Of Gods and Chairmen

Geraint Hughes


From the beginning, North Korea has been ruled by chairmen. Its first ruler, Kim Il-Sung, came to power with Soviet backing after Japan had been defeated and surrendered its possessions in World War II. Despite numerous challenges, the Kim family has never relinquished power over their dominion. Kim Il-Sung, initially the puppet of Stalin, outlasted his master and ruled for roughly 45 years, between 1948 and 1994. Over his lifetime, he accrued numerous titles to reflect and legitimize his position: Premier, General Secretary, Chairman, Supreme Commander, and President. Upon his death, Kim Il-Sung was elevated even further by his son and successor, Kim Jong-Il, into the grandiose Office of the Eternal President of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. North Korea has remained a closed totalitarian state ever since the Kim’s ascension, and even in our own hyper-global age, outsiders struggle to understand it and its many contradictions. Despite claims to be a socialist and communist country, and therefore committed to worldwide revolution and class struggle, its defining philosophy, juche, advocates for radical self-reliance and Korean nationalism (under the leadership of the Kims, of course). Its leaders still perpetuate this narrative in spite of North Korea’s current dependence on foreign aid to feed its populace and past dependence on China and the USSR to rebuild its industry. Despite claiming to be a worker’s paradise, it is dominated by a massive military apparatus that is given first priority over citizens’ basic needs under the Seongun (military-first) policy. Despite some shift in focus towards economic development in recent years, the North Korean military remains one of the largest in the world - its members privileged beyond the rest of the population. Despite being founded upon principles of equality, North Korea maintains a formal caste system, the seongbun, classifying its own population based on loyalty to the state into core, wavering, and hostile categories - the last to be eliminated or reeducated. Despite claiming to be an atheist state, a semi-divine status (the “Mount Baektu Lineage”) is accorded to the Kim family, who are practically worshipped by the populace. 

Official North Korean policy is to deny everything I have just said. They claim North Korea is a socialist state that has elections, that no “cult of personality” exists (rather, a genuine hero-worship at the amazing deeds of the Kims), and that there is no dissent (any that exists is the interference of foreign agents). North Korea is a façade, where the gap between seeming and being is as wide as a chasm. The result is that the Kim family rules as an absolute monarchy, with all the scheming, backstabbing, and terror that results. Although it is in-vogue to compare anything involving intrigue to Game of Thrones these days, I would like to take a different tack. I believe North Korea and its rulers could be better understood through comparison to the Julio-Claudian Dynasty of Rome, established by Augustus in 27 BCE and ending only with Nero’s suicide in 68 CE. Specifically, I would like to focus on the founders of both dynasties, Kim Il-Sung and Augustus. Both founded dynasties that sought to obscure themselves behind the veil of “Democratic” or “Republican” rule while in reality consolidating themselves, often through vicious intrigue. Both had a slow transition from informal power structures, based on the personal, familial, and charismatic connections established by their founders, into a solidified formal power structure with solid legitimacy. To paraphrase sociologist Max Weber, there was a shift from charismatic power structures to rational-legal-although in both societies, entrenched rational-legal power structures are enforced through terror and execution. This is a parallel that could be applied to many societies and transitions of power-not just the two discussed here. 

Like the Kim family, the Julio-Claudians initially ruled informally, constitutionally maintaining the facade of the Republic. Augustus claimed to have restored the Republic through defeating his rivals (referred to as the “enemies of Rome”) in civil war and returning  the reigns of authority to the Senate. He allowed the pretense of Republican rule-holding elections (where he pre-approved the candidates), and left the business of Rome’s daily administration to the Senate. Augustus held power in making the vital decisions of foreign policy and social development, and in funding the legions who swore the sacramentum militare (military oath) to him. Or, as Tacitus writes in Book I of his Annals: “after laying down his triumviral title and proclaiming himself a simple consul content with tribunician authority to safeguard the commons, he first conciliated the army by gratuities, the populace by cheapened corn, the world by the amenities of peace, then step by step began to make his ascent and to unite in his own person the functions of the senate, the magistracy, and the legislature.” (Annals Book 1.2) Augustus chose to solidify his informal position by accruing a variety of titles and powers, the most important of which was princeps (first man of the state), while others included pontifex maximus, imperator, imperium proconsular maius, and tribunicium potestas. Taken all together, they were a potent, if highly stylized, package. Augustus also deified his stepfather Julius Caesar, so he could proclaim himself as the son of a god. This directly parallels Kim Il-Sung’s own accumulation of titles, and how he was elevated after his death by his son to the Office of Eternal President. Both rulers made sure to eliminate any rivals to their power. Much has been written about Augustus’s rise to power and his battles against Brutus and Anthony, but he was hardly immune to intrigue once he became princeps. He was sure to eliminate those who tried to subvert his support among the commoners, like Marcus Egnatius Rufus, or those who lead factions of the aristocrats against him, like Lucius Murena. Kim Il-Sung had those who sought to introduce economic reforms, or who tried to steer North Korea closer to China or the USSR than he would have liked, purged similarly- with show trials and opaque executions. It is actions like these that led historians like Ronald Syme to label Augustus a “chill terrorist”, while even his own successor later Julian the Apostate labeled him a “changeable monster”. 

The fundamental problem of the Julio-Claudian dynasty was how to bequeath Augustus’s position, accumulated over a lifetime of war and politics, to a successor. Rome’s imperial successions always proved difficult, with Senate and new emperor playing a game of double-meaning -- each refusing to accept the power thrust upon them without the consent of the other. The emperor was dependent upon the support of several power blocs to maintain his rule: the aristocrats in the Senate, the Equestrian businessmen, the freedmen and slaves of the imperial bureaucracy, and, most importantly, the legions stationed throughout the borders of the empire (far from Rome’s lure). The emperor’s informal position left him vulnerable to attack from any one segment that sought either a return to Republican rule or (more and more as memories of the Republic faded) to have their own candidate don the imperial purple. Most dangerous were members of one’s own family - the history of the Julio-Claudians is rife with the poisonings and “disappearances” of internal rivals for power. To alleviate this, the emperors tried to buy-off the legions with donatives and the people with bread and circuses, while founding an imperial cult centered around the worship of the Imperial Family. They also launched campaigns to win prestige with the legions-Claudius invaded Britain to counteract his image as a weak old man, while Caligula also tried to invade Britain but wound up fighting the sea itself instead, bringing back seashells as evidence of his “triumph”. Grand spectacles were put on, filled with thousands of choreographed dancers and gladiatorial fights. And, over time, this worked. Legitimacy was earned through the passage of time and the stability imperial rule brought to the Empire. With Nero’s death the Julio-Claudian dynasty ended, but there was little talk of restoring the Republic -- generals and aristocrats across the Mediterranean competed for the now-recognized position of Emperor. North Korea and the Kim Family parallel all of those developments. The army’s loyalty must be secured by each new ruler, and rival factions must be eliminated. More recently in 2013, Kim Jong Un executed his uncle (as well as many of his uncle’s family members and aides), Jang Song-thaek, who had helped manage the transition of power from Kim’s father to Kim himself, to eliminate a rival power base. Kim Jong Un later killed his elder half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, in 2017 with nerve agent -- silencing an embarrassing critic of his regime and another potential rival. Highly choreographed parades are a regular occurence in North Korea, reinforcing public devotion to the Kim family. 

It should be noted that the parallel between North Korea and Julio-Claudian Rome can only go so far. Augustus always sought to reconcile and bind the aristocrats to his reign, not destroy them and bind their descendants into a caste system. The tyrannies of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero that appear in biased senatorial sources have to be contrasted with a great economic, territorial, and cultural expansion (the Golden and Silver Age of Latin literature)-- the Golden Age of the pax romana. Rome was not an isolated hermit kingdom, but the center of a web of diplomatic contacts stretching across the ancient world. None of this is true about North Korea, a kingdom permanently on edge. The Kim family have managed to consistently maintain their position and transition power between members smoothly -- a feat the Julio-Claudians never accomplished-- but how much longer can they maintain the facade?