In this essay, I address the persistence of authoritarian regimes in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and Burma (Myanmar) against expectations. Contacts welcome here.
The persistence of authoritarian regimes in East and Southeast Asia presents important problems to political theory. Most of these authoritarian regimes are puzzling because they remain in power despite significant economic growth—most notably in the case of China, the regional titan. However, a number of others are puzzling for the opposite reason: they persist despite what would seem to be very obvious reasons for ending self-imposed isolation and opening up their often impoverished economies. Burma has been, and North Korea remains, prime examples of such. Though very different from each other, these two cases demonstrate important shortcomings of many predictions made about them and about the region.
The case of North Korea is in many ways one of the world’s most extreme. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is a totalitarian one-party state, governed for most of its history so far by founder Kim Il-Sung, who established a cult of personality to undergird his rule. Despite Kim Il-Sung’s death in 1994 and the earlier collapse of the Soviet Union, the DPRK has remained a totalitarian regime. This is remarkable, in light of the blow to the DPRK’s economy: the Soviet collapse in 1991 deprived the DPRK of about 40% of its imports from the hitherto-Soviet Union, and imports fell to 10% of their 1987-1990 level by 1993. The impact was tremendous economic devastation: the DPRK lost its single most important trading partner, a longstanding source of oil, coal, and steel imports. This sent agricultural output plummeting as well.
There were good reasons, at the time, to believe that these calamities would shortly produce the collapse of the regime. The combination of tremendous economic distress and the death of the nation’s founder and long-time dictator, it was thought, would leave it with no option but to fold. Economic crisis in a dictatorship is usually fatal to the regime because it interferes with the dictator’s ability to reward his followers with the fruits of patronage. Additionally, economic crisis is seen as a sign of weakness, both by the political and military elite on the one hand, and by opposition groups within civil society on the other. This was bad enough for the regime, but it was compounded by Kim Il-Sung’s death. For more than forty years, Kim Il-Sung had held the nation together, and his cult of personality was so extensive that it had made him a god-like figure in the DPRK. These highly personalist dictatorships tend to be especially vulnerable after the death of the founder, precisely because they are so focused on the person of the founder: the founder serves as the linchpin of the entire regime, holding it together with a mixture of charisma, patronage to his supporters, and often the strategic use of violence to suppress and deter dissent.
However, there were a number of other, very powerful factors that one must consider here. Firstly, the DPRK was heir to a very long tradition of strong, well-developed, bureaucratic statecraft, and authoritarian statecraft at that. Historically, Korea was profoundly influenced by the Chinese model of governance: a strong state, run by a collection of capable, well-disciplined bureaucrats, capable of effectively overseeing a large population. And given the fact that the DPRK regime functions by distributing patronage to the elites, these insiders are unlikely to promote change of any kind. Indeed, the DPRK appears to have a particularly united body of elites, with scant chance for factional squabbling. And in addition to the country’s legitimate economy, the regime also engages in illicit economic activities “such as drug trafficking, arms sales, and private remittances from Japan”, all of which can be converted into sources of patronage to keep the elites working together.
Kim Il-Sung’s successor, his son Kim Jong-Il, turned to the military for support. This was a very important and clever move, one with significant consequences for Kim Jong-Il’s regime: it seems to have reinforced and expanded the role of the military in the DPRK, with an even greater emphasis than before on prioritizing the military in the distribution of the scarce resources available to the DPRK. Kim Jong-Il also worked this reliance on the military into ideology, which helped to secure his rule by establishing him as a ‘revolutionary’ hardliner, in the eyes of both the military and the common people.
Perversely, the very fact that the DPRK is so poor and underdeveloped works in the favor of the regime as well. Because the people are so desperately poor that they must engage in a daily fight for survival, they have neither the will nor the means to pose much opposition to the regime, certainly nothing on the level of a real threat to the regime’s survival. Too poor for a middle class, the DPRK has none of the hallmarks of a developed, or at least developing, civil society. In particular, North Korean society lacks the kind of organizational tendencies and customs that might serve to provide a means for launching popular protests. Moreover, the state permeates essentially every aspect of daily life, to say nothing of the networks of association, and uses this presence to promote indoctrination even as it monitors its citizens’ behavior.
There is another factor that must be considered here, and that is the role of the Republic of Korea (ROK), aka South Korea. The two countries share a common history before the final phase of the Second World War, and a common language and culture. And yet, since the close of the Second World War, they have gone off on very different trajectories. Where the North is a totalitarian dictatorship sitting on a shrunken economy, the South is a free, democratic country, with a capitalist economy and an extremely developed standard of living. The psychological and political consequences of this for the DPRK are tremendous: for North Koreans who know that the regime’s propaganda about the South is baseless, the economic and social inferiority of the North is painful.
For the elites, too, the South is a clear sign that they cannot compromise without losing their power: for them to compromise and start opening up North Korea’s economy and society would be to jeopardize their hold on power. As it stands now, the regime controls every aspect of daily life, notably the media, and has imposed a blockade on foreign information. The regime tells the people that they live in a prosperous country, while the South is a wasteland. However, if they began to liberalize the economy and open up the very closed society they have created, then the people of North Korea would begin to realize just how far behind the South the DPRK really is, and this realization, coupled with the regime’s compromises, would produce powerful calls for further reforms. This would doom the ability of the regime to maintain its grip on power.
In essence, North Korea’s problem is a much, much more extreme version of China’s problem—or put another way, China’s problem can cast a lot of light on North Korea’s dilemma. Unlike the DPRK, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has undertaken a path of economic liberalization that has unleashed a great deal of prosperity. However, this transition seems to have stalled, with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) firmly maintaining its hold on power. In China, the CCP has undertaken a great deal of liberalization, but only within carefully prescribed limits: mostly economic, not political. The CCP’s problem now is that the liberalization that it has allowed to take place has produced a rising middle class, and calls for further reform, especially political reform. This has created a strong source of tension between the state and the civil society, which in turn means that if the CCP were to give in and allow further changes, they might lose control of the situation. What both countries have in common is authoritarian regimes reluctant to allow reforms because they fear losing control of the situation: in other words, both regimes fear that allowing certain reforms would make the calls for still more reforms so powerful and possibly anarchic that the regimes would lose their grasp on power completely.
Burma presents a case which, while still quite uncertain, is markedly different. After more than twenty years of military rule, the country is in the midst of a peaceful transition from military to civilian authority. This is the more remarkable in light of the fact that the Tatmadaw (Defense Services) have not lost control of the situation or otherwise been forced to act in such a manner. And not only has the military regime not been discredited, but it can look back on a successful history. Burma’s Tatmadaw was forged in the anti-colonial struggles against both the British, the power that colonized Burma, and the Japanese invaders during World War II. They took power in 1988 after the collapse of the country’s socialist government, and proceeded to restore many of the functions of the state. Under the Tatmadaw Burma became much stronger: although the Tatmadaw continued to fight long-running conflicts in its northern borderlands with ethnic separatists, they were able to stabilize the country and increase their own funding, numbers, and equipment.
In short, by the time that the Tatmadaw began the process of transition in 2011, they were operating from a position of considerable strength. Still, former head of the junta Senior General Than Shwe seems to have made some important miscalculations which may serve to further the interests of democracy: Burma’s 2008 Constitution, applied by President Thein Sein from early 2011 on, “defied widespread predictions by dividing formal legal and political powers between the post-junta constitutional government and the post-junta Tatmadaw.” Contrary to the general’s own apparent expectations, this division seems to be making a significant difference in establishing much freer politics in Burma already. And although the reasons for this are still somewhat murky, Burma’s ruling elites are proving far less unified than North Korea’s with respect to their commitment to maintaining the regime. Indeed, a number of them are apparently quite reform-minded, or at the very least are able to judge the reforms worthwhile: unlike the elites of China and North Korea, they seem prepared to implement reforms, indicating that they see the benefits of such reforms as outweighing the costs.
Also unlike in North Korea, and far more than in China, Burmese society has produced consistent and very strong pressures for democracy. In 2007 the Saffron Revolution proved a highly visible challenge to the power of the military junta. Despite violently repressing this and trying to deflect its impact with the 2008 Constitution, imposed through a fraudulent referendum, the junta was unable to entirely dispel its psychological impact. Burma also has the remarkable Aung San Suu Kyi, a democratic activist who has become an icon, even a figure of global renown. These have proven very important factors in the movement towards democracy. However, the 2008 Constitution still remains, and with it a number of features that could stymie democracy by enshrining a still-powerful role for the military. If the Constitution is challenged successfully, Burma will have much better odds of capitalizing on the gains it has made already in order to transition into a democracy; otherwise, it will have a much harder time, and may even be left with a hybrid system, part democratic, part military rule.
Despite brutally quashing the Saffron Revolution of 2007, with continued pressure from democratic activists and internationally, the Burmese junta feared another uprising. This seems to have played a major role in the move towards transition. The Saffron Revolution itself started when the regime brutally quashed a small, peaceful protest by monks, sparking a nationwide uprising. In addition to these pressures, the regime had incentives to try to reengage with the West: doing so would lessen its longstanding economic and political dependence on China. Given the long-running struggles of courageous advocacy groups within Burma, however, as well as its own highly publicized repression, there was no real way for the junta to reengage with the West without also moving to liberalize meaningfully. With this, too, came the realization that if Burma was to become a modern nation, something the junta did want, then it would have to open up to the outside world economically—which would invite political reform as well. Deeply conscious of their nation’s extreme poverty and international isolation, key ruling elites finally comprehended that they would have to embark on the path of reform.
In the Far East, authoritarian regimes have survived under circumstances that have puzzled many foreign observers. In the 1990s, there were very good reasons to believe that North Korea would shortly collapse: the Soviet Union, its main trading partner and a vital source of resources, itself collapsed, and Communism retreated. Coupled with the death of Kim Il-Sung in 1994, North Korea’s regime seemed doomed, but it has persisted in the nearly two decades since through a combination of cohesive elites, the ‘negative example’ of South Korea, and perversely, the very fact that is too poor and underdeveloped to produce much popular unrest. Burma, on the other hand, is witnessing a surprise transition from authoritarian military rule to what might prove to be democratic civilian rule. Despite a position of strength, the Burmese military is allowing a transition to civilian and possibly democratic rule because of a long-standing civilian movement for democracy, and the elites’ own determination that the costs of modernizing, including political liberalization, will be worth it.
Callahan, Mary. “The Generals Loosen Their Grip.” Journal of Democracy 23, no. 4 (2012): 120-131.
Cho, Yun-Jo. “The Sources of Regime Stability in North Korea: Insights from Democratization Theory.” Stanford Journal of East Asian Affairs 5, no. 1 (2005): 90-99.
Diamond, Larry. “The Need for a Political Pact.” The Journal of Democracy 23, no. 4 (2012): 138-149.
Fukuyama, Francis. “The Patterns of History.” Journal of Democracy 23, no. 1 (2012): 14-26.
Lankov, Andrei. “Staying Alive: Why North Korea Will Not Change.” Foreign Affairs 87, no. 2 (2008): 9-16.
Pei, Minxin. China’s Trapped Transition: The Limits of Developmental Autocracy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.
Zin, Min, and Brian Joseph. “The Democrats’ Opportunity.” Journal of Democracy 23, no. 4 (2012): 104-119.
 Yun-Jo Cho, “The Sources of Regime Stability in North Korea: Insights from Democratization Theory,” Stanford Journal of East Asian Affairs 5, no. 1 (2005): 90-91.
 Cho, “The Sources of Regime Stability in North Korea,” 91-92.
 Cho, “The Sources of Regime Stability in North Korea,” 97; Francis Fukuyama, “The Patterns of History,” Journal of Democracy 23, no. 1 (2012): 15.
 Cho, “The Sources of Regime Stability in North Korea,” 93-94.
 Cho, “The Sources of Regime Stability in North Korea,” 95.
 Cho, “The Sources of Regime Stability in North Korea,” 95-96.
 Andrei Lankov, “Staying Alive: Why North Korea Will Not Change,” Foreign Affairs 87, no. 2 (2008): 12.
 Lankov, “Staying Alive,” 12.
 Minxin Pei, China’s Trapped Transition: The Limits of Developmental Autocracy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 15.
 Mary Callahan, “The Generals Loosen Their Grip,” Journal of Democracy 23, no. 4 (2012): 120-121.
 Callahan, “The Generals Loosen Their Grip,” 121-122.
Callahan, “The Generals Loosen Their Grip,” 122-123.
 Larry Diamond, “The Need for a Political Pact,” The Journal of Democracy 23, no. 4 (2012): 140-141.
 Min Zin and Brian Joseph, “The Democrats’ Opportunity,” Journal of Democracy 23, no. 4 (2012): 110-111.
Photo of North Koreans bowing to statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il by J. A. de Roo