In this article, we trace the strategy of political control employed in North Korea under Kim Jong Un. Using conceptual tools created in the literature on comparative authoritarianism, we consider the roles of repression, co-optation, coercive distribution, and containment with respect to how the North Korean regime responds to external and internal threats. We focus on two areas as case studies in differentiated, contingent political control strategies. First, we consider the role of border as a conduit for unauthorized goods, migrants, and illicit information and the regime’s regulation of it. Second, we examine the regime’s management of internal economic actors, namely urban entrepreneurs and farmers. The main argument of this article is that Kim Jong Un has employed a policy of simultaneous co-optation, repression, and latterly under COVID-19, reemergent coercive distribution, building on but also modifying the strategic approaches pursued under Kim Jong Il.

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