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Legitimation In North Korea. Foreign Policy As A Strategy To Legitimize The Kims?

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 2020 34 Seiten

Politik - Internationale Politik - Region: Südasien



1. Abstract

2. Introduction

3. Theoretical framework
3.1. The North Korean regime
3.2. Legitimation in North Korea
3.3. Foreign policy as a legitimation strategy for autocratic regimes (Kneuer 2013)
3.4. Applicability to North Korea

4. Methodology & Data

5. Empirical Analysis
5.1. Foreign patron as source of legitimation
5.2. Transfer of external to internal legitimacy deficits.
5.3. The formulation of external performance goals for internal legitimation generation
5.4. Externalization of domestic legitimacy deficits.

6. Conclusion and discussion

7. Table of Figures

8. Appendix:

9. Literature

1. Abstract

This paper addresses a theoretical and an empirical question. First, the paper argues that general theories of comparative analysis of political systems can indeed be used to study the 'special case' of North Korea. This addresses the question of how to conduct research on the ‘hermit kingdom’. By using an established framework deductively, the paper proposes a way to conduct research on North Korea amid a lack of reliable data. North Korea is thereby seen as an extreme case of an autocracy in order that however, enables researchers to observe special structural features more explicitly than in autocracies. The implicit argument here is that North Korea is comparable to other autocracies and only varies in the strength of certain characteristics such as regime type or internal dynamics.

Second, the paper investigates empirically whether autocracies use foreign policy for internal legitimation and if so, what strategies are they pursuing? This paper argues that autocrats can basically use four strategies to use foreign policy as a source of legitimation. Making use of a framework developed by Kneuer (2013) the case of North Korea is examined to illustrate the argument. A within-case analysis is used to investigate the extent to which each of the three Kims used foreign policy as a means of generating legitimation. The results suggest that all three used similar strategies but depending on their respective legitimation deficits.

Overall, it is advocated to take a closer look at the influence of foreign policy on domestic dynamics. This has so far been largely neglected. This becomes particularly evident when it comes to the question of the possibilities for North Korean denuclearization. Viewed as a domestic legitimation measures, it becomes more questionable whether North Korea will abandon its weapons anytime soon.

2. Introduction

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (“North Korea” in the following) is a puzzling case from various angles. Despite its geographic remoteness the relatively small country is constantly dominating the headlines around the world. This is can mainly be ascribed to two factors: First, its aggressive foreign policy most obvious in its nuclear program. The country’s leadership has over the past 20 years managed to build a nuclear arsenal despite all turmoil. Second, the country is known to be among the most repressive countries in the world. According to the Freedom of the World Report 2018, North Korea is among the three least free countries together with South Sudan and Syria (Abramowitz 2018: 185). This has led scientist of many disciplines to search what or who drives North Korea. In the field of political science, one can distinguish two research strands regarding North Korea. The International Relations strand mostly tries to explain North Koreas external behavior. Through this lens, the North Korean foreign policy is driven by security issues, by the need to satisfy domestic audiences or else (Liegl 2016). The other research strand focuses on the political system of North Korea itself. Within this comparative politics approach, much research is devoted to the question of “Pyongyang’s survival strategy” (Byman & Lind 2010). Some researchers consider North Korea a peculiarity to which classical theories cannot be applied (Koo et al. 2016: 412 ). Others argue that (…) [p]rinciple similarity (…) does not have to result in the same behavior (Frank 2013: 432).

Large parts of the debates can be traced to the general availability of data on and of North Korea. Even in the 21st century, North Korea remains one of the most isolated and opaque countries in the world. The situation in literature and data leads to the question on how to conduct valuable research on North Korea.

The main argument presented here is that classical comparative politics theories can offer new and valuable insights into North Korea. This paper seeks to connect the aforementioned debates within the political science literature by asking how foreign policy helps Pyongyang legitimate its regime domestically. Drawing on the framework of Kneuer (2013), the paper will look at the impact North Korean foreign policy had on the stability of the regime in Pyongyang. It is argued here that foreign policy has been a considerable factor explaining Pyongyang’s resilience. On the one hand, it ties in with the literature on the factors of autocratic regime stability (Gerschewski 2014, McEachern 2018). On the other hand, the influence of foreign policy on domestic processes is examined, which is also an under-researched topic (Kneuer 2013: 206). The paper’s contribution is twofold. On a theoretical level, Kneuer’s framework will be applied to another non-Western case. Empirically, the paper aims at providing a new angle of looking at North Korea using a framework developed on other autocracies. Accordingly, the paper proceeds as follows. The next will introduce Kneuer’s framework and discuss its applicability to the North Korean case. In the third chapter, the framework will be used to compare the North Korean regime leader’s reliance on a foreign policy as tool of legitimation. The final chapter will summarize the results and discuss the implications.

3. Theoretical framework

Studying legitimation strategies of autocratic regimes necessitates a clear understanding of what counts as an autocracy and what not. According to the most basic definition, autocracies are all regimes that are non-democratic (Kneuer 2018: 97). Furthermore, the regime type also the determines necessities and possibilities for successful legitimation of rule (Lauth 2010: 95 f.). "A regime defines the approaches to political rule as well as the power relations between the ruling elites and the relationship of those in power to those subject to rule" (Merkel 2016: 104).

3.1. The North Korean regime

It is largely undisputed that North Korea is one of the ‘hardest’ autocracies in the world. In comparative autocracy research, North Korea is considered the contemporary prime example of a largely totalitarian regime. The debate includes detailed questions regarding the relationship between the party, the leadership cult and the military (Geddes et al. 2014, Koo et al. 2016: 219, Magaloni et al. 2013). Basically, it is about who is in charge in North Korea.

Similarly, other authors debate the role and implications of personalism in autocracy research (see McEachern 2018: 369 ). While North Korea is commonly categorized as totalitarian, the aforementioned debate is of importance in the case of North Korea. The regime is empirically characterized by a high degree of personalism. This is most evident in the leadership cult around the Kim family. What distinguishes North Korea from most classic personalist regimes is the strong role of the North Korean military and the Korean Labor Party. This distinction is important because different theoretical expectations about the behavior of the regime can be derived from the classification. For example, personalist regimes have a shorter life expectancy than one-party regimes. They are also more vulnerable to international sanctions and might develop different foreign policy paths (Harnisch & Friedrichs 2018: 126, McEachern 2018: 369). The hybrid regime type of North Korea suggests that the regime type can more easily replace economic patronage with policy concessions, since it can supply the elite with posts through its party structures. Informal networks of family and helper structures play a crucial role here. The military is also a crucial power factor, but its power must be balanced by the ruler (Koo et al. 2016: 220-222).

Based on these findings, McEachern argues that “[t]he comparative literature can point to new insights and considerations (…) when one focuses on the causal processes behind the theoretical explanations” (McEachern 2018: 375). In other words: Theoretical knowledge of other autocracies might help to explain empirical observations deductively in situations where the data is scarce. Given that most data sets emphasize the preeminent role of the Kim caste as well as strong institutions, it is not unreasonable to assume that North Korea has characteristics of personalistic and one-party regimes with regard to the strategies of legitimation. The following subchapter will introduce the concept of legitimation and discuss its implications for North Korea.

3.2. Legitimation in North Korea

In comparative politics, legitimation is often discussed in connection with regime stability (Dukalskis 2017, Kneuer 2013, Gerschewski 2014, Kailitz & Wurster 2017). Democratic and autocratic regimes need “the capacity of meeting challenges to the regime and adjust to changes in the political environment” (Gerschewski et al. 2012: 108). Since autocracies are more likely to end violently, autocrats have to be more careful about surviving in office than their democratic opponents (Koo et al. 2016: 214). According to Gerschewski (2013), authoritarian regime stability is based on three complementary pillars: legitimation, cooptation and repression. While cooperation and legitimation are intended to secure support for the regime via incentives, the repression pillar aims to suppress regime opposition through fear. The difference between cooptation and legitimation is that target group: Cooptation measures are addressed towards a strategic elite whereas legitimation targets the population as a whole. A regime is all the more stable the more the relationships between rulers and those subject to rule becomes more permanent in the individual functional areas (Gerschewski et al. 2012: 107).

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Fig. 1

Legitimation is a key concept in the studies of political systems. “Every political regime has to justify itself, and every form of rule needs a foundation on which citizens are willing to accept and obey government decisions” (Kneuer 2013: 205). The aforementioned ‘democratic deficit’ of autocracies has led some scholars to argue that ‘legitimate autocracies’ is an oxymoron (see Gerschewski 2018: 18). If, in Max Weber 's sense, the only thing that matters is the "belief in legitimacy that the subordinates rule the political order" (Gerschewski et al. 2012: 114), then legitimate autocracies are very conceivable. All autocracies also strive empirically to secure the support of relevant sections of the population through material incentives.

Legitimacy and legitimation are two concepts that are often used unclearly or synonymously. In order to avoid misunderstandings and normative criticism, it therefore makes sense to differentiate between the two terms. The term 'legitimation' can be understood in Max Weber's sense as an empirical concept that describes the degree of acceptance of the political order by the population. In contrast, 'legitimacy' describes a property of an object (Gerschewski 2018: 655, Lauth & Wagner 2010: 31). "In short: legitimacy can be both a basis and a goal at the same time; legitimation (or legitimation) represents the process of achieving legitimacy” (Kneuer 2013: 206).

The case of North Korea is particularly puzzling because the country has survived without known uprisings despite massive human rights violations. In addition, it is still officially a state socialist economy, which has introduced a dynastic succession model that is not questioned, at least externally (Frank 2017a: 74, Koo et al. 2016: 212). As in many personalistic regimes, legitimacy in North Korea is primarily ideologically justified. The central role results on the one hand from the totalitarian political system of North Korea, and on the other hand from its state socialist economic form (Dukalskis 2017: 75, Frank 2017a: 51 f., Yoon 2014: 230). The core of the North Korean ideology is the so-called Juche ideology (주체 사상), which held an ideological monopoly in North Korea at least until the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994 (Gerschewski & Köllner 2009: 174 f.). According to Article 3 of the North Korean constitution, Juche still represents the ideological basis of the country (DPRK 2020a). Juche, mostly translated as 'self-reliance' in the English-speaking world, essentially means that North Korea is sufficiently independent in all areas not to become a game ball for foreign powers (Frank 2017a: 97 f., Oh & Hassig 2000: 17 f.). The strong nationalism, which Juche also propagates, makes the relationship between leader, nation and socialism inseparable at the ideological level. The nation is therefore of the greatest importance (Byman & Lind 2010: 50, Frank 2017a: 101). The leadership cult around the Kim family aims to irrefutably dogmatically ground the ideology. The Juche ideology has been adapted and expanded several times by Kim Il-sung's successors (Byman & Lind 2010: 52, Gerschewski 2006: 145, Tudor & Pearson 2015: 87 f.). The implications will be discussed in the empirical analysis. However, the ideological demarcation from abroad and the strong focus on showing strength outside is particularly striking. The hermetic shielding of the population and North Korea's aggressive foreign policy are exemplary examples. The following subchapter will therefore introduce a model by Kneuer (2013) that sheds light onto the interaction between domestic and foreign policies.

3.3. Foreign policy as a legitimation strategy for autocratic regimes (Kneuer 2013)

The mutual influence of foreign and domestic politics has long been regarded as an established knowledge of political science (Kneuer 2018). In international relations, liberal theories aim to explain foreign policy behavior through externalized preferences of domestic actors. The regime type also plays a role, for example when it comes to why there are almost no wars between democracies (democratic peace theory). Kneuer's model is devoted to the little-examined question of the role of foreign policy in legitimizing the autocratic political system. In doing so, it follows the above-mentioned distinction between legitimacy and legitimation and focuses on "strategies and mechanisms with which autocracies try to generate legitimation for the purpose of maintaining power" (Kneuer 2013: 206). Therefore, she initially assumes that, in addition to economic performance, there are other opportunities for autocracies to generate output legitimacy, for example in foreign policy. She further argues "that there are both internal and external legitimation strategies and that both levels interact in the construction and addressing of legitimation strategies" (Kneuer 2013: 207). Unlike Gerschewski (2013), however, she subsumes both the generation of support for the population and that of strategically relevant actors under the term "legitimation".1 It focuses particularly on affective and discursive strategies.

Kneuer bases her approach on Fritz Scharpf's concept, which distinguishes three dimensions of legitimation. Therefore, she first distinguishes a "form of a pre-political feeling of belonging or a collective identity based on historical, linguistic, cultural or ethnic similarities” (Kneuer 2013: 208) This so-called we identity fundamentally ensures that the government's actions are justified against the background of society. Kneuer sees the second dimension of input legitimacy as having different deficits in autocracies. This occurs only to a very limited extent, if at all. In addition to the first dimension, the third dimension of output legitimacy in autocracies is therefore particularly important. Even in autocratic systems, governments have to solve people's problems (Kneuer 2013: 208 f.).

Kneuer also argues that autocratic elites must perform important foreign policy tasks as part of output legitimation. First, autocrats need to gain international recognition to overcome their "autocratic stigma". Second, autocrats need foreign trade relationships to be able to perform economically in domestic politics. Third, autocracies must also ensure national sovereignty and external security. She sees legitimacy arguments as crucial for the identity of the identity, which generate loyalty and support for the regime on an emotional level. According to Kneuer, such arguments are incorporated into symbolic actions and framed in certain discourse patterns. This process is intended to compensate for input deficits and to simulate a responsiveness of the political system.2

Kneuer further extends the model with a model from Holbig (2010). This assumes "that legitimacy gained internationally can also be used strategically internally" and, conversely, external deficits can also be transferred to domestic ones (Holbig 2010: 234). Kneuer extends the Holbigs model by two further dimensions. Firstly, she believes that external legitimation can be generated by formulating external strategic goals. Secondly, internal legitimacy deficits (crises, breakaway partners, etc.) can also be externalized through, for example, diversionary maneuvers. “Legitimation strategies that aim at performance can be underpinned or supported by an affective appeal to the identity dimension” (Kneuer 2013: 211). Figure 2 sums up Kneuers framework.

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Fig. 2

She uses the framework to answer whether and to what extent foreign policy can be used to generate broad recognition among the population and retain key groups. She argues that the context of identity has an important role in determining the foreign policy interests and behavior of autocratic elites. Political visions are more effective the stronger they harmonize with collective belief systems. Kneuer therefore expects autocrats to use arguments according to their resonance within the national identity construction. Conversely, autocrats use national identity constructions that fit the targeted instrumental interests. According to Kneuer, these instrumental interests explain the selection and dissemination of identity constructions. It distinguishes three legitimation arguments.

Identity discourses are usually characterized by national or nationalistic patterns. They can refer, for example, to historical social conceptions, national sovereignty or the territorial integrity of the country. Enemy images are created in demarcation discourses in order to strengthen internal coherence and loyalty to the regime. It is crucial here that the regime succeeds in making its subjects believe and want to do what it wants. Autocrats may place their foreign policy actions in legitimate contexts of ideas. Finally, autocrats can formulate missions that justify the installation of a non-democratic system (Kneuer 2013: 212).

Kneuer formulates four hypotheses based on the theoretical model (Kneuer 2013: 213-215).

To examine how legitimation strategies and discourses are constructed and how this is done successfully,3 Kneuer selected five cases based on the following criteria.

1. Closed cases, i.e. autocracy later democratized
2. Independent foreign policy, i.e. for example no satellite states of the former Soviet Union
3. Autocratic phase of at least 5 years ('not free' according to Freedom House)
4. Interregional selection of quite similar regimes

The following section discusses the applicability of the model with regard to North Korea and derives hypotheses.

3.4. Applicability to North Korea

Basically, Kneuer's framework is applicable to all types of autocracy. However, it is questionable whether North Korea meets the case selection criteria. As of 2020, North Korea is not a closed autocracy. In order to still be able to identify delegitimizing aspects, interviews with refugees are used to determine the diffuse and specific support for the North Korean regime (see Gerschewski 2014: 268). The specific problems with these interviews are discussed in the next chapter. Furthermore, it is questionable whether North Korea had its own foreign policy under Kim Il-sung or whether it must be attributed to the satellite states of the Soviet Union. However, since the Juche ideology is often regarded as a Korean special path (Frank 2013: 460 f.), an independent foreign policy is also assumed for Kim Il-sung's North Korea.

Finally, since North Korea is mostly coded as one single regime in literature, the Kim’s ruling periods are treated as three observation periods and not new cases. Therefore, the comparison is between one case (North Korea) over time.4 Figure 3 shows the application of Kneuer’s case selection criteria to North Korea.

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1 In the following, Kneuer terminology is used, provided that this does not influence the examination.

2 Since this also aims to establish coherence in the elite, this falls under co-optation in Gerschewski's terminology.

3 According to Kneuer, legitimation strategies are successful if they "contribute to the achievement of securing power and autocratic stability" (Kneuer 2013: 211).

4 Cheibub et al. (2010) argue that North Korean changed in 1994 from a military to a civilian regime.


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Titel: Legitimation In North Korea. Foreign Policy As A Strategy To Legitimize The Kims?