Domestic Politics in North Korea

Tensions are becoming increasingly strained on the Korean peninsula. On March 11, North Korea nullified the 1953 Korean War armistice. At the end of March, it threatened to close the Kaesong complex. And it has allegedly moved a medium-range missile to the east coast.

             These actions have been viewed by many as a response to joint South Korea-United States military exercises. Others view North Korea’s aggressive rhetoric as a strategy to pressure the U.S. and South Korea to resume talks on denuclearization, hoping to gain much-needed aid.

             But rather than international politics, perhaps domestic politics are driving such threats.  North Korea has become increasingly reliant on China for economic support. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, Beijing provides an estimated 80 percent of North Korea’s consumer goods and 45 percent of its food[i]. With this dependence comes the large possibility that Beijing will engulf North Korea—the former ancient Koguryo kingdom—and claim that Koguryo’s history is Chinese, not Korean. If this were to happen, the political backlash against Kim Jong-un would be enormous, and perhaps lead to internal collapse. How would Kim tell his people that North Korea is Chinese territory and that its history is Chinese history—especially when China was considered an ally—and be able to hold on to power?

             Pyongyang’s belligerent talk may be an effort to reassert Kim’s authority, in the face of an encroaching China. While North Korea’s threats can be seen as cries for attention from the South and the U.S., it’s also important to consider the internal political struggle in Pyongyang, and the political calculations Kim must make to maintain his dictatorship.


[i] Xu, Beina, and Jayshree Bajoria. “The China-North Korea Relationship.” Council on Foreign Relations. (2013): n. page. Print. http://www.cfr.org/china/china-north-korea-relationship/p11097.

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