For those who may be unaware, Colonel (German: Oberst) Clause von Stauffenberg was a German military officer and minor noble who was a leading figure in the July 20 plot of 1944 to assassinate Adolf Hitler by blowing him up in a conference room. July 20 was the last known attempt to kill Hitler. Despite the murder of 6 million Jews, the deaths of millions of rank and file German soldiers and tens of millions of European civilians, and despite the creation of an authoritarian regime that eliminated nearly every freedom one can think of, no mass uprisings occurred in Germany. Even during the final year of the war, when it was obvious to everyone that the war was lost and that Germany would be destroyed, after July 20, 1944, not one stray bullet or bomb found Hitler, and certainly not a nationwide coup as July 20 had attempted.
So what does World War II history have to do with North Korea? (Besides a lot) North Korea has created a state every bit as brutal and oppressive as Nazi Germany or the Stalinist-era Soviet Union. Nazi Germany was only destroyed from the outside after nearly six years of war. The Soviet Union managed to survive for a staggering 69 years. However, even the USSR wasn’t immune to challenge and revolt. The countries behind Iron Curtain chaffed at Moscow’s reigns and occasionally this spilled out onto the streets, such as during the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Within Soviet Russia itself, you had the Kronstadt Rebellion and anti-Bolshevik peasant revolts. But North Korea appears to lack this kind of internal strife, at least, to a very large degree. It has certainly managed to hold off mass violence and protesters marching in the streets longer than any country I’m aware of, communist or otherwise.
Andrew Scobell’s 2006 monograph Kim Jong Il and North Korea: The Leader and the System mentions the fact that totalitarianism demands tremendous resources, both human and material. By necessity it creates systems for coercion and surveillance. And after a while, resources start to dry up and wear down. The economy suffers, infrastructure breaks down, and people grow weary of constant “ideological struggles”, mass mobilizations, as well as the more immediate and constant struggle of feeding one’s family. This leads to a burnout of faith in the regime and a burnout at a more fundamental level – the people themselves simply become tired of it all. North Korea has managed to hold on for 71 years and counting, longer than any communist country in history. The Nazis fell because of outside forces and the Soviets fell because of unstoppable economic forces. And both countries had to deal with internal dissent and the burnout of their people. The question I’d like to answer is, why has North Korea not only been able to survive, but why hasn’t it even had a Stauffenberg figure?
I suspect that a full answer and explanation would end up being many, many pages long, too long for the purposes of this blog. So, I will attempt to give a satisfactory but abridged answer here as told through a history of the country.
Kim Il Sung
After the July 20 plot, Stauffenberg was viewed by his contemporary citizens as a traitor. This wasn’t necessarily because he tried to kill Hitler the person, but because he tried to kill the leader of the nation during a time of crisis and war. The people of Germany saw this as dishonorable and as an act that, if successful, would have hurt Germany – after all, the average German still saw Hitler as the reason for the economic improvements of the 1930s and directly responsible for the amazing military successes earlier on in the war. Hitler was still viewed as the only one who could bring about ultimate victory. The world may have been collapsing, but the Führer was the personification of their ultimate hope.
Likewise, Kim Il Sung became the embodiment of the hopes and dreams of the North Korean people.
The Kingdom of Korea, it would be fair to say, was one of the last quasi-feudal kingdoms in the world by the time it was annexed by Japan in 1910; slavery wasn’t even officially banned until 1930. Millions of people lived in abject poverty and few had access to education. Japan’s annexation brought with it rapid modernization. The northern half of Korea was industrialized, while the southern half became the breadbasket of the peninsula. But all of this “good” also brought tremendous, continued suffering on the part of the native Korean people. Korean language and culture were banned in favor of Japanization. Japanese citizens were moved into Korea and countless Koreans were forcibly moved out to the far reaches of Japan’s growing empire.
The treatment of the Korean people continued to be abysmal. Then came along a shining example of Korean nationalism and the greatest general of all time, Kim Il Sung. (So says the official myth, anyway.) Japan was defeated in 1945 and a Soviet-backed state was created in 1948, with Kim Il Sung at its head. He instituted broad reforms, imprisoned the landlords and gave the farms to the people. He attacked the Christian minority (seen as a stain of imperialism) and replaced such superstitions that "oppressed" the people with faith in him; a demigod they could see. Education, healthcare, housing, no sector was left untouched by his brand of Korean-Marxism. Then, a short two years later, he launched his country into the most devastating war it had ever seen.
Millions of Koreans died and nearly every building in Pyongyang (and everywhere else) was destroyed. The truth is that North Korea only survived because of Chinese intervention, but the official regime story is that it was the iron-willed leader, Kim Il Sung, who saved the northern half of Korea from American imperialism – while the southern half was forced to languish under the American whip until a new war of unification could be waged. The end of Japanese occupation and the Korean War created a situation that gave Kim Il Sung the opportunity to lay claim to the titles “creator” and “savior” of North Korea. The people, naturally, had been given a front row seat to the horrific abuses of the Japanese and the devastation of modern warfare. North Korea would now forever be at risk. It would always be in the sights of much larger powers just waiting to destroy them.
However, while the peasantry was happy enough to take their anger out on abusive landlords, the apparatus of state was far from settled. Kim Il Sung was only one of many would-be national heroes. In fact, by the end of WWII, he had spent more time outside of Korea than living inside the country. Multiple factions existed and it wasn’t until 1961 before he could really lay claim to being an absolute dictator. But this struggle was largely limited to political machinations on the part of those that opposed him, or at least against his desire to be a dictator. Unfortunately for them, Kim & Co. wasn’t afraid of violence. He and his guerrilla warrior faction cared little for the rules of war (or law) and they didn’t mind purging those who opposed his will – either by exile or outright murder. By the 1960s, his Manchu-based guerrilla faction was the only one that had any real power.
Afterward, the dictatorship he created was constructed to help ensure his continued rule. Some dictatorships are “cooperative”. Those in the military, the bureaucracies, and economic bosses tend to work together within their respective sectors to create a stable state. Lots of other dictatorships lean on a more competitive design. They pit people against each other, and agencies try to usurp one another in the grab for resources and political favor. This creates an inefficient and unstable state, but it also breaks up possible alternate bases of power and limits the risks to the dictator from anyone within government or the military. Kim chose the latter design.
As the country recovered from war and Kim rebuilt the nation, the average person genuinely respected him and had faith in “socialist construction”. It’s important to recall that most Koreans were poor, uneducated farmers and laborers prior to the establishment of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The only education they received after that was education that promoted the state and made Kim Il Sung the center of the universe. And the country’s elite and military leaders knew to respect and fear him. They were also well aware of the threats facing their country and that they would not have their positions without Kim, thus loyalty was required.
Kim Jong Il
Kim Jong Il on the other hand was disliked by basically everyone by the time he died in 2011. When Kim Il Sung died in 1994, many outside observers thought the country would soon collapse. What Kim Jong Il had going for him (and the first hereditary succession of a communist state) was that throughout the 1970s and 1980s, he had been maneuvering himself into being the only viable successor to his father. He built up the personality cult surrounding his father beyond anything Stalin received. He placed himself at the center of every powerful agency, and most importantly, he ingratiated himself with the military. He played up Kim Il Sung’s “divine” bloodline, which he, too, shared. And by necessity to gain the power he needed, he slowly cut the elder Kim out of active politics and control.
Kim Jong Il didn’t escape unscathed in his transition to power. But, once again, the opposition was limited to palace intrigue, with the requisite purges that followed. There wasn’t visible public out crying against this most un-socialist of transitions and there weren’t any overt attempts on his life by the elite. Once again, their own survival depended on his, much like the survival of the Nazi elite depended on the continued patronage of Hitler, even in the last weeks of World War II.
The great famine of the 1990s proved to be his greatest threat and it became the greatest example of the regime’s durability. Around a million people died and the state failed in many of its obligations. This is one of a few periods when consistent, but limited, stories pop up of dissent; however, they’re largely limited to local factory strikes and such. But this dissent wasn’t necessarily aimed at Kim Jong Il himself (although any dissatisfaction or grumble is viewed by the state as going against the Leader and is a crime). The people simply wanted food. Luckily for Kim Jong Il, there were plenty of plausible things to blame the famine on that deflected attention away from him and the inherent flaws within socialism: droughts and floods, corrupt officials stealing, and the perennial favorite, Western hostility.
The closest example of a Stauffenberg-like revolt is rumored to have happened in 1997, while the famine was still ongoing. Elements of the Korean People’s Army Sixth Corps, based in North Hamgyong Province, conspired to begin a general uprising. This is where the regime’s insistence on extreme political surveillance and “centralized decentralization”, where Kim is the only one with an overall view of the nation, while the military and state apparatuses are fragmented – particularly when it comes to communication – came into play. The plotters were unable to reliably contact others to arrange a mass uprising. They also failed to overcome the fact that every high-ranking official has their own (one or more) state security officer watching their every move. The commander of the corps refused to take part and the Sixth Corps was disbanded. The conspirators and their families were never heard from again.
The popular perception of organizations like the Nazi SS or Soviet KGB is that they had absolute control over the people. That they knew everything, saw everything, and heard everything. But that isn’t reality. The reality is that Colonel Stauffenberg was recruited by others and that they had far reaching support (even if that support wasn’t exactly based on mass support). An entire apparatus including military officers and political leaders was able to be assembled for the purposes of the July 20 coup attempt. (Some 7,000 people were eventually arrested in connection to the plot.)
What little we know about the 1997 plot paints a much different picture. The conspirators weren’t even able to reach outside of their own units, and they didn’t seem to have had any political supporters. North Korea’s multilayered approach to state security and the security of the supreme dignity (another term for Kim) far surpass the capabilities of the SS or KGB.
One very plausible reason for the military’s opposition to revolt, even though their own families were suffering during the famine, is that Kim Jong Il switched the center of national power away from the Worker’s Party (WPK) and state bureaucracies and moved it to the military. Kim promoted the military by instituting the Songun (military first) policy. By securing his power base among the largest and most powerful (literally) organization in the country, he ensured his continued survival. He also managed to build up a base of support early on, before his succession, by taking over the ideological and propaganda departments. With these behind him, there was little chance of a sustained or deeply rooted challenge to his authority.
A rare example of popular dissent comes from 2009. The people were protesting unpopular currency reforms which wiped out what little people had managed to save. It was viewed as an attempt by the government to steal wealth and crack down on market activities. However, Kim Jong Il, unlike many dictators, learned to listen to the opinions of others and made just enough limited changes to the reforms in response. He also had the “mastermind” behind the reforms executed. The ability to know when to bend to pressure while maintaining the appearance of personal infallibility served Kim Jong Il well. For the second time in a row, a dictator was able to die of natural causes, as he did in 2011.
Kim Jong Un
Successful dynastic succession is completely unheard of among communist and totalitarian regimes. Within communism, such a thing as hereditary leadership cuts against every aspect of the ideology. And totalitarian systems are largely created by a single strongman and then fall apart as soon as he dies. Kim Jong Un is the grandson of Kim Il Sung. Unlike his father, Kim Jong Il, he didn’t have decades of grooming. In fact, he didn’t have more than two or three years. To outside observers none of this bode well for the young man. However, Kim the Third seems to have taken rapid actions to secure his reign. A series of purges and executions allowed him to consolidate his power. He took steps to reaffirm the authority of the Party while emphasizing a parallel track that allowed the military to hold on to its power.
Kim Jong Un has also managed to accomplish what his father and grandfather couldn’t - the completion of the nuclear program, the successful test of a missile that could hit any part of the US, and face-to-face meetings with the leader of their greatest enemy, President Donald Trump. Furthermore, whatever problems arise from sanctions, Kim Jong Un has still managed to oversee a billion-dollar construction boom. He has also learned the lessons of his forefathers and struck against those who could harm him (like his uncle Jang Song-thaek and his half-brother Kim Jong Nam), and he has begun to reach out and rebuild relationships with old allies. His personal characteristics play in his favor, too. Like his grandfather, he is outgoing and more charismatic than his father. Not to mention his striking physical resemblance to Kim Il Sung.
From the outside, it seems like he is in a very good position to maintain power.
Kim Il Sung was the father of the nation. Kim Jong Il led the country out of famine and protected it while it was weakest. Kim Jong Un has managed to accomplish multiple regime promises. And all were able to maintain ruthless control, even if absolute power has waned slightly generation-to-generation. North Korea’s take on Confucianism, filial piety, ultra-nationalism, and severe coercive and security systems has meant that at any given time, the people were either unwilling or unable to reject the Kim’s. Kim Il Sung is viewed as the father of each of the 25 million North Koreans alive today and the Kim dynasty is the personification of the people’s will and of the state. A lyric to a North Korean song goes, “without you, there is no motherland. Without you there is no us.” The leadership has built for itself a system in which the people are instinctively opposed to the very idea of open dissent or overthrowing the Kim’s, and built a system in which broad dissent or revolt is all but impossible.
The regime’s ability to react positively, but only just, to popular demands and its ability to navigate and command the numerous group interests within the “competitive dictatorship”, has enabled the Kim family to rule for 71 years. In 2019, there is no real outward sign of imminent collapse. Going back to Andrew Scobell, perhaps instead of collapsing the way Libya or the Soviet Union did, North Korea will take the path of China (albeit more slowly) and manage a gradual transition toward a post-totalitarian system. Pyongyang’s total control over the flow of information and economic activity has been greatly reduced over the years. The average citizen no longer relies solely on the state for their needs, but instead relies on their own ingenuity to get what they want. And, the system has become highly corrupt. These weaknesses may enable the transition to a post-totalitarian state, or they may simply be the first visible cracks before the entire edifice comes crashing down. Either way, a Korean Stauffenberg seems as unlikely today as yesterday.