FROM THE ANTHOLOGY: North Korea and the Bomb

Staying Alive

Why North Korea Will Not Change

Kim Jong-il inspects a unit of the Korean People's Army, North Korea, April 7, 2008. Korean News Agency / Reuters

Fifteen years after taking over from his father, Kim Jong Il remains in full control of North Korea; he is still, at 66, the supreme ruler and "ever-victorious General." In the early 1990s, few outside observers expected him or his regime to survive this long. But he has persevered, thanks to his ruthless leadership, a gift for political manipulation, and his use of brinkmanship diplomacy -- and also because no other member of the top leadership has been willing or able to challenge him. Kim is both the head of the Korean Workers' Party and, along with a three-person standing committee, the head of the state. Nepotism and a cult of personality ensure Kim's dominance over the party; the lack of administrative or judicial checks, independent social organizations, or a free press ensures the party's dominance over the whole country. North Korea's elites feel cornered and understand that unity is a major condition for their survival. Thus, they continue to support their leader with little regard for the plight of most North Koreans.

Pyongyang is often described as the world's last Stalinist regime, but for all practical purposes, North Korea's state-run economy of steel mills and coal mines is dead. Despite loud paeans to self-reliance coming from the regime, even during the Cold War the North Korean economy survived only thanks to Soviet subsidies, and it collapsed as soon as Moscow discontinued its aid in 1990. The crisis that followed cut industrial output by 50 percent within a few years. The Public Distribution System was suspended -- a major blow to the population, which for decades had relied on government-subsidized grain rations as its main source of food. A disastrous famine from 1996 to 1999 killed between 600,000 and one million people.

The crisis has had many consequences. Until the early 1990s, the North Korean government strictly controlled private markets. However, things have changed. With the partial exception of the military industry, the only functioning parts of the North Korean economy are the unofficial private markets. Now,

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