The traditional western view of North Korea often paints the “Hermit Kingdom” as a farcical jester of a nation, an oddity that confounds onlookers with its many contradictions and bombastic threats. However, this less than nuanced view of the nation and its intricate and complex governmental hierarchy tends to oversimplify the small Asian state, potentially leading to fatal missteps in policy regarding the progressing nuclear power, whose wild threats and curses could theoretically gain a terrifying bite behind them in the approaching years. For these reasons, it is crucial that we properly understand the inner workings of Kim Jong-Un’s gang-like government.
The oddest thing about Mr. Kim’s government is the role Kim himself plays. He runs his government like a fervent religious cult, building an image of himself among the people as a supreme leader who personally oversees every matter of state, with unbeatable records in every sport or competition, and a host of magical powers, such as the ability to read the minds of his citizens to make sure they remain loyal. However, the truth behind the scenes of Kim’s magic show is much grittier. As a military dictator, Mr. Kim derives all of his power from his control of the armed forces. Like a mob-boss or feudal lord, Mr. Kim must manage the desires and demands of his subordinates to remain the supreme leader. Without the support of his martial underlings, he is effectively naught but a pudgy lunatic. With the army’s backing, he is a pudgy lunatic with the unilateral control of the nation.
Mr. Kim, of course, understands this well, and thus considers the well-being of the military above all else, affording them great rights, as well as granting them a massive amount of influence within the government of North Korea. The powers of the North Korean military are best shown through the ideology of Songun, instituted by Kim Jong-Il in 1995. The policy, translated literally as “military first” puts the military of North Korea before all other matters of state, prioritizing the well being of the military over civic and economic issues. Unsurprisingly, this policy was instituted in the middle of the Great Famine of North Korea (known within the country as the Arduous March, as famine implies a government failure), when a combination of factors, including the loss of Soviet support, floods and droughts, and a failing of the centrally planned farming system, led to massive food shortages. As international aid flowed into the country, the newly elevated military intercepted stockpiles of food, using them to keep their soldiers fed and content, while farmers and peasants starved to death. Even after the humanitarian situation in the country stabilized slightly, Kim Jong-Il and the reigning Kim Jong-Un have since doubled-down on the policy of Songun, steadily increasing the authority of their base of power, the military.
Because of this system, where the army officials hold almost lordly privileges over their jurisdictions, and the rule of the government is determined by the authority of the gun, the government of North Korea often times operates almost as an organized criminal empire would, with laws and rules created and interpreted at the whim of the men holding the weapons, a constant power-struggle emerging between the hierarchy of capos and mob-bosses, and a flow of money that is robbed, embezzled, or appropriated out of the hands of the average citizen and into the pockets of the men in charge. However, due to the special circumstances surrounding this particular crime-family, they aren’t looking out for the Feds, they are the Feds.