Military-first politics has been at the heart of the unexpected regime stability in North Korea under Kim Jong-il and his son Jong-un. This article analyzes Kim Jong-il’s military-first politics as a strategic choice for regime survival, in which the locus of political power switched from the party to the military. At the same time, Kim Jong-il formulated a complex system of circumventing the possibility of the armed forces’ political domination, including personalistic control using sticks and carrots, fortifying security and surveillance institutions, and compartmentalizing the security institutions for intra- and inter-organizational checks and balances to prevent the emergence of organized opposition to the regime. Although an effective short-term solution, military-first politics could never be a long-term strategy for building gangseongdaeguk (a powerful and prosperous nation). The current Kim Jong-un regime needs to conduct sweeping reforms to address dire economic difficulties, which might result in a departure from his father’s legacy and downgrade the military’s power. In this process, the current regime’s (in)stability will depend on how it maintains a balance between revoking military-first politics and preserving the armed forces’ allegiance.

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