Tightening the Screws: The Origins and Dynamics of Kim Jong Un's Clampdown on “Capitalist Tendencies”


Tightening the Screws: The Origins and Dynamics of Kim Jong Un's Clampdown on “Capitalist Tendencies”

Author: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein


This policy paper was published in collaboration with The Wilson Center Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy and the National Committee on North Korea as a part of the "Understanding North Korea" roundtable series. This paper reflects the views of the author alone and not those of the National Committee on North Korea, the Wilson Center, or any other organizations. 

North Korea is one of the harshest totalitarian dictatorships in the world. It is, however, not a static society. Dynamics of oppression have waxed and waned throughout the country’s history. The current leader, Kim Jong Un, has made it a priority to strengthen surveillance and social control, and launched an intense crackdown against foreign, “capitalist” culture in the country around one year ago. This runs counter to what many believed—or perhaps, rather, hoped for—as Kim ascended to replace his father, Kim Jong Il, in late 2011.

This essay argues that Kim has sought from the beginning of his tenure to restore the state’s capacity to govern and exercise totalitarian control. North Korea’s particularly difficult economic situation during the Covid-19 border shutdown may explain the timing of the present campaign. At the same time, it was not launched suddenly and continues a pattern from Kim’s first years in power. Kim and his advisors may seek to return to a rule more closely resembling that of Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, who constructed the bedrock of North Korea’s totalitarian system. However, implementing and executing the campaign is likely challenging for the regime. The state likely has limited and often unreliable data about the extent of foreign, capitalist cultural penetration given that people take great care to hide such cultural consumption from the authorities. Additionally, the campaign may pose medium- to long-term risks for the regime. The parallel clampdown on private economic activity is most precarious, but tightened control over information and cultural consumption also carries risks.

About the Author

Dr. Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein is a postdoctoral fellow at the Frieberg Center for East Asian Studies at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is also a Nonresident Fellow with the Stimson Center, where he works primarily with the 38 North project, and serves as editor for its affiliate website North Korean Economy Watch. He received his PhD in history from University of Pennsylvania in August 2021 with a dissertation about the history of social control in North Korea. He holds an MA in International Relations and International Economics from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a BA in Political Science from Stockholm University, and has graduated from the Korean language program at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.

About the "Understanding North Korea Roundtable Series"

The Understanding North Korea roundtable series is a joint program of the National Committee on North Korea and the Wilson Center’s Hyundai Motor - Korean Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy. The roundtable series was established to enable emerging scholars of North Korea to share their research ideas with peers and experts in the field, and to publish their findings in a format accessible to a general audience.