To understand how leaders in North Korea decide how to implement the strategy I’ve described in the past few posts, you have to look at the situation from their perspective.
When a business decides its strategy, it formally deliberates and decides it. For the management team to mess up on implementing it may result in the company losing money, market share, and so on. Messing up badly can result in being fired and possibly losing their jobs and even personal savings. But you don’t risk bodily harm or risk your life.
When an authoritarian ruler messes up strategy, they risk losing their lives as well as the lives of their families and everyone they know. Just the past few years included the undignified executions of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, whom Kim Jung Il and Kim Il Sung may well have known.
This list of authoritarian leaders and their demises shows little room for error. They either die in office or are executed or, at best, exiled. No dying of old age with the family by their side.
Speaking of families, North Korea’s leaders tend to have familial ties. Kim Jung Il is Kim Il Sung’s son. Kim Jung Il’s son will likely follow Kim Jung Il. Kim Jung Il’s brother-in-law, Chang Sung-taek, holds the second-most powerful position. Whatever power any individual has, you can rest assured, their families benefit with material resources the rest of the citizenry could only dream of.
How North Korean strategy first got decided is not that relevant. Today it’s stable. It works for its decision-makers, so they probably tend to decide simply what should they do to maintain things as they are.
Though the internet is filled with people judging the morality of North Korea’s leaders and nearly everyone comes to the same conclusions, I’m not writing what’s right, wrong, good, bad, or evil, nor do I find judging others productive.
The perspective of a North Korean decision-maker
I ask you to put yourself in the position of a high-ranking North Korean decision maker, as high up as you want. For your whole life you and everyone you know has followed a strategy of maintaining power. That strategy is stable. Your family and community enjoys material wealth and status, vastly more than nearly everyone else in the country. You’ve been abroad and know any foreign information will contradict the propaganda you communicate to your people.
You also know what happens to leaders in other countries — Libya, Iraq, Romania, etc — when the general population learns of these contradictions and finds ways to act on it. Their leaders and families die.
The choice of a North Korean decision-maker
Holding the party line maintains your power, status, and wealth, as well as your family’s and that of everyone you know.
Breaking the party line could lead to overthrow and the death of you, your family, and everyone you know. If you acted unilaterally, even if major change doesn’t happen, your family and everyone you know would sense the risk you imposed on them. Either everyone you know would have to back you, all risking death, or at least some will retaliate.
Now consider a decision a North Korean might have faced since the current strategic situation stabilized. Be honest with yourself. What would you do in the following situations?
- Consider the rise of the internet. It can instantly bring information from anywhere in the world to anyone. The slightest hint that, say, North Korea began the Korean War or its leaders refused aid while its people starved could completely undermine popular support. Allowing the internet would reveal discrepancies between your propaganda and the stories from the rest of the world, which could contribute to uprisings leading to the deaths of you, your family, and everyone you know. Would you allow it?
- Consider food aid from foreign countries, even while ten percent of your country’s population was starving to death. If accepting it means foreign aid workers will deliver food labeled from the United States and possibly communicate directly with many citizens who support you in ignorance of what those aid workers might contradict, you could contribute to mass uprisings and the deaths of you, your family, and everyone you know. Disallowing the food would result in many people dying, but none that you know. Would you allow the aid in?
- Consider arming your border with South Korea. If you don’t do it, South Korea and the United States, two countries who already sent troops into your country, could invade. China might stop supporting you. Would you decrease the arms?
- Consider signing a peace treaty with South Korea. If you do so, their economy and culture would overwhelm yours. Your wealth and status would likely disappear. You, your family, and everyone you know might be found guilty of crimes against humanity by foreigners or rebelled against by your own people. Would you seek peace?
I could go on with other examples. The point is, consider any behavior or choices by North Korean leaders, no matter how much you oppose it, from their perspective. Can you think of any where their choice wasn’t the safest for themselves, their families, and everyone they knew?
If I think hard, I can imagine choices North Korean leaders could make that could create peaceful change not risking death to themselves, their families, and everyone they knew, but they would be overwhelmingly difficult to coordinate and implement without risking their own deaths or, at best, undignified exile, losing nearly everything, never feeling safe from retaliation from people who suffered under them.
Oh, and by the way, North Korean policy, the policy that maintains your materially superior standard of living, states that if you defect and leave the country, three generations of your family can be held responsible. If you leave, the state can imprison and torture your parents, siblings, and children, potentially for their entire lives. Forget about defecting, they can be punished for your criticizing the government.
From the North Korean leaders’ perspective, continuing with the strategy that has worked for decades seems nearly black and white. If you continue you benefit, otherwise you risk the death of yourself, your family, and everyone you know.
What would you do? You didn’t create this situation. You were born into it. As was everyone you know. But you spent years growing up in it.
What would you do?
I’m not asking this question rhetorically. I would like to know what alternatives people can think of that a decision-maker in North Korea could make given the above situation.
I consider myself good at solving problems and creating strategies, but I don’t see many alternatives for leaders that look better for them as individuals to maintaining the party line.
Next: What do North Korean leaders want?
EDIT: I included much of this post and this series on strategy (edited and polished) in my ebook, Understanding North Korea: Demystifying the Worldâ€™s Most Misunderstood Country. I wrote the book to help increase understanding, communication, and freedom.