• History
  • North Korea

Common Threads Run Through Many of History’s Worst Dictatorships. Here’s One Way North Korea Fits In

4 minute read

By definition, dictatorial leaders wield immense power. But, as the history of 20th century authoritarianism shows, despite their power, dictators must take desperate steps to seize and hold their position.

In pursuit of that goal, any would-be dictator has first had to figure out how to control the masses. But what comes next, says political scientist Natasha Ezrow, is how real authoritarian control is established. A society’s elites pose the most danger to the dictator, so how he deals with them can be a crucial decision.

That commonality runs from the founding of the Fascist Party in 1919 to today. And it’s no coincidence that dictatorial regimes share similarities, Ezrow tells TIME. Dictators in history have often communicated with one another, and will look to others for examples of what to do and not to do. The new PBS documentary series The Dictator’s Playbook, which premieres Wednesday with an episode about North Korea, looks at the common strands that run throughout many of the most notorious dictatorial regimes. And as this clip from that episode shows, that shared set of problems often leads to a shared carrot-and-stick response.

As Ezrow explains, the first half involves pleasing the masses by giving them things, so the people come to feel as if they rely on the dictatorship. For Kim Il Sung, who ruled North Korea from 1948 to 1994, that step included land reform that gave free farmland to peasants who had previously lived under a feudal system and then Japanese occupation. Approximately 2.4 million acres went to hundred of thousands of farmers in a move that quickly proved popular, as the majority of the population was directly benefiting from the regime. Another move undertaken to control the masses was reeducation.

“In order to prevent themselves from having to basically kill everybody, one of the tools of their regime would be to invest in their educational system to indoctrinate people about how good the regime is,” Ezrow says. And such education can really work: studies in Eastern Europe and Latin America, she says, have shown that indoctrination can be so effective as to make people in previously repressive societies essentially forget the repression and look back fondly on dictatorial regimes.

But the political and military elites have more to gain from a revolution, would have an easier time coordinating one and are starting with more power. So, typically, one of the first things a dictator does upon rising to power is to purge the elites who disagree with him — the “stick” half of the process. After that, the dictator will offer perks to those who remain; for example, in North Korea, Kim took steps such as sending potential rivals out of the country, and giving those who were loyal access to western luxury goods. “Elites in North Korea live large and they know that an alternative system wouldn’t benefit them as much,” Ezrow says — and when the elites are happy, it’s that much harder for any popular revolt to stand a chance.

With these steps, Kim was able to establish a dictatorship that lasts to this day. But, even though North Korea’s leaders have followed the “playbook” for dictators, the nation is unusual even within that ignominious club.

For example, North Korea is an anomaly in terms of how little the regime offers the masses beyond participation in a cult of personality. Regimes that offer little else haven’t tended to endure, Ezrow says. North Korea’s regime is also unusual in that it’s a dynastic, father-to-son dictatorship — one passed from Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un. North Korea, Ezrow says, also goes “above and beyond” when it comes to indoctrination. Since the regime’s founding, its leaders have wanted not just a people happy to look the other way, but a full religion of subservience. It’s a style of rule that, Ezrow argues, is unusual for today’s world. Generally, thanks in part to the Internet, old methods of control are harder to implement. In North Korea, however, that control has hardly cracked.

“We don’t use the term totalitarian often today — meaning complete, total obedience and control,” Ezrow says. “North Korea is rare in that.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com