The core of populism is in creating an image of the people and representing them to justify political power.  It is based on a myth as “the people” as a singular entity does not exist. A populist idealizes the “people” to be pure and holy against a contrasting entity: an effective mechanism to label opponents as traitors against the deserving people.  North Korea is the ultimate populist dream. It has succeeded in establishing a political structure under a populist leadership, the legitimate agent of the people crowned as “î” (수령, Supreme Leader).  Populist narrative as “power from the people” legitimizes the Suryung’s absolutism between the political elites and the masses.
Populism solidifies absolutism. Political representation is monopolized: only one “people” and thus only one legitimate delegation.  Hence, as the representative of the people, the Suryung ironically is justified to rule absolutely, even in the presence of an elite class permitted to participate in the government. The existence of classes illustrates the North’s use of a populist tool: division. The division between the elites and middle or hostile classes allows cheap maintenance of power because the regime focuses its resources on elites. It is a trade essentially; the idealized provides political support for the Suryung for exclusive benefits. There is little reason for either side to defect from this tradeoff and hence the power structure remains stable.  The clientelism is justified by a morally justified caste-like classification system called “songbun” (성분, origin). It classifies citizens according to lineage: the level of capitalism their ancestors had practiced.  This is important because the North’s narrative is founded on anticapitalism derived from the former Soviet’s, warranting the claim that the elites are simply more deserving than the others because of their pure blood.  Those with prestigious songbun do not threaten the Suryung’s total power because what they hold is a mere reflection of the power of the populist king. He reserves all rights and can take away in a whim as was witnessed by the sudden execution of Jang Song-Thaek.  Those with lower songbun do not get any political voice. This is how the Suryung rules effectively and absolutely in his court.
Populism holds the masses under tight rein. For this unique state, nationalism along with populism supplements the Suryung’s grasp of power. The North’s anti-capitalistic narrative is very nationalistic. The corrupt ideology of capitalism and practicing states such as the U.S., Japan, or ROK is the enemy and everyone that has relented, such as the tainted blood is to be punished.  The goal of the ideal people of North Korea is to struggling against this evil to protect the nation. The continuous nationalist propaganda stresses the nation’s consolidation for this end. This characteristic supplements the holes within the populist narrative. According to Brubaker, when nationalism and populism are married, the nation is cut in two dimensions; vertical separates the rich elites from the masses, and the horizontal cuts between “our nation” and “foreign states.” The vertical and horizontal cuts then are intersected; the rich elites are likened to the out-group, and the masses are the ingroup.  According to this analysis, one could expect public disgust toward the Suryung and the elites who would be interpreted as “foreign states” equivalent to evil. But the North’s of the version of nationalism well counters this challenge. The accentuation of patriotic love for the nation is elegantly attached to the personality of the Suryung.  Patriotism is interpreted as the unconditional reverence and support for Suryung and the system as he leads the nation’s battle against the west. Instead, the horizontal divide between “our nation” and “the enemy states” is overemphasized that anything other than support for the state’s system is equivalent to betraying the entire nation. This definition of “patriotism” is planted into the populace and creates the very “consent of the people” populism draws from.  Therefore, populism and extreme nationalism build foundations for each other, creating an unfalsifiable cycle of legitimacy and power for the Supreme of North Korea.
Bibliography De Cleen Benjamin & Yannis Stavrakakis (2017) Distinctions and Articulations: A Discourse Theoretical Framework for the Study of Populism and Nationalism, Javnost – The Public, 24:4, 301-319.
J.W. Müller, Chapter 1 What Populists Say.;
Ben Stanley (2008) The thin ideology of populism, Journal of Political Ideologies, 13:1, 95-110.
Sakai, T. (2013). North Korea’s Political System. Journal of World Affairs, 61-2, 46-59.
 Müller, Chapter 1 What Populists Say.
 B. B. De Mesquita & Smith, A. (2011). The dictator’s handbook: why bad behavior is almost always good politics. PublicAffairs.; B. B. De Mesquita, (2013). Principles of international politics. Sage. (This idea is dubbed “Selectorate Theory.”)
 Collins, R. (2006). Marked for Life: Songbun North Korea’s Social Classification System (Washington, DC: the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, 2012). Vaclav Havel, Kjell Bondevik, and Elie Wiesel, “Turn North Korea into a Human Rights Issue,” Spiegel.
 Müller, Chapter 2 What Populists Do, or Populism in Power.
 Wang, S. T. (2015). Legitimacy and stability of North Korea. Korea Economic Institute of America Academic Paper Series, 18. http://keia.org/sites/default/files/publications/kei_aps_wang_son-taek_11-17-15.pdf  “The North divides its citizens into three classes and 55 subcategories,”RFA, September 11th 2019. https://www.rfa.org/korean/weekly_program/defector_view_hr/fe-jy-09112019120920.html.  Rogers Brubaker (2017) Between nationalism and civilizationism: the European populist moment in comparative perspective, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 40:8, 1191-1226.
 J. C. Lim (2015), Leader Symbols and Personality Cult in North Korea: The Leader State. Routledge.
 O. O. Varol (2014), Stealth authoritarianism. Iowa L. Rev., 100, 1673.
The socio-political mechanisms of “songbun” are extremely interesting as they justify and legitimize both populism and authoritarianism in North Korea. It’s a notable difference from other countries experiencing the rise of authoritarian populism; I think that most cases don’t present a caste-like system that inherently supports such a phenomenon. However, the Suryong strongly echoes other far-right populists, as his claim to power is deeply anchored in nationalism, as the author demonstrates. Interestingly, the idea of “us vs. them” isn’t just internal, dividing the elite and the mass, but it’s also international, dividing North Korea and democratic countries in the world. North Korean “us vs. them” therefore seems to be based on political regime differences in addition to socio-economic status, rather than race/ethnicity or religion, which have been more commonly associated to rising populists in Europe for example. I guess this makes sense, especially because North Korea is one of the only non-democratic nations remaining in the world. This “war against the West” is therefore very particular to North Korean populism and authoritarianism; even China’s CCP doesn’t appear to be so against the West. It’s also really interesting that people adhere sos strongly to this definition of patriotism (or nationalism), but I guess it’s also very much a result of North Koreans’ lack of exposure to different perspectives and information from diverse media.