This article explains North Korea’s political framework as centered on suryŏng (supreme leader), in terms of domestic debates about the best developmental strategy to achieve the dual (and often contradictory) goals of building a “socialist utopia" and achieving economic development. In pursuit of these goals, the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) has adopted a collectivist developmental strategy that places a premium on collective efforts and nonmaterial incentives. Several problems arose in the process of implementation, and the challenges of de-Stalinization from outside, and dogmatism and individualism from within, were particularly serious. The KWP responded with political projects to solidify the party and strengthen its unity with the public while privileging ideological incentives over material rewards. The series of choices eventually led to the establishment of the suryŏng system, in which Kim Il Sung (Kim Ilsŏng) occupied the central position of power around which the party and mass were organized. In the 1990s, when the suryŏng system faced particularly difficult challenges, Kim Jong Il (Kim Chŏngil) sought to institutionalize the system further by adopting the military-first policy, which placed the military at the center of the efforts to diffuse the suryŏng system’s normative values throughout the society.

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