Regime survival, societal resilience, and change in North Korea

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The rapid ascent to power of Kim Jong-un, accelerated by Kim Jong-il’s death in December 2011, confirmed hereditary succession as the modal form of political succession in North Korea. ‘Do not hope for any change in us,’ is a statement oftentimes coming out of Pyongyang, warning outsiders that no reform of any sort should be expected. And yet, although the country’s moribund economy avoided both East-Central European and Chinese style reforms to stay afloat, trade across the Chinese-North Korean border is bringing social and economic changes into the lives of ordinary North Koreans. This grassroots-level dynamic is transforming the country in subtle but profound ways.
While a great deal of attention has been devoted to North Korea from the perspective of East Asian security studies, so far surprisingly little attention has been devoted to what goes on inside the country, including the issues of the hereditary succession era as well as the political economy of transition. Rather, the time is now ripe for a shift in emphasis towards a study of what actually goes on inside the country, and increasingly across its no longer sealed boundaries. North Korea is gradually but steadily becoming a ‘normal country’, meaning that its citizens are no longer as cut off from access to information and outside reality as in the past. It should be studied as such, and to that end greater borrowing from the analytical tools of comparative social science, as is done in some of the texts reviewed here, is to be welcomed. This is of course not to deny the value of the scholarly work done on strategic issues, the threat to global security posed by nuclear proliferation, and especially North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear status. At the same time a focus on hard security tends to overshadow the micro- and meso-level changes that are taking place inside the country and across its borders. The books reviewed in this paper thus represent a valuable addition to the literature, contributing to our understanding of a reclusive regime and a society that is hard-to-access – let alone understand –.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)96-106
Number of pages10
JournalWiener Beiträge zur Koreaforschung
Publication statusPublished - 2014


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