Inside the Red Box: North Korea’s Post-totalitarian Politics

[Book Review] Though it starts out feeling like an odd combination of political science dissertation and basic intro to North Korea, with a theory that initially seems to amount to, “different factions exist in the North Korean government and Kim Jong-il plays them against one another” (um, duh), Inside the Red Box turns out to be a convincing examination of Pyongyang’s government.

I admit to having doubts when I saw the author works for the State Department, which left me expecting thick layers of bureaucratese, but the writing is quite clear and concise. The central thesis is that the party lost power in the transition from Kim Il-sung to Kim Jong-il, shrinking from the center of power through which the government and country were run, to one of three factions (along with the military and cabinet) competing for ascendancy on a given issue. The author outlines a history of the three factions competing to have their agenda gain the imprimatur of Kim Jong-il, examining changes in North Korean policy through the lens of comments made by media related to each of the three groups.

The author’s case is convincing and a very welcome change from the “They’re just crazy/illogical/unknowable,” and the equally problematic “Kim Jong-il rules all,” lines of North Korean scholarship. With the exception of B.R. Myers’s The Cleanest Race, this is some of the best scholarship on North Korea in years.

The study even touches on my own favorite area of North Korean research, how access to international phones by the North Korean public can be used as a tool to gain information from inside the country and as a stick to compel changes in North Korea behavior. A stick that, “is more likely to impact one important basis of the regime’s claim to legitimacy than economic or financial sanctions […].” [pg. 233]

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