5 Interpretations of N Korea: Communist, Rogue, Fascist, neo-Confucian, or Gangster?

This is a re-post of an essay I just wrote for the Lowy Institute, available here. And yes, that Godfather pic is meant to imply that I accept the last of the interpretative frameworks suggested: North Korea as a gangster racket.

The more time I spend in this field, the more I see analysts get into really sharp debates over just what North Korea ‘really’ is. The best way to de-legitimize your opponent in this area is to say you don’t understand the ‘real’ North Korea, or know what they ‘truly’ want. This can get pretty intense. And it does not help that we know so little about how North Korea is governed.

As I have listened to these fights over the years, it strikes me that there are roughly 5 major interpretations or schools. And these approaches are politicized too, not just intellectual frameworks, because they have direct implications for how South Korea and the US should respond to North Korea. For example, if you think North Korea is a rogue state gremlin ripping at the fabric of US hegemony, you are more likely to endorse tough action than if you accept leftist interpretations that US-led isolation of North Korea is what makes North Korea so dangerous.

The 5 basic interpretations are:

1. Traditionalist Conservative: North Korea as a cold war stalinist state

2. Neoconservative: NK as dangerous, unpredictable rouge state

3. Fascist: NK as a racist, national security barracks state

4. Leftist: NK as ‘Korean’ (rather than socialist or fascist), neo-Confucian,or post-colonial

5. Gangster: NK as a massive shake-down racket; mafia have overthrown the government

The full essay follows the jump.


Last month I argued that North Korea is not really a communist state, at least not as we normally understand Marxist-Leninist states in the twentieth century. For example, North Korea is governed by a monarchic family clan; its ‘socialism’ has been broadly replaced by corruption (at the top) and informal marketization (at the bottom); it flirts with race-fascism. Yet it does still retain obvious elements of old stalinist states – for example, in its iconography, obsession with ideology, and (anti-western) foreign policy relationships.

In my experience in this area, both scholarly and journalistic, this creates a lot of confusion and intellectual competition, with consequent political repercussions over how exactly to respond to North Korean provocations. There is a wide division out there about just how to interpret North Korea, what it ‘really’ is, what it ‘really’ wants, and so on. Similarly, a common retort to de-legitimize one’s intellectual opponents in the study of North Korea is to claim another does not really ‘understand’ the ‘true’ North Korea.

The easy answer is to throw up one’s hands and call North Korea sui generis. That maybe right in the way North Korea synthesizes seemingly disparate elements into what should be an ideological rube-goldberg jalopy. But North Korea manages to hang on regardless of how many times we analysts say it is an incoherent mess. So it seems worthwhile to sketch out some of the various interpretations floating around out there. Based on my general experience at conferences, in the scholarship and journalism, from my trip to North Korea itself, and so on, I would say there are five primary interpretive angles:


1. North Korea as ‘classic’ cold war stalinist alternative to South Korea

Ideology: Traditional Conservative

Who: non-Korean journalists, Korean conservatives and military, non-elite Americans

Big Fear: a Northern invasion of South Korea

I argued against this interpretation last month, and I would reckon most North Korea analysts would say this is no longer the best way to read Pyongyang. But I find this is still quite popular. Its appeal is obvious. It is easy to understand, parallels nicely with South Korea as the liberal democratic alternate, and fits into an obvious frame – the Cold War.

And because North Korea started out this way, all sorts of vestiges of this remain – the socialist moniker (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), the iconography (lots of red, the flag, the national seal, the party symbol), the autarkic ideology. And Kim Il Sung, the regime founder, almost certainly believed in socialism or communism himself (although whether his son and grandson do is matter of intense debate).


2. North Korea as a dangerous rogue state gumming up the works of globalization and US hegemony

Ideology: Neoconservative

Who: US hawks and think-tankers

Big Fear: Proliferation

The idea here is that North Korea has actually successfully adapted to the end of the cold war and remade itself as a gremlin in global governance. It refuses to follow even the most basic rules; its decision-making is fog to outsiders; it does not belong to any international organizations. It is the most unpredictable state in the system. Back when he was Undersecretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz captured this anxiety well, “I’m more profoundly skeptical of North Korea than of any other country—both how they think, which I don’t understand, and the series of bizarre things they have done.”


3. North Korea as a semi-fascist national defense or barracks state

Ideology: None

Who: Various Intellectuals (Brian Myers, Josh Stanton, here, here), my North Korean minders

Big Fear: Nationalist Competition with and Subversion of South Korea

Brian has been in forefront of arguing that North Korea is a misunderstood racist state based on Japanese and German fascist forms from the early twentieth century. It rallies its citizens through aggressive race-based nationalism (the defense of minjok), defends the racial ‘cleanliness’ of Korea in a big intrusive world, insists that ethnic Koreans of other nationalities are still Koreans, and routinely uses racist language in its diplomacy. On top of this, it is one of the most highly militarized states in the world. Racism plus hypermilitarism looks a lot more like fascism than communism.

Notably, when I was in North Korea, my minders used a lot of this sort of language. As one of them put it, “no mixing” (i.e., inter-racial mixing).


4. North Korea as neo-Confucian kingdom defending Korean independence against foreign predators

Ideology: Leftist

Who: Doves (here, here, here), South Korean left, Korean college students

Big Fear: American Misunderstanding and Overreaction

If the above interpretations are all congenial to conservatives and hawks, here is perhaps the one I encounter most from the left. The idea here is that North Korea is more Korean than socialist or fascist, and that if we look at Korean history, we can see where it came from. For example, the North Korea monarchy is not a transplant of stalinism, but a reversion to Korea’s earlier Confucian political form, a point evidenced by the inclusion of a Confucian writing brush in the party symbol and the DPRK’s insistence that it is a modern version of Koguryeo, a much earlier Korean kingdom. Or, it was US behavior during the Korean War – specifically the extraordinary bombing of the North – that radicalized Kim Il Sung and the Korean Workers Party. If the US had not been so brutal, the logic goes, North Korea would have been more like North Vietnam or East Germany, instead of the orwellian tyranny we know today. The policy extension of this is that North Korea must be brought in from the cold by outreach such as the sunshine policy.


5. North Korea as a mafia racket masquerading as a country

Ideology: None

Who: No Clear School (me, Alastair Gale, Josh Stanton)

Big Fear: An Inter-Korean Federation that Effectively Subsidizes North Korea Permanently

Finally, here is my preferred slant on the problem. The more I study North Korea, the more the gangsterism strikes me. This is close to the neoconservative interpretation perhaps. North Korea is indeed a trouble-making rogue. But it is far more predictable than rogue/conservative interpretations permit. North Korea is not in fact suicidal, nor is it likely seriously trying to bring down South Korea, invade it, or otherwise achieve Northern-led unification. They must know that all this is out of their reach at this point, and there’s no way China, Japan or the US would stand-by if these eventualities actually began to play out. What Pyongyang wants more than anything else is just to survive, so war is highly unlikely; and its elites want the lifestyle their bloody climb to the top has entitled them too.

We know that North Korea routinely engages in illicit behavior – smuggling, drug production and running, insurance fraud, proliferation, counterfeiting of dollars and RMB. We know that throughout the ‘sunshine’ period it took every advantage to demand South Korea pay for joint projects if not pay it off directly. It rips off its own labor force, whether working aboard in Siberia or the Persian Gulf, or at home in the Kaesong industrial zone. Inside North Korea, corruption is endemic, and its elites gorge themselves at the population’s expense. Kim Jong Il’s appetites for liquor and women were neronian, while Kim Jong Un has continued has father partying rule by building a ski resort (yes, really).

In short, North Korea is post-ideological and akin to the Godfather: a massive racket to shake-down anyone, inside North Korea or out, to fund the self-indulgent lifestyle of a narrow elite. North Korea is what happens when Don Corleone takes over an entire country and can enforce his clan rule with a secret police rather than just caporegime henchman. North Korea is barely a country at all actually; it’s an orwellian gangster fiefdom.

10 thoughts on “5 Interpretations of N Korea: Communist, Rogue, Fascist, neo-Confucian, or Gangster?

  1. There is the obvious question to answer: what exactly would be the criteria to differentiate between 3) and 5)? The two are not directly contradictory, and a mafia state with a fascistic worldview (if we view the military as the mafia’s “hit men”) would be a possible combination. Even if those at the top may not put much stock in the racial worldview, it seems clear that the bureaucracy that services them has it ingrained; and a barracks state focused on the glorification of national security can shield the mafia from internal unrest and external intervention as they struggle for power.

    It seems to be me that the difference between 3) and 5) is merely one of degree, not of kind, and that there is no contradiction between believing sincerely in a racial ideology while enjoying the fruits of widespread corruption.


  2. Agree with A. My personal opinion is that it is a combination of both 3 and 4 with elements of 5. Five is more a tactic than strategy, it’s an element of how the country runs rather than a way it is designed, structured or conceptually thought about.


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  4. To what degree is NK’s behavior driven by isolation and by the fact that since at least 1950 the goal of what has become the One World Power has been regime change there, by fair means or foul? Doesn’t excuse any regime bad behavior but having the biggest of all after you for a long time and unwilling to even consider standing down has to get on peoples’ nerves. Informal marketization from below is how the Chinese and then the Vietnamese transformed their economies into the fast-growing quasi-capitalist systems they have since become. NK has no oily resources and no legal way to get hold of cash to buy such. Guess what? if scamming’s the only way they can get it then scam they will. And having a garrison state is understandable in a leadership that may genuinely fear a direct invasion by that Very Biggest. (It’s not like it hasn’t ever happened.) The big army and the nukes likely are a deterrent more than anything else.

    NK had a policy goal of reunification on its terms from its founding. I am sure it became crystal clear to those leaders by the second half of the ‘eighties that such was non-viable. Now the strategy appears to be avoidance of unification on SK/US terms, which if ever it did happen could be a lot bloodier than what happened in Germany in 1989. One issue is there is no guarantee at all of a soft landing for the NK leadership and a whole lot of others who have done fairly well in that society, so one could argue, what’s their incentive to give up?


  5. Sign me up for 3,4 and 5 as well.

    A guy I happen to know from Russian MGIMO quipped that North Korea was the only foreign posting where he didnt get laid. The racism is pretty intense.
    As far as interpersonal relationships go, North Korea is in some ways incredibly clannish and Confucian (although still a bit more gender egalitarian then traditional confucianism would be), which compounds to further increase their level of isolation.

    They also have real difficulties interfacing with most nations in the area. Both China and Japan are seen as threats, Russia is the big dumb bear that is to be exploited for subsidies/used to balance China (given that Russian economic subsidies to North Korea are pretty drat low, iirc, Transdniestr gets more then North Korea does, it is safe to say that the North Koreans burned a few bridges in this regard), Philipines is the American bordello and Vietnam is….

    Dont mention Vietnam, the objective inferiority of North Korea to Vietnam, in matters that strongly matter to North Korea leadership (like actually winning wars and reunifying the country, then expanding outward into Laos and Cambodia while fighting off a Chinese invasion) can trigger some pretty unexpected results. There is a bit of an inferiority complex around there.


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