In January 2016, North Korea tested a fourth nuclear device. In the scramble to respond, analysts once again debated the nature of the North Korean regime. Much of the heat of this discussion comes from varying perceptions of the 'real' North Korea.

Is it the last relic of the Cold War? A national security barracks state akin to World War II Japan? Is it just a normal country like any other, looking for a deal in a tough neighborhood? While all these interpretations reveal some element of the curious northern system, if one looks at North Korea's actual behaviour, it operates more like a mafia organisation than anything else. 

If we listen to North Korea, this not apparent. North Korea often talks as if it were a militant, revolutionary state. It threatens war and nuclear destruction, claims the South Korean Government to be illegitimate puppets, extols a semi-divine royal family (the Kims) in the world's most servile personality cult and uses extreme rhetoric. This talk is mirrored in the frightening, if highly stylised, portrait of its military goose-steeping before Olympian elites.

But talk is cheap. Exaggerated claims (eg. that its recent nuclear test was a hydrogen bomb) are easy to make and hard to disprove in such a closed society. That they are inaccurate is irrelevant, as with threats to use nuclear weapons against the US or turn Seoul into a 'sea of fire.' North Korea's actions do not suggest a reckless imperialist ready to burn down the region. Rather they suggest canny, criminalistic elites looking to hold their rickety regime together and enjoy the good life.

North Korea is both governed in a mafiosi manner and engages in large-scale criminality analogous to that which we see in organised crime families. Reading North Korea as a gangster-state is not new. Sheena Greitens pioneered this analysis (here, here and here)*, but I go beyond simply the immediate criminal activity to argue that gangsterism characterizes the operations of the state itself. Specifically:

1. North Korea is run by an extended clan, and position within the regime is heavily influenced by blood and friendship ties rather than merit or ideology.

Indeed, blood links delineate the internal class system for all North Koreans (the songbun system). North Korea is the only communist monarchy in the history of Marxism. So personalised is the North Korean system that by the 1970s the regime started calling its ideology 'Kimilsgungism' – effectively whatever Kim Il Sung (the country's leader from foundation in 1945 to his death in 1994) said.

When I visited North Korea, our guides often referred to North Korea as the land of the Kims, and every presentation we received about North Korea (even the instructional safety video on the flight over) began with paeans to the Kim family. To be sure, autocracies have had personality cults, but the mafiosi element is perpetual family rule. When Kim Il Sung died, his son took over (1994), and then his grandson (2011), and each of the Kims has ruled through personal, highly-trusted minions and retainers. This is a pre-modern, feudal government.

2. Order among elites is maintained through the stick of harsh, irregular violence and the carrot of bribery

Much like the mafia's 'caporegimes', North Korean elites are selfish and competitive. North Korea is poor, and control of its few profitable assets, such as mining and fishing, is both lucrative and contentious. So factions, dissidents and various barons of industry, the party and the military must be kept in line by the central don either through violence or favours and hand-outs.

Much like the mafia, freelancers and upstarts are subject to purges and elimination. Rule of law in a familial system is weak, particularly the rules for ascension within the clan structure. Should the don change his mind, even rising stars can suddenly be eliminated, as happened to Jang Sung-Taek.

But bullying the caporegime elites with too much violence is risky too. Better to buy them off if possible. When Kim Jong Il ascended the throne in 1994, he so feared a military revolt that he struck a deal with the brass: songun, or the 'military-first policy.' The 'Songun Bargain' (my term) was essentially Kim Jong Il buying off the Korean People's Army (KPA) to forestall a coup. In exchange, the KPA received unique access to the national budget, elevated constitutional importance as the leading entity of the state, and perks for the military elite. The continuing luxury trade into North Korea — the liquor, HDTVs, foreign cars, snowmobiles and so on — keep up the regime's end of that bargain.

3. Contracts are routinely ignored in the relentless pursuit of short-term material gain

Another mafia-esque element is the Kim court's racketeering approach to its interaction with both foreigners and its own people. North Korea regularly cheats or avoids following commitments made in various negotiations with outside powers, the UN and NGOs, most obviously in its construction of nuclear weapons. So many deals have fallen apart that the American attitude toward North Korea is now 'strategic patience,' because the Obama Administration has no trust that North Korea will actually adhere to anything it signs. Internally as well, the Pyongyang 'court economy' has a long record of ripping off its own population and investors: confiscating currency, taking harvest product in excess of state quotas, and rewriting the rules for foreign investors such as Orascom or South Korean firms in the Kaesong Industrial Complex.

4. North Korea engages in elaborate criminal enterprises

If we define the mafia as organised crime, North Korea looks like a country taken over by the Corleone family of the Godfather films. Its criminality is legendary: it counterfeits US dollars (and euros and RMB); brews and exports methamphetamines; engages in insurance fraud; regularly evades UN sanctions, which have the force of international law; trafficks in persons; and proliferates weapons, nuclear materials and missile parts. The revenue from these 'enterprises' directly supports the court economy and the comfortable lifestyle of elites. 

5. Finally, like the mafia, North Korea is deeply corrupt

Perhaps Kim Il Sung himself genuinely believed in socialism, but certainly his son did not and his grandson does not. Under their rule, North Korea has emerged as the second most corrupt state on earth according to Transparency International. The mafia bribes and pays off for its needs; so does North Korea.

Petty corruption among officialdom is now widespread, according to defectors, with market traders, escapees and others trading money, goods and services to avoid state detection. North Korean workers toiling on international projects in Kaesong, Siberia and the Persian Gulf see little of their wages, as the regime effectively confiscates the hard currency of their pay. Internationally, North Korea likely could not have built a nuclear weapon without massive pay-offs in the AQ Khan network of proliferators.

At the top, North Korea hides illicit funds in banks, particularly in China and Switzerland, which almost certainly require kick-backs to protect. Kim Jong Il himself secured a $500 million bribe from Hyundai Asan — likely with the tacit permission of the South Korean Government — to attend the 2000 inter-Korean summit. Perhaps the most recognisable face of this corruption to Westerners is Dennis Rodman's bizarre dalliance of debauchery with Kim Jong Un several years ago.

If this interpretation is correct, ideology, or victory over South Korea, is less important to the North's elites than simply staying alive and enjoying the gangsterish good life. The glue of the regime, then, is what I have called the 'Songbun Bargain': goodies for elites in exchange for stable Kimist leadership. Should the funds to maintain the court economy dry up, elites might well set on each other over a declining budgetary pie. If the mafia's primary interest is money, then financial or secondary sanctions are the most powerful weapon we have against the North.

This essay was written in cooperation with the US-Korea NextGen Scholars Program. I would like to thank the Korea Foundation, the University of Southern California, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies for inviting me to participate.

Photo by Flickr user (Stephan).

*Editor's note: The reference to Sheena Greitens' work was added after this post was first published.