Review of “Inside the Red Box: North Korea’s Post-Totalitarian Politics,” by Patrick McEachern

While reading Inside the Red Box: North Korea’s Post-Totalitarian Politics by Patrick McEachern, I thought a lot about my employer. Like North Korea, my employer’s history was profoundly shaped by a charismatic founder whose total control of the country is nonetheless remembered asa happy time. If he was totalitarian, he was a very effective totalitarian. His hand-picked successor has been effective at securing regime survival, in the face of fast-paced competitors.

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Also like my employer, at least according to McEachern, North Korea’s leadership is best understand as representing powerful, defined, and well organized powerful institutions (or in my employer’s jargon, “orgs”). McEachern identifies these institutions as the Party, the Military, and the Cabinet. In North Korea, Kim is able to make his own decisions, but also relies on policy inputs from these three institutions. This is a “divide-and-rule” strategy, as the Government is the Cabinet can be expected to propose practical and measurable initiatives, the military can be expected to emphasize danger and thread, and the Party can be expected to support an intellectually “correct” line.

It’s not surprising that McEachern doesn’t make a comparison to my employer. After all, my employer doesn’t have prison camps or nuclear missiles! But it is somewhat surprising that McEachern does not make the obvious comparison: Mao organized China along the same lines. Like Kim Jung Il, Mao was disinterested in day-to-day execution of power: he was more interested in delegating suck work, while realizing he could never trust those to whom he delegated.

Inside the Red Box is a terrific history of North Korea was 1991 on, but is weak before that date. In this sense, it fits well with The Impossible State by Victor Cha, which is very strong for the period before 1991 but weak afterwards.