Recently, TV audiences have watched as entire nations have been steered towards the abyss by two mad boy-kings: the sociopathic Joffrey Baratheon of HBO’s Game of Thrones, and the inexplicable Kim Jong Un of North Korea. To compare North Korea’s Supreme Leader to the fictional ruler of the swords-and-sorcery realm of Westeros might seem like a bad joke, but the behavior of both has much in common. This is because the world of Game of Thrones is inspired by an era of real-world history that is critical to understanding the emergence of modern states and the political dynamics of modern authoritarian regimes.
In the backstory to Game of Thrones (based on George R.R. Martin’s meticulously researched book series, which in turn is based on the English Wars of the Roses), Westeros, much like Europe in our own Middle Ages, saw the emergence of centralized political organization thanks to a revolution in warfare. In Westeros, this was because the kings had dragons; in our world, the reason was the development of effective cannons. No longer able to control land by simply holding now-vulnerable castles, rulers needed to be able to march out to give battle in the open field—and the military advantage went to the leader with more troops. Surviving in this new world required a tax base large enough to sustain massive armies. The Military Revolution of 14th-16th century Europe thus led to the centralization of power and favored the growth of larger political units. According to this school of thought, the need to field a robust military was the raison d’être for the emergence of the modern state. Consequently, powerful military leaders became both essential actors within such centralized political systems and potential threats to their own masters.
Modern democracies place military leaders firmly under civil control; however, having a state is not synonymous with having democracy or egalitarianism. Early states controlled the military power of nobles through patronage and personal fealty, a system reflected accurately in Game of Thrones, and some modern states continue to manage power relationships this way.
North Korea is such a case; power there, as in Game of Thrones, is hereditary, and neither North Korea nor Westeros place much stock in plurality or social welfare. Rather, they are crony states, where those in the inner circle are the beneficiaries of a spoils system that excludes the non-elite. Social dissent—which is, after all, often economically motivated—is crushed. To protect against enemies both external and internal, a ruler like Kim must rely on the military, the key to a state’s sovereignty and often an important player in its internal political organization. Military leaders in modern crony states, like the old hereditary nobility, are thus some of the prime beneficiaries of this spoils system. However, this semi-feudal organization also contains within itself the seeds of conflict.
A despot’s grasp on power, particularly one who came to that power through his family but whose legitimacy may be questionable, is dependent on keeping his military leaders occupied, lest they seize the whole pie for themselves. The best way to do this is to keep them occupied with external conflict, or at least the threat of external conflict. Failure to do so often results in challenges from powerful subordinates, like the medieval warlords seeking to toss the (illegitimate) king off the Iron Throne of Westeros. The English Wars of the Roses and French Wars of Religion are two prominent historical analogues. Later, when the French Revolution overthrew 175 years of absolute monarchy, it was the National Guard that led the way, and a military man, Napoleon, who ultimately seized power. Similarly, it was by and large army officers such as Gadhafi and Nasser who replaced the puppet kings set up in post-Ottoman protectorates. More recently, the case of Bashar al-Assad shows what happens to those with hereditary power who fail to keep their militaries’ minds occupied: decades of détente with Israel led to idle hands in the ranks, which may have been one factor behind some of the Syrian armed forces siding with the current rebellion. In the same way, the Egyptian Revolution was abetted by that country’s military.
It’s a dilemma that goes back to the Military Revolution: without internal benefits and an external enemy to occupy its attention, a despot’s own military threatens his regime’s stability. While much of the speculation on the current standoff with North Korea suggests that Kim Jong Un is trying to gain aid concessions by tilting at windmills with a nuclear lance, a study of history shows another dimension to the fabricated foreign crises and continual brinksmanship of the Pyongyang regime: preparing to slay imaginary giants keeps the North Korean generals, who would otherwise be playing their own Game of Thrones, under control.