Rulers Only Become Tyrants When They Do Not Have Enough Power.

So Say We All!

From Pragmatically Distributed:

A North Korean Defector Indirectly Confirms a Coup is Possible

I have also argued on game theory grounds the more the crisis escalates, the less likely Kim would be to back down for fear of giving an impression of weakness that would invite a military coup –

…a new possibility comes into play:  Kim’s generals are incentivized to mount a coup (even if Kim at this point has backed himself too far into a corner to back down)  the more likely war becomes.

Previously, North Korean generals were hugely dissuaded  from mounting a coup against the ruling dynasty by a prisoner’s dilemma – even if their best collective option was to cooperate and plot an overthrow, the great individual risks and uncertainty to each general of getting caught (How would a sincere plotter know there are no informants within the small circle of coup plotters?  How would a sincere plotter know another sincere plotter wouldn’t be caught or change their mind at a key moment?) greatly discouraged such cooperation.

Now that they face a real chance of a nuclear war that will destroy them the risk of organizing a coup becomes more less risky, though by no means a statistical certainty.


My analysis was confirmed by recent statements made by a former North Korean diplomat who defected, Thae Yong Ho.

According to him, the ICBM program is meant primarily to deter America from ever attacking North Korea –

Kim also set forth a policy focused on achieving simultaneous development of the country’s weapons programs and the economy, a way to achieve visible results without engaging in risky economic reforms.

When Kim first took power, he toured the military units along the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). “What he learned was (there was a) lack of preparedness for a possible war and (a lack of) high spirit, corruption, and obsolete conventional weapons,” Thae revealed, explaining that the nuclear and ballistic missile programs served as motivators for an unenthusiastic army. Thae suggested that an idle army is dangerous, exposing Kim to the threat of a military coup.

More importantly, though, Kim watched what happened in Libya, recognizing the risk of humanitarian intervention in the North Korean regime. He observed closely the Arab Spring incidents, as well as the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. “This had a strong influence on Kim Jong Un,” Thae suggested.

If there were an uprising in North Korea, “there is no doubt that Kim Jong Un would stamp it out mercilessly with his forces, with his tanks,” but that could trigger a response from the U.S. and South Korea. “If Kim is equipped with ICBM tipped with nuclear (warheads) then he can prevent that kind of humanitarian intervention,” Thae explained.


Thae also confirmed my point that Kim’s policies of instilling great fear into his own commanders in order to ward off a coup is deeply dependent on the success of his ICBM program.  The necessity of completing an ICBM program to Kim’s strategy for regime survival makes it very unlikely Kim will agree to nuclear disarmament since he equates disarmament with the destruction of his regime, either at the hands of his generals or by the American military.

Kim learned quickly that while he held the title of leader, many did not see him as the true head of the North Korean state. This realization, coupled with a budding paranoia and distrust, led to a serious change in the young dictator’s political thinking. He purged officials who were considered a threat, including members of his own family, and those that knew and leaked the details of his family history. Kim also targeted officials who lacked enthusiasm for the country’s future.

“He learned that whenever he convened a meeting … maybe 80 or 90 percent of the audience would sleep. So he learned that there was no enthusiasm – even in the elite group – on policy discussions.” Kim reportedly had a senior official executed last year for dozing off during a meeting.

Thae described the purges, which were brutal, as “unprecedented” in North Korean history.

The North Korean leader solidified his rule through a “reign of terror,” as Thae described it. The weapons program is a sign of strength for the regime.

Political structure determines political psychology.  See our analysis of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

In other news, a coup has occurred in Zimbabwe.

The Guardian:

Reports of extravagant purchases, including property in South Africa and a Rolls-Royce, have also angered many Zimbabweans. Pictures of one of the first lady’s sons apparently pouring most of a bottle of champagne over a luxury watch worth tens of thousands of dollars in a nightclub were shared widely on social media this week.

The crisis comes at a time when Zimbabwe faces severe economic problems. The country is struggling to pay for imports due to a shortage of dollars, which has also caused acute cash shortages. State employees, including some soldiers and policemen, have gone for months without payment of their salaries, deepening discontent with the government.

Augustus once tore down a palace that his female family members had built for themselves. Flaunting wealth is rarely a good idea when you are in power. Be Humble.


Robert Mugabe needed to read this book.

From the Dictator’s Handbook:

Most unavoidably, and therefore first, on the list of risks of being deposed is the simple,
inescapable fact of mortality. Dead leaders cannot deliver rewards to their coalition. Dying leaders face almost as grave a problem. If essential backers know their leader is dying, then they also know that they need someone new to assure the flow of revenue into their pockets. That’s a good reason to keep terminal illnesses secret since a terminal ailment is bound to provoke an uprising, either within the ranks of the essential coalition or among outsiders who see an opportunity to step in and take control of the palace.

Impending death often induces political death. The sad truth is that if you want to come to power in an autocracy you are better off stealing medical records than you are devising fixes for your nation’s ills.

Inheritance and the Problem of Relatives.

We don’t mean to say that healthy leaders don’t face hazards of their own. If an incumbent runs out of money he cannot continue to pay his supporters. Why might he run out of money? Because he has taxed so heavily and stolen so much that the masses choose siestas over labor, stymieing the future flow of revenue into the government’s treasury. Worse, the masses could choose revolution over siestas, emboldened by the realization that things will only get worse if they do not act now to overthrow their masters.

Normally one of the most difficult tasks a challenger faces is removing the incumbent. But this is instantly achieved when a leader dies or, as in the case of William Tolbert, is murdered. Once an incumbent is dead, there is still the issue of fending off competitors for the dead leader’s job. Ambitious challengers still need to grab control of the state apparatus, reward supporters, and eliminate rivals.


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