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Even Dictators Like Kim Jong Un Need To Keep Some People Happy

We all know the story of the lone autocrat at the top — we even saw a racist parody of it in “I’m Lonely,”1 a song in the movie “Team America: World Police” in which Kim Jong Il, the former leader of North Korea, laments his lot of “sitting alone” on his “little throne.”

That’s often how the current North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un — whom President Trump has derided as “Little Rocket Man” — is portrayed in Western media. But no man is an island, as poet John Donne put it close to 400 years ago. And that goes for dictators, too: The media focuses on Kim, but other high-ranking officials and family members support Kim’s hold on the leadership position — including his sister, whose appearance at the Olympic Games may have opened new diplomatic opportunities.

Indeed, there are people to whom, despite all his power, Kim answers. That circle of people, although difficult to clearly delineate, gives us insight into both the motivations for and limits on his actions — not least of which, why the drive to grow Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program may not be his alone, which complicates efforts to slow it down.

This way of viewing a leader’s behavior is consistent with selectorate theory. Laid out in the 2003 book “The Logic of Political Survival” by political scientists Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Alastair Smith, Randolph Siverson and James Morrow, selectorate theory states that the primary goal of all rational leaders — even the loneliest autocrats — is to stay in power, and that to do so they need to keep a group of supporters happy.

Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong attends the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in South Korea with Kim Yong Nam, North Korea’s ceremonial head of state.

Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

It would be easy to write off Kim and the isolationist dynasty that created him as irrational, if for no other reason than it would enable the Trump administration to explain away any outcome of the current standoff between the two countries as unavoidable. But although “rational” has a lot of meanings, in this case it means that, given the information available, an individual always makes the choice that leaves him or her better off. And watchers of North Korea tend to see Kim as rational.

“We’ve got several case studies looking at Kim Jong Un as a rational actor: In every one of the case studies, he has acted in a rational way,” noted Ken Gause, director of the International Affairs Group at the Center for Strategic Studies, a division of the Center for Naval Analyses. “He may not be a nice actor, but he’s an actor acting on his own behalf.”

“He acts rationally in the interest of two objectives,” Gause continued. “Those two objectives are regime survival and continuation of Kim family rule.” And, like all leaders, Kim faces two types of threats to those objectives: external threats (a foreign government toppling the regime, for example) and internal threats (like coups or revolutions).

Selectorate theory helps us make sense of how Kim is managing that internal threat. According to the theory, the population of any country can be broken down into the disenfranchised, the “selectorate” and the “winning coalition.” The disenfranchised, of course, are those who have no say in who runs the country, while the selectorate is the group of people in a country that has a say in who is in power. In the U.S., for example, the disenfranchised would include anyone who can’t vote, including children, noncitizens and many felons, and the selectorate would technically encompass all adults who are registered to vote. In a non-democracy such as China, the selectorate may not be much larger than the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, a powerful political body whose members are likely among a small group that chooses next leader.2

The winning coalition is the minimum number of people within the selectorate whose support the leader needs to stay in power. In the U.S., this is the minimum number of voters who are needed to elect the president to office.3 In China’s system, by contrast, the leader might need a simple majority of the Politburo Standing Committee or another powerful subgroup.

For Kim Jong Un, it’s unclear whether his selectorate and winning coalition are comprised of the military, his family or other political actors. Luckily, we don’t have to know the exact identity of the people in the winning coalition and selectorate in order to make some inferences about how they might affect the leader’s behavior; instead, we can consider their relative sizes — that is, the ratio between the winning coalition and the selectorate.

There are three broad possibilities for this ratio:

  • First, the winning coalition could be large and the selectorate could be large. This is your standard democracy: A large portion of the population has a say in who the leader is, and some majority or large coalition within that group is needed to get and keep that person in power. This means the leader will pursue what social scientists call public goods — items like roads, clean air and defense that benefit many people equally. The leader will do this because he has many people to please, and this is the least expensive way to make a lot of people better off.
  • A second possibility is that the winning coalition could be small and the selectorate could be large. This is typically the case in a rigged authoritarian system, where there might be political parties, but the same leader wins over and over again in elections that are probably not free and fair, suggesting that, while lots of people technically have a say, the leader likely only needs to keep a few people happy in order to really stay in power (say, the person who counts the votes). In practice, this means the leader has incentives to provide private goods — things that only benefit a few people, like money, amenities, access to entertainment or even special treatment above the law — to the members of the winning coalition, but he may also pursue slightly more public-friendly policies to keep the selectorate happy, too.
  • A third and final version is that the winning coalition could be small and the selectorate could be small, as is often seen in monarchies. It’s the worst version for the public, because the leader needs to pay off just a few people, which means the cheapest way to keep them happy and supportive is to give them private goods.

the MIT press

According to Bueno de Mesquita, North Korea most resembles a monarchy, as it has a very small winning coalition inside what is probably a very small selectorate. This means we see behaviors like Kim controlling access to private goods and distributing few public goods. Bueno de Mesquita estimated that the selectorate is probably no more than a few hundred people — probably mostly civil servants, military officials and family — and the winning coalition in North Korea is likely between one and two dozen people.

Another expert gave a similar estimate. “Looking at Kim’s inner circle, the real number is 25 to 30 people,” said Michael Madden, the founder and director of North Korea Leadership Watch, an affiliate of 38 North, a project of The U.S.-Korea Institute at John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.4

Of course, with such a small power center, it’s possible to deliberately change who the selectorate and winning coalition is, Bueno de Mesquita pointed out. If Kim thinks he can’t make a certain member of the winning coalition happy, then it’s safer to just remove him or her as a threat by re-assigning members, fomenting disputes between them, or even executing them.

Experts we spoke to estimated that between 25 and 150 had been executed in North Korea since Kim Jong Un came to power, with some experts feeling that the true number is likely on the lower end of that spectrum, and much lower than the 300 executions sometimes quoted in the media. But it’s difficult to be certain, as even full-time North Korea analysts acknowledge that it’s hard to know what has happened to people who get moved out of their senior positions.

For Kim, the risk of reshaping his winning coalition this way is that while executions eliminate a challenger in the short term, they might also breed fear and resentment — and thus create further challenges down the road.

Kim Jong Un, accompanied by some of the forces that protect his regime, visits the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun in this photo released by North Korean state media.

Xinhua/KCNA via Getty Images

These internal threats can have dramatic consequences, which could partly explain why Kim is so intent on building up his country’s nuclear weapons program. Kim’s decision to prioritize nuclear weapons could mean that there’s a group within his winning coalition that benefits from the nuclear program — for example, the coalition may include military leaders who use the resources and prominence of the nuclear program to gain an edge in a power struggle with other members of the selectorate, such as party leaders. According to Bueno de Mesquita, the existence of a group that benefited in this way would give Kim a reason to keep the program growing, regardless of external pressures, making for a self-reinforcing cycle.

“If Kim Jong Un were to wake up this morning and give away his nukes, he would not be supreme leader by the afternoon,” Gause said. “That is where the regime would step in.”5

At the same time, other factions within the regime have competing interests. One of those is the “donju,” the monied elite of North Korea comprising about 50 families, according to Gause. The group has rising expectations in the regime. Many of them are young and are likely to be “less enamored” with Kim’s nuclear program, Gause noted, if it stands in the way of making money and seeing North Korea’s economy expand.

Looking at domestic constraints can be useful, but of course it’s not the whole picture. Recall the core premise of selectorate theory: Leaders want to stay in power. To do that, yes, they have to keep a core group of domestic power brokers happy. But external threats can also remove leaders from power. If part of Kim’s rationale for his nuclear program is based on a genuine fear of the U.S., then we’re likely to see Kim continue to put resources into developing North Korea’s nuclear program, potentially even against the wishes of his winning coalition, if he thinks the threat is serious enough.

CORRECTION (Feb. 23, 2018, 10:43 a.m.): A previous version of this article misspelled the name of the poet who coined the phrase “no man is an island.” It is John Donne, not John Dunne.


  1. technically titled “I’m Ronery.”

  2. China is a bit more opaque than the U.S., so we’re relegated to expert speculation.

  3. While the simplest way to define the U.S. selectorate and winning coalition is in terms of voters, there are other ways to think of them as well. For example, since Congress has the power to remove a sitting president from office, we could think of Congress as the selectorate, in which case the winning coalition would be the smallest number of representatives needed to block impeachment proceedings or the smallest number of senators needed to prevent the president’s conviction and subsequent removal from office.

  4. He based this estimate on intelligence reports, South Korean sources and the limited information North Korea releases through various channels — including websites like KCNA, the Korean Central News Agency, which publish carefully crafted “stories.”

  5. Gause bases his analysis on information that leaks out via the rumor mill, plus his own sources from within the regime, defectors and a network of well-informed experts, including former government officials, who have been watching the North Korean regime over a period of decades.

Andrea Jones-Rooy was a quantitative researcher for FiveThirtyEight.

Ilene Prusher teaches journalism at Florida Atlantic University and contributes to national outlets including Time and CNN. She covered tensions on the Korean Peninsula as a foreign correspondent from 2000-2002.