May 15, 2020
In an article for 38 North, NCNK Program Manager Daniel Wertz looks at recent North Korean rhetoric about the need to re-centralize control of the economy, and assesses whether the Covid-19 crisis might provide the country's leaders with an opportunity to realize this goal.
The COVID-19 pandemic poses major governance challenges to dictatorships and democracies alike, but it has also proven to be something of a boon to autocrats and would-be strongmen. From the imposition of rule-by-decree in Hungary to crackdowns on dissent in Uganda and Cambodia, the upheaval and sense of domestic crisis engendered by the virus has created opportunities for authoritarians to cement their grips on power.
Kim Jong Un’s maximal authority in North Korea’s political system is already assured, but like any autocratic leader, Kim faces obstacles to the implementation of his will, from resource constraints and institutional inertia to a self-interested elite. And like other autocratic leaders, Kim seems to be using the current pandemic to try to overcome these barriers. At the end of last year, Kim signaled his desire to reassert centralized state control over the economy. The coronavirus may be providing him with an opportunity to achieve this goal.