Personalist Dictatorship and Political Roles of the Military in North Korea


  • Jongseok Woo


North Korea remains the only nonmonarchic regime that has successfully completed three-generation hereditary successions, i.e., Kim Il-sung (1948–1994) to Kim Jong-il (1997–2011) and to Kim Jong-un (2011–present). The North Korean case is an outlier in the world of personalist dictatorships, which typically suffer frequent political crises and regime failure due to the degeneration of political institutions, political whims by single dictator, and frequent coups. The Korean People’s Army (KPA) has been the backbone of the three generations of Kim family rule. This article analyzes the political influence and role of the military in North Korea from state-building to the early 1970s, during which Kim Il-sung consolidated his personalist dictatorship through power struggles with different factions and initiated the first hereditary succession to his son, Kim Jong-il. The analysis suggests that the KPA’s self-defined mission transformed from the people’s army (1948–1950s) to the party’s army (1960s) and to Kim Il-sung’s army (1970s–1994). Such transformations were in parallel with Kim Il-sung’s political rise, struggles with rival factions, and the establishment of a personalist dictatorship in North Korea. The analysis reveals that the military has been a mere servant to the Kim family regime and its challenges to the current leader Kim Jong-un will remain doubtful.

Author Biography

Jongseok Woo

Associate Professor

School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies

University of South Florida