This afternoon I was bedazzled by a headline that finally made sense: “Will the Three-Generation Rule Topple North Korea’s Kims?” “Yes! ” I thought, “finally someone is using ancient Chinese history models to understand the DPRK’s ruling elite. That’s almost as good — and necessarily novel — as calling North Korea a sultan state!”
Unfortunately the article, in Vanity Fair, does no such thing, leaving me to argue that North Korean internal rebellion might best be read as a kind of late-last-dynasty story of dispair and despotism such as we see in the transition from Qin to Han, or from Sui to Tang. The Sui dynasty is particularly apropos in looking at North Korea: a strong, cultivated, and militant founding emperor with a dissolute and belligerent son, who himself beget a weak, young, and disinterested youngest heir to the throne. The dynasty was quickly lost by the third in the succession.
Of course, in North Korean history books themselves, not a single kind word for the Sui exists. After all, the Sui-Koguryo wars were huge, and brutal, and left long scars across the Liaodong frontier.