations for this phenomenon is of interest to many scholars. In many other autocratic states rebellions are mostly started by elites with political grievances toward the inner circle. However, the North Korean regime was seen to have established an effective elite control system that prevents the well-educated elites from starting a rebellion. This talk provided empirical evidence regarding the elite control system in North Korea that was found by conducting in-depth interviews with high-ranking North Korean defectors.

Dr. Jung first examined the existing North Korea studies-related theories – Chuch’e ideology & supreme leader system, military first politics, and shadow economy – and proved how they weren’t fully explaining the reasons for not even having a small-scale rebellion since the 1990s. Even the academic answer – comparative authoritarianism – couldn’t explain how the collapse of the economy in North Korea still failed to bring about any rebellion. He sought to answer the question which other scholars or theories failed to fully answer. That is, “Why is there no rebellion in North Korea?”

The results of the qualitative research mainly focused on the elite control system in North Korea. One of the effective mean of controlling the elites was ideological control. The Chuch’e idealogy that emphasizes independence in politics, autonomy in the economy, and self-defense in the military worked well for the elite control in North Korea. However, there was skepticism that grew among elites, especially those with overseas experiences. The organizational control further explains the reason why North Korea didn’t see any rebelling organizations. The North Korean government executed “10 Principles” that strictly prohibited forming an organization or a voluntary association, which destroyed regional, family, school, and other social network ties. North Korea had no concept of social networks and didn’t have enough social capital for a rebellion to occur. The economic benefits for the inner elites were also seen as one of the main reasons that a rebellion didn’t occur. There was special distribution of goods and services for elites that made them satisfied with the current regime.

The conclusion of the talk was as follows:

  • As long as the elite control system functions properly as a whole, highly authoritarian countries like North Korea may avoid rebellion and a regime collapse.
  • There is a need to compare the elites’ perspective with other defectors’ perspectives to better assess the possibility of a regime collapse that may start from the bottom.
  • There is also the need to compare North Korea with other autocracies (e.g., Romania, Serbia, Libya) to figure out how elite schisms emerge and develop.

Written by Ann Yang

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