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Why do countries like the DPRK exist? why do people not spontaneously organize into a decentralized structure. Alas rulers/dictators either dead or alive have always been supported by an army. Kim Jong Un does not protect himself with sticks, he is not the one building WMD’s, he is protected by a huge army, and the engineers and the scientists developing those WMD’S.

Why does the army or the people not revolt? Even if the army was well fed and housed, under the assumption of the small world experiment, there is a high chance if what the western media says is true, then the soldiers might be directly or indirectly related to somebody who is impoverished.

Even if we were to consider something as crude as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, food and water is something all humans need. So why do the people suffer? Why do they not take action?

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    FWIW, history is replete with soldiers staging coups or uprisings when they are not paid as agreed, defeating their expectations about what is owed to them.
    – ohwilleke
    Dec 26, 2023 at 18:43
  • Obligatory explanation video: The Rules for Rulers
    – vsz
    Dec 26, 2023 at 21:12
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    I have watched the video, it's a good explanation for what rulers do but doesn't really answer my question, becuase as you go down the heirarchy of "keys" the amount of resources you can allocate get diluted. Dec 26, 2023 at 23:16
  • The answer that video provides is that when a dictator is ousted, he is ousted because of losing the trust of his inner circle, not of the population. The population, if the dictatorships is brutal enough, does not have the means to organize a revolt. Interestingly, the dictatorships with the worst living conditions are more stable than the "softer" ones, as in the latter the population has more means to self-organize and rise up. It's explained at 13:19
    – vsz
    Dec 26, 2023 at 23:44
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    As a sidenote, if you are a person of relative privilege and people you care about are impoverished, your first instinct is likely not "revolt!" but to give them some of your money / goods. Which is likely what soldiers in NK are doing with their grandmas and aunties.
    – xLeitix
    Dec 27, 2023 at 8:19

7 Answers 7

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Because you'll get tied to a post and blown up by artillery.

In the case of North Korea specifically, there were multiple cases where Kim Jong-Un executed high-ranking members of his military by having them tied to a post and blown up by artillery. It spells out a rather clear message to those within his military: turn against me and die.

Fundamentally, it's just not possible to carry out a coup d'etat by yourself. You need to bring other people into it, if only your subordinates, and that creates the risk that someone will blow the whistle and then get you executed by the regime.

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    As I understand, the last sentence takes into consideration that if their subordinates are or they know someone who is impoverished, the subordinates blowing the whistleon the coup d'etat is more likely to lead to them being in a position where they can be less impoverished, even if only temporarily so. Dec 26, 2023 at 5:15
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An answer dealing with authoritarian/totalitarian regimes in general and not especially tied to DPRK

The risk/benefit ratio as perceived by the average soldier does not favor a revolt.

In a dictatorship, the economy invariably goes down in the long term. The lower is the average wealth over the whole country, the better are military/police people paid and the more immaterial benefits they receive, compared to the general population. This makes them rather loyal, unless profound mistakes are made in their management.

What could be the possible outcome of a revolt:

  • The revolt fails at early stage. Participants are killed or imprisoned. The established order is reinforced over the loyal hierarchy by some unpleasant means (there are no resources available to reinforce it by pleasant means).
  • The revolt fails to get overwhelming traction, comparable part of armed forces stay loyal to the dictator. A prolonged civil war runs over the remaining order, economy and population.
  • The revolt succeeds (sort of). A high-ranking military officer is the new dictator. Hardly an improvement, except for the new dictator and their nearest co-conspirators. Everyone else is expected to prove their loyality to the new dictator.
  • The revolt succeeds. Some kind of democratic process is started. The privileges for the army people are voted into oblivion. The army is defunded and reduced. Unemployment status for the average soldier highly likely. Limited non-military skills don't help finding a good job. Few jobs are at all available as the economy slowly and hessitantly improves over a very long period. Joining a criminal gang does not look sustainable either.

In short, good luck selling the idea to the average soldier.

Well, at some point dictatorships do fail. As the economy sinks, we get to the point where the state cannot afford paying its soldiers / policemen / etc enough to meet their basic needs and the whole loyality stack collapses.

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  • Also if you look at the society, there are some 'religious' elements taken in politics, like the cult of personality. Making it difficult for individuals to oppose.
    – lalala
    Dec 26, 2023 at 13:13
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    @lalala indeed. People can just support the ideology. For example, people in North Korea may believe that the USA wants to destroy their country and make it into a second Iraq. They do not compare their living conditions with South Korea but rather with post-Saddam Iraq or with Libya after the Arab spring.
    – Anixx
    Dec 26, 2023 at 17:42
  • As a resident of an ideology-recovering country I can say that the ideology works pretty much short term (and partially anyway). It cannot sustain itself for more tha half generation when confronted with reality.
    – fraxinus
    Dec 26, 2023 at 21:58
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    I agree with this. With a country like North Korea, soldiers (even low-ranked ones) hold powerful positions in society and have access to better housing and food than most of the rest of society. Most aren't going to want to give that up to throw the dice on a risky rebellion. Dec 27, 2023 at 1:23
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To answer this question we need to understand under which conditions a successful armed coup may arise, and determine whether the conditions are present in North Korea or not. The field is not very researched, so I am going to refer to Dmitry Galkovsky's analysis of Russian Revolution events:

First, the theory of "spontaneous explosions of popular indignation", "the broadest revolutionary creativity of the masses", etc., must be dismissed outright.

By itself, an average person never thinks about things that do not concern them. When combined into a crowd, it can make a frightening impression, but the crowd is blind and pathetic in its blindness... It's human dough, a giant amoeba that can only contract and throw out amorphous pseudopods.

Here, the premise of the question's spontaneous organization into decentralized structure is already rejected, but let's read what is the alternative

The revolutionary underground needs a group of thugs, and the group needs real motivation, not transformed motivation. Without this, it will instantly disintegrate... Formal rules and money are necessary for an organization to exist. Therefore, a real underground organization... can only engage in direct money acquirement. Otherwise, there is no point in its existence... The beast needs feeding. Where do the funds come from? Criminals don't have this problem - their criminal "debit" smoothly turns into an equally criminal "credit". Where did the revolutionaries get their money from?

There should be some party which is in position to finance the actual people doing armed coup, train them, coordinate them, etc. We can think of decentralized businesses (such as MLM) but these are run for profit. This profit needs to be substituted by direct handouts by interested party.

But that's not even the point. The most extensive and highly paid underground is nothing compared to the state budget and the state apparatus. The weakest state devours violent rebels automatically, without even noticing. Like a chick caught in a pig trough.

Thus, the revolutionary underground can only be capable of functioning if there is high treason. The higher level, the better. Inspiration from foreign countries alone is not sufficient. This will at best trigger a failed coup. Success requires strong, no, powerful support inside.

In case of North Korea, they purge the generals quite often who have tendency to die in car crashes. Kim family is not weak and holds on to their devices.

A real driving force for the coup is needed. That's about 200 fighters with automatic rifles. Where do they come from? Mercenaries, ethnic minorities, and cherry-picked officers (a variant of a military coup). Why are there so few people - where would you get more? How would you use military formations or secret police units? How would you give them that order. Would you say "arrest the president"? This is similar to a self-arrest order. Legitimate armed forces can only be neutralized: locked up in barracks, taken out of the capital under some pretext, disarmed. That is, to create a stage for the actions of "200 AR fighters".

North Korea is very closed-off and homogenous country, where it would be very hard to bring 200 armed men, or muster them on the ground. China could do that, Japan could do that, but that's it. The former actively supporting Kim family, the latter could try something.

And finally, the third is disguise. For this purpose, for the most part, "revolutionaries" are needed... At best, their fate is to stand on the sidelines. But as for the ideological cover-up of the coup, it is difficult to overestimate the importance of "prometheuses and danko".

So we have found the spontaneuos revolutionary soldiers that would be used to show popular support for the coup, the problem being that they can only cover up the real machinery and cannot be doing anything in its absense. The machinery that, in case of NK, just isn't there.

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  • Wasn't the Russian Revolution a more or less spontaneous one? Also NK has the what 3rd largest army in the world (which is ridiculous in peace time and they are paying a high price for that) so how hard could it be to find 200 armed people? Also if it's just about toppling a dictator that shouldn't be too hard. To install a new system and to prevent a Lenin to seize the revolution and the state bringing you back to square one is difficult but that's the second step. Also why am I not surprised that a person born way after the revolution and raised under propaganda is arguing for the party?
    – haxor789
    Dec 27, 2023 at 16:07
  • @haxor789 I believe it can be said that 1905 Revolution looked spontaneous, but neither February 1917 (deposing the Emperor) not October 1917 (Bolshevik coup) look remotely spontaneous.
    – alamar
    Dec 27, 2023 at 16:45
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Many dictatorships give privileges to the members of the armed forces, reducing their incentive to overthrow the government

Many answers give complex reasons why revolutions cannot happen or why the army might not be the best place for it to start. But there is a simple explanation that covers many of the current examples: the incentive to change.

All coups face the possibility of failure or early detection and strong punishment for subversion are common. So there is a barrier to overcome (but then this barrier is often overcome as there are successful coups). So this barrier isn't the best explanation for the lack of coups in countries like N Korea.

A simpler explanation explains more. The fairly simple question is: when would the military be better off under a new regime?

It isn't true that militaries never overthrow governments (either dictatorial ones or democratic ones). But they usually do so when the incentives are high for the military not because a new government will be better for the whole country (though they will often claim this). For example, the Egyptian revolution of 1952, The Deposition of Allende in Chile were both military driven by militaries who were threatened by the government in some way.

But, in many cases of impoverished, failed governments that currently exist, the military have the sort of privileges that would undoubtedly be worse under any alternative regime. This is by design as many such governments pay or grant privileges to the military. In these cases there is simply no incentive for the military to overthrow the government.

In N Korea, the military is better paid and has better quality of life than the typical civilian. In Venezuela, the military have similar benefits not available to civilians but are also allowed to control much of the economy for their own benefit (often very corruptly). This is also true in Myanmar (Burma) and Zimbabwe. All those economies are, arguably, failed states and the quality of civilian life is dire. But, in them the military are far better off than typical civilians either because they are given a disproportionate share of national resources or because they corruptly control large parts of the economy. In all those cases, the military would be far worse off if the government fell. This is also true in many other less impoverished cases (the last Egyption civilian government was overthrown by the military in 2013 and the military there continue to run large parts of the economy for their own benefit).

To summarise: no matter how bad the general situation is in a country, the military have no incentive to act if they would be worse off under an alternative government.

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  • Worth noting though that “worse off” doesn’t just mean individually and materially. A soldier may be relatively well paid and fed, and aware that they might lose those privileges after a revolution — but if they know their relatives are starving or their childhood friends are being thrown in prison, that can give them an incentive the other way. Dec 27, 2023 at 17:27
  • @PeterLeFanuLumsdaine armies might fight for a better society, but are far less likely to do so if their interests and societies' interests are not aligned. Those revolutions happen, but are far less likely in a well rewarded army.
    – matt_black
    Dec 27, 2023 at 22:50
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Soldiers who do not work in concert through some goal-setting, performance-evaluating, and training structure are just people who (sometimes) have access to weapons.

As part of an organization, for example, soldiers can march in well-coordinated parades. The point of parades is to demonstrate how well-coordinated the military is.

In order for a rebellion to take place, there has to be some upper ranks, with competency in logistics, training, etc. who are part of the rebellion.

Otherwise, the rebels cannot take actions which complement each other and can't maintain discipline which is necessary to make sure that they don't actually work against one another, etc.

While small units can sometimes succeed better than large units, it's usually because they are parts of coordinated efforts organized by some people with understanding how to make many people work together.

If nothing else, organizing of supplying of the units is always necessary to maintain them in working order.


Dictatorships often conduct purges which eliminate those from the upper ranks who have skills and willingness to organize resistance, rebellion, etc. Sometimes purges are conducted simply to eliminate those from the top who are not willing to be brutal if brutality is the proposed plan of action.

If successful, these purges leave only the loyal people in the upper echelons of power. So the answer to the question "why don't armies in dictatorships have rebellions?" is that those who would organize them get filtered out by the system.

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As most people here seem to focus on how difficult it is to take on the armed forces and to organize large groups of people.

Well if all you were to care about is to get rid of a tyranny, then you don't have much of that hassle. You just need to destroy, sabotage and raise the cost of the system and a spontaneous uprising is more than enough to do so, even an individual act of resistance raises the cost and lowers the income.

The problem is just that... that's not where the story ends. So what's next? Is taking the dictators stuff to cover the cost? Can you self-organize a new system for long enough to stay afloat? Or can you sustain your existence individually? Can you leave the country or are you left to that country? So is it an option to ruin everything or do you have to live in the ruins afterwards?

Also it's a massive matter of perspective. Like who sees what? What is it that they don't see? What is it that they think they see? How do they interpret that? Like these kinds of power politics are some sort of stage play where it's often unclear who is playing whom, who's acting, who's reacting, who's the target audience and so on.

Like suppose you face an opposition then it is beneficial to portrait to the outside world the image of one solid block, monolithic in it's structure, united in one's message with no angle of attack in terms of individual corruption. As a result of that you might speak with 1 voice. And if that 1 voice belongs to 1 person you are perceived as a totalitarian dictatorship (from the outside). While internally the "ultimate leader" might be nothing more than a spokesperson with no actual power and behind the scenes a lot more discourse and opposition takes place that the outside world isn't made aware of because it makes them look weak and opens angles of attack that they want to have remain closed.

At the same time if that 1 person interacts with other nations and corresponds on behalf of it's country, that may also cement their role, giving them insights into how the international game is played, building relations where other nations requesting to speak with that person again, so that in effect they might end actually being a dictator because they have a perspective that the rest lacks and thus make themselves irreplaceable. So people on good terms with that person might have a major argument in discussions and people who know people who could ask that guy for favors... And suddenly a purely outward hierarchy becomes an internal one as well.

Likewise it could be possible that it always was a dictatorship, but that still does not mean that the dictator is actually seen as a powerful figure within the countries. Without political, economical and/or military support their power is rather negligible and there's always a good chance that the almighty emperor is nothing but a sock puppet of the actual key figures within the country.

Like with most entertainment gigs, people talk a lot about the person that is seen on stage, but in order to make them appear larger than life you have a whole army of people who make them look less like shit and make them sound less like an idiot, who make sure they hit the right notes despite not being able to read the music, who tell other people that they are the real deal, who rent expensive cars and locations to make them look successful and like they could live of their gigs and who walk away with a more than fair share of the profit + the added benefit that they are basically invisible and not subject to the public scrutiny and lack of privacy that the celebrity is suffering from.

And if the person nominally in charge is a narcissistic idiot who can't tie their own shoelaces... all the better. Because that means while the rest of the country thinks that everyone listens to their command, people more capable then them (so basically anybody in their vicinity with access to relevant information) will tell them precisely what they should command. So there's always the possibility that the higher ups don't actually have a problem with the leadership despite their complains, because everything is actually going as planned and that a "coup" is actually just a replacement of actors while the play is still the same. Maybe these fools thought they actually had power. So the revolution might be a farce and the population just joins in because they expect favors from the new government. Though maybe they realize their power and use the brief turmoil to actually revolt or renegotiate the social contract. Thing can backfire in multiple ways...

Though it could also go the other way around and another group of higher ups might convince the one nominally in charge that they are the better advisors and so he replaces the others, who have a hard time to dismantle the narrative that they themselves have spun without discrediting themselves. Then you'd have an effective coup d'etat while the outside world won't even realize any sort of change...

Then you have the middle management who knows enough to know that they don't know shit. That they heavily rely on both the upper class to uphold the scarecrow as well as the lower class to make them look successful because they don't do shit in comparison. So they have to play the double role of "I really pushed them to the absolute limits" and "Yo guys I'm on your side, I really did my best but upper management is really tough to negotiate". And so on.

Also in general these system might deploy a divide and conquer strategy where each position of power is held by lots of people who compete with each other for the acceptance of the one's in charge and who thus keep each other in check despite the fact that collectively they would be far more powerful. Though again that means what appears to be a rigid system could, behind the scenes, be a vary fluid system with lots of intrigues and all kinds of mobility through irregular channels.

Also actual totalitarian systems might actually force people in a very individualist perspective where literally everyone is the enemy, which means resistance is futile as an individual can't do much damage, resistance by others is an attack to oneself rather than an act of resistance against an unjust system and cooperation and organization is disincentivized. Like sure you know people for whom it doesn't work but people have to look for their own bottom line as they are otherwise punished and have less.

The next angle is, can you be self-sufficient. Like do you have the means to sustain your own existence by yourself? Do you have skills that persist? Like a manager is worthless once things fall down to agrarianism. A soldier has no actual job... Like they rely on people paying them and providing for them... they are essentially parasites, their benefit is largely to the wealthy and they are largely kept at a short leash in terms of financial independence so they better have a backup plan for how to move on.

And the lowest class is partially brainwashed, partially conscious of the whole play and might put on a play of their own pretending to work really hard yet doing the absolute minimum that they can get away with. Maybe they think they are part of the team and working as hard as everyone else, maybe they don't realize their power (as things rely on them essentially), maybe they don't see their significance as that comes with scale and they lack that perspective... aso

Either way the difference of the presence or absence of a government could be as meaningless as a few pieces of paper being replaced so maybe they just don't do it because they think they could but that it won't do much of a difference...

I mean how much do they know about the world around them and how much can they expect that the situation would be bettered by it? I mean often enough the dictatorship was the aftermath of a revolution and also often enough that still bettered the situation of the people because it had been even worse or maybe that's just what people are told.

So it's really hard to tell what is actually happening and conversely what will happen. Though often enough a revolution occurs not when things hit rock bottom but when things decline and people have the perspective that this doesn't have to be the case and that they could do it better if they were in charge. Which is a perspective people lack more and more in a hierarchical system, though again the world is small and they might know more than people expect...

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If all you don't want is a dictatorship, the question would be who else and what other ideas you would vote for.

If you think the dictator treats the people badly, the question would be how better someone else could potentially achieve.

Soldiers may need a better discipline than what is expected in a "dictatorship" to do anything successfully. And their job may not be necessarily bad compared to common people in their economics environment. So it's a bit strange to ask questions directly like that.

Logically it could happen if something really bad happens in the army, or a leader of the army decided to rebel, but they are not implied by just calling it a dictatorship and I suppose it is not asked by this question.

The more interesting situation would be, as the economics develop, the social structure doesn't provide the necessary functions to match the productivity, and the dictator becomes the most important obstacle of any reform, which all happens outside of the army, so someone joins the army or form their own army to revolt, as all what happens in the history. But North Korea is in self-evident sanctions that don't let this happen.

Wikipedia has a list of countries by system of government. There are still something like "absolute monarchy", arguably just dictatorship and possibly worse. They may all have their own reasons to not reach this situation, or possibly it is happening, but just slow. Foreign factors might be a blind spot to be considered in the reasons.

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