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Think Tank

Dictator's Handbook: Consolidating Power, North Korean-Style

What's the Big Idea?

Will North Korea experience a smooth transition from Kim Jong-Il to the so-called "great successor," Kim Jong-un?

Big Think asked Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, a political scientist who uses game theory to turn conventional wisdom on its head. Mesquita is the author of The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics.

Over the last 30 years, Mesquita has developed a series of mathematical models for forecasting how people interact in complex situations. He has a very good track record, especially when it comes to North Korea: "I have had a lot of students over the last three or four years model what will happen in North Korea after Kim Jong-il," Mesquita told Big Think, "including a group of students several years ago who predicted that he would designate his son Kim Jong-un as the successor--before he even knew he was going to do that."

A Tale of Two Would-Be Dictators

Kim Jung-un was not always the heir apparent. Un's elder half-brother Kim Jong-nam lost his shot at succession after an ill-fated attempt to visit Tokyo Disneyland with a fake passport.

Kim Jung-un, on the other hand, has been groomed to emulate his grandfather, Kim Il-sung. In fact, Kim Jung-un has apparently undergone plastic surgery numerous times to not only enhance his natural good looks but also to look more like his grandfather, the founder of the North Korean state. Now that's some clever succession-planning on Kim Jong-un's part. So if you are a dictator-in-waiting, it's not a good idea to sneak out of your own country and go to Disneyland. Fixing your facial features to ensure dynastic succession might be creepy, but so far has proven to be effective. 

What's the Significance?

While Mesquita has forecast that certain countries like China will grow more democratic in the coming years, he does not predict the death of the North Korean dictator will push that country in the same direction.  

"All the student analyses suggests it is unlikely," Mesquita tells us. "One reason for trying to have a dynastic succession is that you solve that two-year window problem because [Kim Jung-il] will have told his son where the money is and that is the key to consolidating power."

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