Spheres of Influence: A Comparative Study of Political Legitimacy in North Korea
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Studies of North Korean defectors indicate fundamental transformations in contemporary North Korean society. Interpreting these changes through the lenses of Cold War theories, mainstream narratives conclude the DPRK's socialist, totalitarian leadership is anathema to North Korea's current transition, and that the regime retains its power only by coercion. However, the growing evidence of political and economic transformation in North Korea ought not only to call into question the regime's legitimacy, but also our understanding of the very systems, structures, and dynamics upon which our theories of legitimacy have been based. Joining a project already underway to revise our fundamental assumptions and understandings about North Korean society (Demick, 2009; McEachern, 2010; Kwon & Chung, 2012), this thesis 1) critiques the ill-fitting but still dominant narratives and theories of political legitimacy in North Korea, 2) conducts three different sets of contrasts to derive novel features of contemporary political legitimacy in North Korean society, 3) and applies these features to re-evaluate the conclusions of five recent and influential studies of North Korean defectors. Socialism and totalitarianism, the two systems most commonly invoked when assessing North Korea's political legitimacy, are shown to be inappropriate for the North Korean case. Contrasts with Eastern European, authoritarian, and Asian socialist states respectively distill the following three features of political legitimacy in North Korea. 1) Unlike socialist Eastern Europe, the North Korean regime is argued to have originally derived its legitimacy from a post-colonial mandate to protect national sovereignty as well as a late-industrialization mandate to rapidly develop its economy. 2) Local innovation and civil disobedience may often be legitimate feedback and negotiating mechanisms in authoritarian systems rather than rebellious protests against an illegitimate regime. 3) Institutional reform in China and Vietnam may have been instigated locally but was only implemented globally when sufficient pluralism existed among the political elite and when the state no longer faced an existential threat by its Cold War counterpart. Using these features to reevaluate five studies of North Korean defectors reveals a regime and society transitioning in tandem, casting significant doubt on the hypothesis that the North Korean regime is illegitimate.
- Sociology