The political structure of a country is often presented on a spectrum; it is the degree of democracy or autocracy rather than a dichotomous classification.  For sure, many scholars have argued for a link between a democracy and an autocracy, admitting that phenomena observed in a democracy such as populism or nationalism are pathways to authoritarian politics.  This hints at the possibility that a theory that explains democracies could also be used to demystify one of the most notorious autocracies, North Korea.
Scholars are in consensus that North Korea is an autocracy. Yet, the regime’s official name, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, claims to be a rule of the people. The regime goes into extensive image-making of the Supreme Leader as loved by the people and holds elections to prove it. These rigorous efforts to feign legitimacy as power derived from the people draw parallels with populism.
The core of populism is at creating an image of the people and claiming to represent them as the rationale for gaining political power. It is fantasy in that “the people” as a singular entity does not exist. Scholars observe that populists idealize the “people” to be pure and holy against a contrasting entity that is taking away from the people’s interests.  This storytelling mandates that morality to be placed on political events; those that disagree with the leader are taken as defectors of the people. An academic describes populism as “a set of distinct claims” that has an “inner logic” (or rather, illogic) that prescribes how politics is run. Because it is only a thin ideology, a mere narrative at its core, political action lacks consistency. 
The North Korean narrative is very anti-capitalistic as was birthed amid the Cold War. The leader is a figure that stands against the evils of capitalism often represented by South Korea and the United States. The people are expected to share the disgust for capitalistic greed.
The people are also to be holy and pure in their love for the Supreme Leader, always patriotic and industrious. A kid has been rewarded a medal for losing her life while rescuing a portrait in a flood.  But even she is not “the ideal citizen;” she was applauded in the context that she had what it takes to become one. Since the narrative is a fantasy, it is impossible to reach the “holiness” of an ideal citizen of North Korea. In reality, most citizens censor themselves to stop their actions, words, and even thoughts against this narrative to the level of indoctrination.
Of course, the idea of hatred for capitalism and love for the leader are not necessarily consistent, but that very arbitrariness is what defines populism. For North Korea, the inconsistency has spoiled further into contradictions. A well-known example is “jangmadang” (장마당) which literally means marketplace. The North’s anti-capitalist and anti-Western agenda is in theory to be supported by a public distribution system where the Supreme Leader provides for the people. But in reality, the regime is much too impoverished to sustain such a system, pushing citizens into these markets for survival. Even the political elites are known to participate in Jangmadangs which are evaluated as indispensable to the North Korean economy to the point that it may collapse without them. They are suppressed, ironically, to put on a show for its anti-consumerist narrative. 
North Korea may be at the very end of democratic backsliding and populism. It teaches us that the stakes are high when it comes to the erosion of democracy.
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