Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Political Science

Document Type



This dissertation proposes a radically new understanding of North Korean politics under Kim Jong Il and carefully tests this theoretical proposition. Current models describe North Korea as some form of a highly centralized state: totalitarian, personalistic, or corporatist. By contrast, I argue that these monolithic ideal types fail to capture the institutional pluralism that helps distinguish the younger Kim’s rein from his father’s. While Kim Il Sung’s rule can be described as totalitarian, Kim Jong Il governs through a more decentralized post-totalitarian, institutionally plural state. Kim Jong Il’s government is highly centralized, but it is less centralized than his father’s. North Korean politics comprises the interaction of the military, party, and cabinet with “oversight” by the security apparatus. These institutions enjoy limited autonomy in an effort to most productively leverage their expertise while retaining generalist political control over them. Kim and his inner circle of advisers have final authority, but institutional inputs set the decision-making stage and shape most policies’ implementation. These semi-autonomous groups have opportunity and cause to interact in the policy formation and execution process, creating room to discuss pluralist politics in North Korea. Kim Jong Il’s focus on political survival and emergency management over ideology as a guiding force makes today’s North Korean government more rational than in the past but it does not suggest that ideology is irrelevant. Bureaucratic winners and losers are defined on an issue basis. In short, institutional politics – in conjunction with Kim Jong Il’s critical role – help explain political outcomes.



Document Availability at the Time of Submission

Release the entire work immediately for access worldwide.

Committee Chair

Mark Gasiorowski