North Korea is Not, and Has Not Ever Been, a Monarchy
A historic and economic analysis of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
As a growing number of people continue to be disillusioned by the errors of democracy, a highly interesting and intellectually stimulating debate between monarchy and democracy has begun to ensue. However as expected, the case for monarchy is often misunderstood, since people often stretch the definition of monarchy to mean any and all dictatorships or abuses of power.
Such was the case in Liberty Hangout’s monarchy v. democracy showdown a few weeks ago, in which Aaron, who was arguing for democracy, suggested that North Korea resembles a monarchy. However, this assertion is not exclusively claimed by Aaron, since a quick Google search will reveal that countless others believe the same.
In this piece, I will thoroughly debunk the claim, and put to rest the notion that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a monarchy.
What is a monarchy?
In his piece Why Monarchy is Better than Democracy, Michael Miller provides us with the ontological meaning of the word “monarchy.”
“Arch” comes from the Greek ‘arkhos‘ which means ‘chief’, or ‘ruler’ in English. The prefix “‘an’ means without (an-archy meaning ‘without rulers’), and ‘mon’, stemming from ‘monos’, which means ‘one’ or ‘alone’ (mon-archy meaning ‘one ruler’ or ‘lone ruler’).”
Monarchy, therefore, implies a state with one ruler. The Merriam-Webster’s definition of monarchy further confirms this: “undivided rule or absolute sovereignty by a single person.”
World renowned Austrian economist, Hans Hermann-Hoppe, expands on this definition in his book Democracy the God that Failed, writing that “monarchical government is reconstructed theoretically as privately-owned government, which in turn is explained as promoting future-orientedness and a concern for capital values and economic calculation by the government ruler.”
Conversely, Hoppe notes that democracy entails a “publicly owned government, which is explained as leading to present-orientedness and a disregard or neglect of capital values in government rulers, and the transition from monarchy to democracy is interpreted accordingly as civilizational decline,” (Hoppe xix).
The underlying difference between a monarchy and democracy, therefore, is that the government estate is privately owned under a monarchy, while the estate is publicly owned under a democracy. A monarch would therefore have exceedingly different economic incentives from a democratically elected official.
As we know through logical deduction and a priori information, man is always acting, and a man acts to settle feelings of uneasiness. A man must always seek to maximize his utility, otherwise, he would not act if it was not of value to him. But since man is always acting, we know it is necessarily true that man always seeks to pursue his most ordinally ranked time-preferences, seeking to satisfy his most valued ends.
Maximizing utility is more simply known in layman’s terms as profit. Whether in terms of monetary value or through feelings of easiness, we therefore know it is axiomatically true that man wishes to maximize his profits at all times. This is why a business is incentivized to make as much money as possible, why a father of two is incentivized to earn a high income to provide for his family, and why we wish to pursue ends which make us happy.
These basic economic principles do not disappear in the apparatus of the state, since they are inherent to our human nature. Men in government, like us, also have a natural incentive to maximize their profits.
Both a monarch and a democratically elected official possess this same incentive, however the differences in the structure of their respective governments will drastically alter what policies they will choose to pursue. Both men will wish to maximize their profits, and their way of accomplishing this is through taxation.
Unlike the democratically elected official, the monarch owns the long-term value of the government estate, while the democrat owns only the current use of the state in the short-term. The monarch, then, would have little incentive to pursue policy which would damage his long-term wealth, and would therefore be more inclined to keep taxes low in order to stimulate economic productivity. This would then allow the king to reap the benefits from having greater overall wealth in his economy. Since the king has lower time preferences, he would also be incentivized not to spend his money carelessly. Monarchs therefore have less of an economic incentive to make war with neighboring states, since they would have to personally foot the bill, and would risk losing their tax base in conflict.
The democrat, on the other hand, is only in office for a set number of years, and the long-term value of the government estate is therefore of little concern to him. The only way for him to profit in the short-run is to either raise taxes, pursue inflationary policies, or expand the territorial monopoly of the state (conquest and war), hence growing the tax base. A public ownership of the government estate therefore leads to a tragedy of the commons, in the same way public ownership of the roads, schools, and healthcare lead to a tragedy of the commons when these means of production are collectivized. The logical demise of a democracy is communism.
A Brief History of North Korea
Prior to World War II, Korea was a territory under rule of the Japanese empire. But like Germany and other parts of Europe, the Korean territory was split up amongst the victors of the war, with the northern half being given to the Soviets, and the Southern half to the Americans.
As was the case in East Germany, socialism was swiftly implemented in North Korea. In 1946, the Soviet Civil Administration aided in supporting Kim Il-Sung, who was democratically elected the chairman of the Provisional People’s Committee for North Korea. Two years later, in 1948, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was born.
South Korea declared statehood the same year, and the anti-communist Syngman Rhee was elected President. Rhee was described by his dissidents as being an authoritarian for ruling his communist opponents with an iron fist. Rhee ordered a number of assassinations, and also suppressed a communist uprising on Jeju Island, killing more than 14,000 people.
The fervor between the two Korean nations came to a head in the 50s, as both governments sought political domination over the entire peninsula. A conflict with intervention from the United States, China, the USSR, and even the United Nations, the Korean War saw the budding of two ideologies, leading to the deaths of more than 2.5 million over the course of three years. Both governments failed in their objective of conquering the entire Korean peninsula, and the conclusion of the pacific theater brought about the Cold War.
The superpowers involved in the Korean War would continue to maintain a presence in the Korean peninsula following the war. China rebuilt North Korea’s infrastructure and bailed out their war debts, and the Soviet Union provided assistance as well. Meanwhile, the US signed a defense treaty with South Korea, which remains in existence to this very day.
However after North Korea’s failure to unite the entire Korean peninsula under the banner of communism, tensions began to rise between Kim Il-Sung and the Soviet Union, who aided in his rise to power a decade prior. In 1956, Soviet and Chinese backed forces attempted to depose of Il-Sung. The Soviets never intended for Il-Sung to be anything more than their puppet, and his leadership was brought into question by the Soviet backed forces. Members of the North Korean Central Committee voted in favor of Il-Sung, however, allowing him to retain his power, and repressing the Soviet backed opposition; a motion which would not have been possible if North Korea were a monarchy. But seeing as how the government estate is publicly owned, such discretion was to be judged by the power of the vote.
Two decades later, Mao Zedong passed away, terminating a number of ties between China and the North Korean nation. At the time, North Korea had a greater GDP than their Southern counterparts, however this was due largely in part to the fact that they received assistance from the Chinese and Soviets. Upon terminating ties with China, followed by the dissolution of the USSR a little over a decade later, the North Korean economy went into a freefall.
Three years after the Soviet Union fell apart, Kim Il-Sung passed away, leading North Korea into a new era of nationalism, protectionism, and intense communism.
His son Kim Jong-Il took power upon his death, and grandson Kim Jong-Un succeeded Jong-Il in 2012.
The Governmental Structure of the DPRK
After claiming the northern half of the Korean peninsula following their defeat of Japan in 1945, the Soviets had intended for North Korea to share their communist ideals. This entailed the collective ownership of all land, goods, and services, as well as the government estate itself. Local representation quickly began to build across the nation, forming a Five Province Bureau. The People’s Committee preceded Kim Il-Sung’s rule, and representatives convened in Pyongyang a year later to democratically elect him to be Chairman of the Committee, with Kim Tubong as his Vice Chairman.
Over the course of the next two years, the provisional government would lay the groundwork for the DPRK. Major industries were swiftly nationalized, and regulations on land, labor, and capital were instituted. As South Korea geared up for statehood in 1948, North Korea knew they too needed to do the same, if they were to compete with their southern counterparts.
In August of 1948, North Korea’s first parliamentary election was held, and 572 deputies were elected to North Korea’s first Supreme People’s Assembly, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was officially formed just a few months later, with Kim Il-Sung being elected as the nation’s first Premier (Prime Minister).
The Constitution of the DPRK split up the North Korean government into three branches, similar to that of the United States, with administrative, legislative, and judicial branches. The administrative branch is headed by the Supreme Leader, the legislative by the Supreme People’s Assembly, and the judicial by the Supreme Court of the DPRK.
The DPRK Constitution delegates the Supreme People’s Assembly as the highest body in the government, as stated in Chapter VI, Section 1, Article 87, “The Supreme People’s Assembly is the highest organ of State power in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” Elected to five year terms, representatives in the SPA have the authority to amend the Constitution, adopt or amend laws, establish the state’s foreign and domestic policies, and elect or recall the Supreme Leader of the DPRK, among many other powers.
The Chairman of the National Defense Commission, otherwise known as the Supreme Leader, has the authority to “direct the overall affairs of the State, personally guide the work of the National Defense Commission, appoint or remove key cadres in the field of national defense, ratify or rescind major treaties concluded with other countries, exercise the right of granting special pardon, and proclaim a state of emergency, a state or war and mobilization order within the country. According to Chapter VI, Section 2, Article 105 of the DPRK Constitution, “The Chairman of the National Defense Commission of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is accountable to the Supreme People’s Assembly.”
The first chapter of the Constitution further outlines the political landscape and goals of the republic, stating repeatedly that the DPRK is a socialist democracy.
While a monarchy is defined as sovereignty by one person, the Constitution of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea places sovereignty in “the workers, peasants, working intellectuals, and all other working people.”
The DPRK also lets “All citizens who have reached the age of 17 have the right to elect and to be elected, irrespective of sex, race, occupation, length of residence, property status, education, party affiliation, political views or religious belief,” per Chapter V, Article 66.
If it isn’t already apparent, this is no monarchy. There is no undivided rule or absolute sovereignty by one person. There is no private ownership of the government estate, but instead a very collective, public ownership. Hans Hermann-Hoppe would laugh in the face of anyone who suggests that this is a monarchy.
The state is involved in every single aspect of life in North Korea, and virtually anyone can become a member of the state. And though the Supreme People’s Assembly has not yet used their power to do so, they do retain the legal authority to remove Kim Jong-Un from power, and/or select someone outside of his next-of-kin to succeed him.
Is There Really a Kim Dynasty?
Following the death of Kim Il-Sung, power was eventually passed on to his eldest son, Kim Jong-il. However, there are a few caveats to note.
It was widely believed that Kim Il-Sung actually wanted his younger brother Kim Yong-Ju to succeed him. However in 1980, the 6th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea had instead voted Kim Yong-Ju out of power. The 6th Congress, which was comprised of 3,062 delegates, then voted for Kim Jong-il to succeed Il-Sung. The move did not come without criticism though, as South Korean media, as well as socialist states in Europe, widely disapproved of Il-Sung’s son succeeding him.
Once Kim Il-Sung did pass away, the transfer of power was not a seamless one. Following his father’s death, it took three years for Kim Jong-Il to be elected General Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea.
From 1994 until 1997, the DPRK did not have a General Secretary. Over those three years, however, Kang Song-san served as the Premier of North Korea, otherwise known as the Prime Minister, and Yang Hyong-sop was the Chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly.
In fact, when the North Korean Constitution was revised in 1998, the office of the presidency was abolished so that the late Kim Il-Sung could be given the title of Eternal President of the Republic. Following the abolition of the position, the powers of the presidency were divided up, instead of being vested into the hands of one.
“As of 2017 there is no President of North Korea, as the office was left vacant from the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994, and was ipso facto abolished with the 1998 constitutional changes.
Instead, the functions and powers previously belonging to the President were divided between three officials: the head of government, the Premier of North Korea; the speaker of the legislature, the Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly; and the head of the military, the Chairman of the National Defence Commission (replaced by State Affairs Commission of North Korea in 2016) and Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army, currently held by Kim Il-sung’s grandson, Kim Jong-un.” – Head of State Role in North Korea After 1994
In 2009, it became publicly known that Kim Jong-Il wanted his son Kim Jong-Un to be his successor. Jong-Il preferred Jong-Un over his eldest son, Kim Jong-chul, because he was believed to be too feminine. However following the death of his father in 2011, some believed that Jang Sung-Taek would instead be elected Supreme Leader, because Kim Jong-un was too young and inexperienced. Jong-un was only 27 years old at the time, and was a Westernized boy that loved basketball, and was an especially huge fan of the NBA.
Four months after his father died, the 4th Conference of the Workers’ Party of Korea decided to elect Kim Jong-Un to be their party’s leader. As well, the Supreme People’s Assembly opted to elect Kim Jong-Un the Chairman of the National Defense Commission. The North Korean Constitution was amended in 2009 to make it so that the person elected Chairman of the National Defense Commission would become Supreme Leader of North Korea.
All positions held by the Kim family were democratically elected positions that the Supreme People’s Assembly have the authority to vote them out of.
Hereditary Rule and Monarchy
Hereditary rule in a nation is often commonplace under a monarchy, however, it does not in and of itself define a monarchy. Instead, a monarchy is a private and exclusive ownership of the government estate. This is not something the Kim family has ever had in North Korea.
Monarchies tend to be hereditary for the same reason a father leaves his estate to his children. You would be hard-pressed to find a property owner who leaves his legacy to anyone other than his most loved ones. But the authority to leave his estate to his children rests in the father’s hands alone, and cannot be put up to a vote. Otherwise, the property would never truly be private.
Such is the case in North Korea. The Supreme Leader may recommend who his leadership is passed on to, but his recommended successor may only hold power if it is voted upon. This denotes a public ownership of the government estate, which is contrary to monarchy, and is instead tantamount to the definition of democracy, as provided to us by Hans Hermann-Hoppe.
Here in the United States, lame-duck Presidents will recommend a successor. In this past election, Barack Obama endorsed Hillary Clinton, recommending that the presidency be passed down to her. And in this country, we have had two Adams’, two Roosevelts’, two Harrisons’, two Bushes (nearly a third), and close to two Clintons hold the presidency. The American voters choosing to elect their family members, opting for hereditary rule in three instances, does not denote that the United States is a monarchy.
Furthermore, electing the same leader over and over, a monarchy does not make. The US was not a monarchy for repeatedly electing Franklin D. Roosevelt, nor is Russia a monarchy for continuing to elect Vladimir Putin as their president.
The Economics of the DPRK
For the purposes of this section, I will be defining taxation as the seizure of property by the state, since North Korea does not technically have taxes, yet all property and means of production are collectively owned.
Another telltale sign that North Korea is not a monarchy is that they would be absolute masochists for choosing to pursue policies that have only led to their economic ruin. There is no incentive for a monarch to tax his citizens at 100%, as this would only destroy his own overall wealth. Under a 100% tax, his citizens would not be productive, and there would be less wealth in the economy to tax. And yet the DPRK has continued to follow these dreadful economic policies, and drive themselves into extreme poverty for 70 years now. Why is this?
Considering a monarch would have very little incentive to even raise taxes in the short-term, it is mind boggling to imagine that a monarchy would tax its citizens at 100% throughout three generations. It is apparent that there is a different incentive structure at play here for Kim Jong-Un.
If Kim Jong-Un wanted to maximize his wealth, it would be in his best interest to cut taxes, abolish wasteful government agencies, and deregulate the economy. And yet neither him, his father, nor his grandfather attempted this. Why?
The only answer is because the state apparatus is not privatized under his ownership. The state is instead a public entity, owned by the collective North Korean people, who have driven it into destitute under the tragedy of the commons. Representatives in the DPRK have high-time preferences, and may only profit off of their time in the government by leeching off of the taxpayers as much as they can. Pursuing laissez-faire policies would not be in their best interest since they only own the temporary use of the government estate, and not the long-term, capital value. Cutting taxes would yield them a lower return in the short-run.
Analyzing the economic incentives behind the rule of Kim Jong-Un is slightly more complex. While it is highly unlikely that it would happen, the SPA does still maintain the legal authority to remove Kim Jong-Un from power, and they have the opportunity to do so every five years. As unlikely as this threat of removal may be, it will naturally drive Jong-Un to be more short-sighted. While a monarch’s incentive would be to grow his wealth, Jong-Un’s incentive is to instead please the SPA so he can remain in power.
Cutting taxes, deregulating the economy, and firing government employees is not something that would please the SPA. All we have to do is take one good look at the US Federal Government to see how unpopular it is among politicians to reduce the size and scope of the state. Even elected officials who campaign on cutting wasteful programs tend to do exactly the opposite once they are in office.
Donald Trump, while certainly not as conservative as we would have liked, is making the Washington establishment go crazy over his threats to even just minimally reduce the state. The American left and establishment Republicans have been on edge since he took office, and have been praying for his impeachment from day one. The left hasn’t even shied away from fantasizing over his assassination.
Knowing this, we can understand why it would not be a popular idea for Kim Jong-Un to reduce the government. The entire North Korean nation is dependent upon the government, and it would piss off a lot of people in power. They would see any reductions in the state as a direct threat to their power, and hence their livelihood.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, is not, and has not ever been, a monarchy. It started as a democracy in 1946, and continues to be one to this dying day. That they continue to elect the same man Supreme Leader is not indicative of a monarchy, but rather shows us the logical ends of a democracy. A democracy instills an intrinsic fear in its citizens; a fear that if they are to dissent from the majority, they will quickly be silenced. Leaders are also driven by fear, the fear of losing their power. These two axioms coupled together have created an insufferable and genocidal state in North Korea, and have generated a problem so vast that it will be exceedingly difficult to fix.
Some will say that North Korea is not a real democracy since the same people are repeatedly voted into power, and not everyone in the nation is given a voice. However this accusation is no different than when one says the Soviet Union wasn’t real socialism. Due to our human nature, socialism inherently erodes the incentive to produce, and necessarily leads to our economic ruin; socialism will never lead to economic prosperity or post-scarcity. Likewise, the same is inherently true of democracy, as the means of controlling the government estate become socialized in a democratic state. Democracy by its very nature quells dissent and incentivizes parasitism.
In the age of monarchs, kings used to have their heads chopped off and raised to a crowd, and his men were often tarred and feathered. But the democratic state in North Korea has made it impossible for any political insurrection to arise, and their people have instead suffered under the ills of communism for three generations. For under a monarchy, a citizen only needs to fear his king. He does not need to fear his fellow countrymen. In a democratic state, you must fear both.
To call the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea anything but a democracy is dishonest, and a sign of historic and economic ignorance.
North Korea is not a monarchy. Instead, North Korea is what happens when democracy meets its ends. Any nation which refuses to prevent the majority from tyrannizing the minority will wind up the same way.