What really drives North Korea? This question often gets lost in current debates and analyses of that country. Focuses usually range from whether North Korea is a rational actor to careful evaluation of the personality of its leader, Kim Jong-un, based on limited information. But the North Korean regime does not lend itself to simple or binary analytical frameworks.
Given the current centrality of North Korea to much of world politics, the release of the second edition of Adrian Buzo’s Guerilla Dynasty could hardly be more timely. First published in 1999, it argues that North Korea’s strategy and behavior rest on an historical foundation of the worldview of its founders. North Korea’s “militarism, isolation, extreme centralization and mobilization, personal autocracy, cult of personality leadership and hereditary succession” are all traits based in the early political experiences of North Korea’s founding elite. Buzo explains the behavior of the North Korean state, both in foreign and domestic policy, through two historical roots.
The first is the anti-Japanese guerilla warfare of its first president, the “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung (1912–1994), and his loyal band of guerilla fighters in Manchuria in the 1930s. This experience, Buzo argues, instilled in North Korea’s first rulers a belief that independence and military strength are the goals above all others in politics. This view holds true whether it be to protect from overbearing allies such as the Soviet Union (during the Cold War) and China (still today), or from adversaries such as the United States and South Korea.