View photos of Kim Jong Il surveying steel foundries, goat farms, and more.
On April 14, Kim Jong Il, North Korea's numero uno, bumped 100 generals up the career ladder. The North's official news agency described the move as a noble gesture to mark the birthday of Kim's deceased father, Kim Il Sung. It was the biggest group of senior officers he has promoted in 13 years.
So why would he do a thing like that?
North Korea has been changing a lot over the past few years. The North is no longer quite as cut off from the rest of the world as it is used to be; flourishing trade with China, and a corresponding inflow of goods and information, has seen to that. And, as some discerning experts have shown, over the decades North Korea's reigning ideology has moved ever further away from communism toward the intensely ethnonationalist "military first" worldview of Kim Jong Il -- which turns out to look a lot more like Japanese World War II emperor-worship than the thought of Karl Marx.
These aren't just academic debates either. For all its weaknesses, North Korea remains a paranoid power with a million-man army and nuclear weaponry, capabilities that give it the ability to create enormous mischief in one of the world's strategic flashpoints. (And if we needed any reminding of that, just consider the rising tension over the mysterious sinking of the South Korean naval ship Cheonan.)
All of which leaves the intriguing issue of the real nature of power at the top. We all know who's in charge in North Korea after all: the guy with the platform shoes, the bouffant hairdo, and the paunch. Indeed, it would be hard to think of another country where opposition has been extinguished as thoroughly as it has been north of the 38th parallel. If any place in the world qualifies as an absolute dictatorship, surely the Democratic People's Republic of Korea would be it.
But is it really that simple? Recently I had a conversation with a friend of mine I'll call "Oscar." For a variety of reasons, Oscar doesn't want me to reveal his identity; he consented to be described merely as a "long-time Korea expert." So I'm afraid you'll just have to trust me on this one.
First, just a bit of historical background. As Oscar reminded me, we know today that Stalin's Russia and Mao's China -- neither a slouch when it came to dictatorial control -- actually experienced a great deal of factional push-and-pull at the uppermost levels of government. Stalin succeeded in tamping down the maneuverings of his confederates through the use of random terror, but rivalries within the top ranks of the Soviet Communist Party broke into the open immediately after his death (when several leaders managed to gang up on Stalin's putative successor, secret police chief Lavrenti Beria, and had him shot). Mao unleashed the Cultural Revolution, in turn, precisely in order to undermine (and in some cases eliminate) his internal party opponents.