The Machiavellian Kim

If we follow our gut sense, we tend to think that an institution with a Machiavellian leader is bound to fall apart at some point. We relate our own ideals to the theoretical subjects of Machiavellian princes and assume that a loyalty with fear as the whipping point is an unstable, cautious one. At some point, they will seek an end to the fear and take part in drastic measures, perhaps dragging their feared leader to a grisly end.  True Machiavellianism, being a huge burrito of fear, facades and ruthlessness just doesn’t quite compute with us- especially if we’re from America, a country where many presidents have been nothing short of adored. It’s bound to fail.

An example of a leader who was (and still is, in a sense) much loved.

In reality, our gut sense sucks. Machiavellianism is rampant as heck in contemporary politics. I know that a lot of us had the politics of our own country in the back of our minds when we voted on the survey in lecture a week or so back, but because critiquing any aspect of American Politics can sometimes be like tossing a bucket of Mentos into  a gallon of Diet Coke, I’m going to focus on a different arena. 

When I think Machiavellian leaders, I immediately think of the past and current three leaders of North Korea, Kim Jong Il in particular. Kim Jong Il inherited, practiced and passed down a pretty Machiavellian way of ruling.

Gone but seriously not forgotten.

Machiavelli says in The Prince, among many other things, that leaders ought to be feared, but not hated. When the subjects only love their leader, their love will only exist when the leader satisfies them. The moment leaders fail is the moment in which their men turn tail.

In the DPRK, Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un all possessed or possess something called a cult of personality. This is when propaganda is used in order to make citizens form a heroic, worshipful image of their leader. In the DPRK, North Koreans were often told tales of how the births of their leaders were of divine or magical nature and how they were admired internationally. I remember seeing documentaries in which North Koreans who had undergone medical treatment would bow frantically and hysterically to portraits of Kim Jong Il, as if his magical hands had healed them of their ailments rather than medical professionals. In the same documentaries, streets full of distraught, sobbing North Koreans proclaiming things like “Why have you left us?!” were seen in the events of both Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong Il’s deaths.

What’s interesting about Kim Jong Il’s cult of personality in comparison to his father’s is that the devotion proclaimed by the North Koreans was often practiced in fear. They afraid that if they didn’t show the right level of commitment to Kim Jong Il, they would be punished. As Machiavelli said, “fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.”

Kim Jong Il had the fear aspect down pat. The risk of punishment for possible defection or disbelief in his rule was a very real one- during Kim Jong-Il’s term, he’d been accused of several crimes against humanity and in general heinous deeds including gulag, murder, starvation of recaptured refugees and kidnapping.

Despite all of this, he managed to keep the people of North Korea on his side and loyal. His mechanism was most likely a combination of the aforementioned fear and nonstop propaganda. Here we have the Machiavellian idea that princes must appear to have favorable qualities. The people of North Korea were fed tons of propaganda in order to keep up the cult of personality and make him seem like some sort of divine being. Kim Jong Il certainly wasn’t the most generous, faithful, compassionate or sincere leader, but to his people, he appeared to be.

Remember when they kept threatening to bomb us?

Machiavelli also said that princes should always have war on their mind. During Kim Jong Il’s rule, the DPRK’s standing army was large and well maintained, its battle readiness kept up via drills. Kim Jong Il also liked to exacerbate neighboring countries to signal that his military prowess. This often lead to the countries providing concessions and aid, which Kim Jong Il would use to primarily bolster his military.

From a Machiavellian point of view, Kim Jong-Il was an effective prince. While North Korea is probably an extreme example of Machiavellian ideals being incorporated into contemporary politics, it’s one of the most blatant ones and handy to examine as well.


One thought on “The Machiavellian Kim

  1. I think relating current leaders to Machiavellian ideals is extremely interesting, and I think you’re completely right in saying North Korean leaders express many of Machiavelli’s principles. I believe, like you, that Machiavellianism is alive and well in politics, but I want to address what you purposely avoided: American politics.
    For example, politicians on both sides of the aisle often make exorbitant promises during elections that they could not hope to keep. President Obama promised in his campaign to not expand child care tax credit, but he abandoned this in a compromise to pursue other tax policy goals.
    I do think you are right that Presidents are not feared by the people, and I believe this is a result of our democratic system. Our Founding Fathers penned the Constitution in a way that government rests on the consent of the people with separation of powers and checks and balances. These characteristics bar a politician from putting fear in the American public; a feared official will simply not be voted for in the next election or be impeached and removed for overstepping the bounds of his office.


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