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North Korea's Left Turn: Implications for Regime Stability

Author: Scott A. Snyder, Senior Fellow for Korea Studies and Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy
July 22, 2009


The bane of North Korea watchers is the seemingly endless media speculation based on the latest rumors over which of the Kim boys is in favor with their father, Kim Jong Il. This analysis tends to bypass North Korea's domestic politics, which have undergone a significant retrenchment since North Korea's nuclear test in 2006. North Korea's internal focus on regime consolidation and ideological orthodoxy has diminished prospects for Pyongyang's international engagement in a rear-guard action designed to assure internal stability.

Ruediger Frank has termed North Korea's ideological turn since 2006 "socialist neoconservatism." At a June conference held at the University of British Columbia, Frank presented research based on content analysis of the Rodong Sinmun to illustrate North Korea's domestic efforts to turn back the clock on short-lived experimentation with economic reforms undertaken during 2002-2005.

Frank illustrates the ways in which North Korea's domestic retrenchment has influenced North Korean descriptions of domestic, economic, and foreign policies. Most striking as an illustration of North Korea's left turn is the direct contradiction between quotations from Kim Jong Il in 2001 ("Things are not what they used to be in the 60s. So no one should follow the way people used to do things in the past.") and 2009 (officials should "energetically lead the masses by displaying the same work style as the officials did in the 50s and 60s.")

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