One of the few correct themes of my public writing is that incompetent autocrats tend to stay in power far longer than pundits predict that they will stay in power. I have written that Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro would continue to rule their countries despite their abjectly awful economic policies. Back in 2011 I wrote that “Kim Jong Un will hold power for longer than any Western analyst expects him to hold power,” and the North Korean leader continues to be large and in charge.
The Wall Street Journal reports, however, that Kim’s days are numbered in North Korea. Well, at least, that’s what the headline “North Korean Defector Says Kim Jong Un Can’t Last” implies:
“I am sure that more defections of my colleagues will take place since North Korea is already on the slippery slope,” said Mr. Thae [Yong Ho], who predicted a “popular uprising” against the leadership. …
Mr. Thae said he initially had high hopes for the younger Mr. Kim, who was educated abroad and “knew the world.”
“I had a kind of illusion that he may bring some policy changes and modernize North Korea,” he said. But after it became clear that Mr. Kim wasn’t going to chart a different path from his father and grandfather, “I was greatly disappointed — not only me, but most of my colleagues shared the same thought.”
As a former DPRK diplomat, Thae has no doubt forgotten more about North Korea than I will ever learn. So maybe he’s right. The problem is that everyone in the world outside of Kim Jong Un’s inner circle wants him to be right, and this can lead to wishful thinking.
Kim Jong Un possesses qualities akin to other leaders with authoritarian impulses that make observers likely to downplay his political staying power. Kim was born into wealth and privilege and venerated his father. In his early years, he did not seem either interested or destined for political power so much as continued partying. He eventually settled down and married an attractive younger woman who has made fewer and fewer public appearances over time.
The trouble with buffoonish autocratic personalities is that there is a natural psychological bias to focus on the clownish parts of what the Dear Leader is doing and not enough on the consolidation of political power.
Consider Kim Jong Un’s time in office. He surprised everyone and succeeded Kim Jong Il to rule North Korea back in late 2011. He has spent much of his time as a ruler appearing in bizarre photo op after bizarre photo op. As the head of state, he has repeatedly appeared before massive adoring crowds, prompting a lot of news coverage devoted to the size of such rallies. (The coverage suggests that Kim cares a great deal about this. After all, in authoritarian societies, media coverage of crowd size is an effective tactic to convince the populace of the leader’s popularity.) State propaganda outlets continually praise his brilliance and acumen to the point of absurdity. And while some observers argue that such behaviors are brash and uncouth, he has not been afraid to brutally dispatch any and all rivals within his political party. He has also dramatically increased security on his borders. On a variety of dimensions, his country has flouted international norm after international norm and issued all kinds of unbalanced threats. Nonetheless, there are outside observers prepared to offer counterintuitive takes on his leadership. The result is a revisionist head of a nuclear-armed state who has antagonized many within and without his country, but nonetheless remains in power.
What about the future? We know from research into nonviolent protests and elections that such leaders are still vulnerable to domestic pressure. Such efforts, however, require disciplined and strategic leaders who are able to look past superficial buffoonery and focus on the policies that hurt large swaths of the local populace.
Given the apparent lack of civil society within North Korea, and the understandably low levels of trust that exist within its citizenry, I would not get my hopes up about Kim losing power anytime soon. That is regrettable for both those who live inside North Korea’s borders and those who must figure out how to cope with such a bizarre and mercurial leader.