To me, the most disturbing scenes to come out of North Korea following the death of Kim Jong Il are the images of North Koreans weeping at the loss of their Dear Leader. Granted, these scenes do come to us from North Korean propaganda sources, so it is possible that many in that country are secretly wishing the late bouffant film fan a long sojourn in hell. But unlike other totalitarian regimes, the counterfactually named Democratic People’s Republic of Korea seems to have achieved the ideal of a completely unified command and control state, with no open opposition and the power to dictate even displays of emotion. This is a level of nightmarish success that neither the Soviet Union nor Nazi Germany ever managed to reach.
Perhaps one way to understand this morally questionable success might be to see totalitarian order as the product of disorder. In The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Hannah Arendt argued that the totalizing state was an effort to impose a rational unity in response to contradictions and conflicts in national societies. A last section appended to the second edition of the book attributed totalitarianism to the isolation and loneliness of individuals. Certainly, the efforts at totalitarian dictatorships that we have seen in our recent history emerged from varying degrees of social collapse, and the extent to which they accomplished moral, political, and ideological command largely depending on the degree of collapse.
The internal chaos created by World War I and the fall of the czarist regime precipitated the creation of the Soviet Union. Political polarization in Germany followed the war and enabled the Nazis to achieve power. Although Nazi Germany perpetrated some of the most horrific crimes of the last century, the Nazi Party never achieved the same ideological unity in their country that Stalin brought about, arguably because the polarization of German society did not rise to the same level of disorder that prevailed in Russia with the end of the empire. Although the Italian Fascists had some of the most sophisticated theories of totalitarianism, as well one of history’s best-dressed dictators, Mussolini’s regime was never very successful at the goal of bringing everything inside the state. Italy lacked the requisite disorder for effective totalitarianism. Mao’s Communist Party in China was much more effective, following on the decay of the Chinese empire, decades of competing warlords, the invasion of the Japanese, and civil war.
One of the reasons we might be seeing so many weeping North Koreans, then, is that utter destruction of North Korean society by Japanese domination and civil war resulted in such a complete vacuum of ordinary social institutions. Kim Jong Il’s smiling father, Kim Il Sung, was able to draw on Chinese support to establish his military cadres as the only effective organized body in the nation. Closing the country’s boundaries and propagating a personality cult then enabled the North Korean leadership to come closer to unified central control than any previous historical regime. Even when the people starve they don’t revolt against the state because they have no basis for organizing and the state is all the organization that exists.
None of this bodes well for the future of North Korea. I am not a Korea expert. My area is Southeast Asia. Even the Korea hands themselves don’t know what will happen in this strange country. But it looks to me like if the regime falls, it will probably be due to fighting among factions of the military leadership, rather than to any popular resistance.