December 19, 2011

Help Me, Daddy

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The death of Kim Jong-il, who ruled North Korea from 1994, reminded me of something a Korean friend told me a few years ago. My friend is an expert on North Korea and told me this "for a fact." Now, I also remember many things I was told "for a fact" in Moscow in Soviet times. This is a fact I've never had the opportunity to verify (and wouldn't know where to look), so I'll put everything in quotes as my friend told it to me.

In order to facilitate his system of personal rule, Comrade Kim Il-sung devised a subcommittee of the party politburo to help him take the most important political and military decisions. The subcommittee had five members, so it became known as the Committee of Five.

Initially, the Committee of Five consisted of Kim Il-sung himself, his son Kim Jong-il, and three other senior party figures.

Note. Kim Il-sung was North Korea's first ruler, and the father of Kim Jong-il. The idea of a Committee of Five is very plausible. A key to the personal power of a totalitarian dictator is "divide and rule." One aspect of divide-and-rule is the compartmentalization of information and responsibilities, so as to minimize the number of people that have an overview of everything. Stalin was a master of this technique, and became notorious after the war for dividing the Politburo members into little subcommittees with limited oversight of particular aspects of policy. These subcommittees became known as the the Quintet, the Septet, and so on. Kim Il-sung's Committee of Five would have excluded other members of the Politburo from general oversight.

Time passed and took its toll. In 1994, Kim Il-sung "went to meet Marx." Following his death, he was promoted to the country's President for Eternity.

Note. This part is certainly true.

Since Kim Il-sung continued to be a state official, although dead, it was clearly out of the question to remove him from the Committee of Five, so he was not replaced. As the three other members of the Committee of Five aged and died, they too were not replaced, probably because there was no one that Kim Jong-il trusted sufficiently. Despite this, the Committee of Five lived on.

Eventually, only Kim Jong-il was left.

My friend concluded (this would be around ten years ago):

At the present time when important political and military decisions must be made, the Committee of Five continues to meet, but when it meets Kim Jong-il is alone in the room. After announcing each item on the agenda, he looks to the ceiling, clasps his hands, and says: "Help me, Daddy!"

This seems like a good precedent for Kim Jong-il's son and successor, Kim Jong-un, to follow. He'd better pray to Daddy; there's no one else he can trust.

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  1. Dear Mark:

    I agree with you that Kim Jong-un could face some sticky situations in his future political career. Furthermore, I have read somewhere that a Russian diplomat in the know commented that while his father cut across as a rational, cool, intelligent and manipulating figure (not in the news of course), Kim junior is more of a hot head. However, I don’t agree that the Committee of Five issue is of much significance.

    I believe in a state like DPRK, where personality cult, prestige and ‘face’ are very important, maintaining the positions on the Committee of Five for dead people preserves the leaders’ legitimacy even after their death. The move mystifies the political system and the leaders in general, a move that is akin to other communist countries like China, where portraits of Mao are everywhere present.

    But what you implicitly suggest, that the leadership of DPRK and its policy making depends on consultation within the Committee of Five, can’t be true. Kim II is seen in the circle as a rational, cool, ruthless and manipulating man. I would believe that after suffering a stroke in 2008, he would have started planning the paths for his son just like how his father did for him (except that for Kim II political training took a small matter of two decades, as compared to maximally two years for Kim III). The message of Kim II’s death is broadcasted two days after his supposed date of death, which suggests to me behind the door discussions, identification of allies and opposition inside the party and even purges of prominent senior figures. The fact that Kim II’s death is announced shows that at least for the moment, Kim III has been able to consolidate power.

    19 Dec 2011, 15:17

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I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).

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