Power in North Korea: Does Kim Jong-Un Really Call All the Shots?

North_Korea_Topography

Is Kim Jong-un crazy enough to do it? That question seems to be on the mind of both professional pundits and average bantering citizens. The potential for nuclear war, or just war in general, in Asia all lies in the hands of this mysterious, possibly unstable 30-year-old dictator, according to most.

But is this picture accurate? That is, does all the power in North Korea fall in Kim Jong-un’s hands? Is the final call on matters of war and nuclear action up to him and only him?

The answer to these questions isn’t as clear as many would think. Because of the secretive, censorial nature of the North Korean regime, little is actually known about how its political leadership operates. How little, you ask? The knowledge deficit is large enough that some were even calling for former NBA star Dennis Rodman to be debriefed by the State Department after his circus-like dalliance with the enigmatic young leader.

What we do know about the North Korean regime, however, is that there do exist (or may have existed) various power factions who either operation with the Kims or exert a substantial enough influence upon them that their views on foreign policy are taken into account before any action is taken.

Immediately following the death of Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-Il, the regime was run by a clique of military personnel, who most likely continue to retain a degree of power in policymaking. There has even been infighting between these various power players and Kim Jong-un, with the purging (and possible murder) of former army chief Ri Yong-hoo after a possible coup attempt. Ri’s rebellion most likely arose from the military leader’s objected to the young Kim’s plans at economic and agricultural reforms – chiefly, a possible move of decision-making on these sectors away from military control.

Power-sharing is not unique to the North Korean dictatorship, however. A balance of factional power exists to some degree in almost every tyrannical regime. Putin’s power in Russia depends on alliances with financial elites and Mafiosi-type crime lords. Syria’s Assad family long depended on powerful Alawites, military leaders, and various Christian and Kurdish powerbrokers for support – some of this base has been defecting recently as the civil war rages on. Even the Iranian theocracy is dependent on the cooperation of numerous political, religious and military leaders. No one can truly wield power alone – there must be collaborators. And the views and personalities of these collaborators matter, sometimes as much as those of a state’s so-called leader.

So what does this entail for a possible war on the Korean Peninsula? This question is best illuminated with a riddle by the character of Varys from the popular Song of Ice and Fire book series and Game of Thrones television show:

“Three great men, a king, a priest, and a rich man. Between them stands a common sellsword. Each great man bids the sellsword kill the other two. Who lives? Who dies?”

Varys answers the riddle by pointing out:

“Power resides where men believe it resides; it’s a trick, a shadow on the wall. And a very small man can cast a very large shadow.”

The question for us is how large does Kim Jong-un’s shadow loom? Is he truly the one calling the shots or does he share power with others – others who may either constrain or encourage bellicose action. And is all this hysterical bravado about attacking the United States and its allies the sincere desires of a madman/madmen or is that too just a trick, a shadow on the wall?