The misperception of North Korea as a communist state is responsible for most of the main errors made in Pyongyang watching: the predictions of regime collapse in the mid-1990s; the hopes placed in arms negotiations; the expectation that economic changes would weaken the state; the consensus that Kim Jong Un would reach out to the West, and so on. Persistence in this oft-disproven fallacy still inspires an optimistic focus on the growth of North Korea’s unofficial economy and the influx of South Korean pop culture. In truth this is not a failed far-left state but a far-right one, succeeding on its own terms if not on ours. Its longevity has much to do with the ongoing appeal of its dominant myths, which arguably do a better job of maintaining social cohesion and imparting a sense of significance to citizens’ lives than our own myths do. History has already shown that ultra-nationalist regimes can accommodate a much higher degree of economic and cultural heterodoxy than communist states. Contrary to the wishful Western consensus that ideology “no longer matters” in North Korea, it has never mattered more.
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