How Dictators Keep Control

Fear, information control and personality disorders all play a role in keeping a people under a tight grip, experts say.

Images of North Korean women (and some men) weeping inconsolably at news of the death of strongman Kim Jong-Il was perhaps not surprising in a country where obedience is expected and much of the society, experts say, followed their "Dear Leader" because it has been in their collective best interest to do so.

But how do dictators like Kim -- or Saddam Hussein, or Hitler or Stalin for that matter -- maintain power over their people?

Psychologists and sociologists who study terrorism say dictators are able to spread fear among their people, and place themselves as their only salvation. Manufacturing an external threat, like Jews to Hitler's Germany, or the entire West for Kim, help keep the society off balance and collectively paranoid as well.

Dictators also exploit a well-known instinct for most people to seek protection from a strong leader, according to Alice LoCicero, a Cambridge, Mass.-based clinical psychologist and researcher on leadership and terrorism.

"Our behavior is still affected by what went on thousands of years ago," LoCicero said. "It's easier to understand why it's adaptive and common for people to bond to powerful leaders. In Darwinian evolution, the people who bonded with the leader survived. That instinct got passed along."

LoCicero has studied terrorist leadership and victims of terrorism from all five continents. She says that in some cultures, it's important to show respect to leaders, whether it's North Korea's Kim family of dictators or just the local schoolteacher.

"It would be embarrassing to a family or individual if they didn't show a great deal of respect," she said.

Dictators are also able to rule with more practical tools, such as fear and control of information, according to Jerrold Post, director of the political psychology program at George Washington University.

Post has studied the personalities of both Hussein and Kim for several decades, and jokes that his field of dictator scholarship may soon be obsolete.

"I've lost a lot of my old friends," he said. "But we still have (Iranian leader Mahmoud) Ahmadenijad."

Post said that in both Iraq and North Korea, dictators tightly controlled the flow of information. That control was upended in the past two years during the "Arab spring" revolts that swept away despots in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and some of the Gulf states, revolts that were encouraged in large part by information spread by cell phones and social media.

"Controlling information and controlling dissent are part of what goes into maintaining a totalitarian state," Post said.

In North Korea, Kim and his policies were responsible for a famine that led to the deaths of 1 to 2 million people, Post said. When food finally arrived, the message from state media was that it was a tribute to his leadership.

Now, as Kim's son Kim Jong-Eu prepares to take over, Western analysts are still largely in the dark about who is up and who is down in the North Korean power structure. Some are trying to glean meaning from the size of typefaces used in headlines mentioning government officials in officials North Korean state newspapers.

By most news accounts, Kim was a ruthless tyrant -- starving his own people while delivering a lavish lifestyle to himself and his generals; pursuing nuclear brinksmanship with South Korea and the West while his economy remained sputtering in the ditch.

So why don't his people rebel? There's such total control that four people talking together can be seen as a conspiracy, according to Post, who has interviewed North Korean defectors.

"We're talking about heavy penetration of internal security," he said. "Any manifestation of disloyalty or dissent is brutally punished."

Post said that the cult of personality around Kim and other dictators is fostered by myth-making about their origins. Kim, for example, was supposedly born in a village in the shadow of a sacred Korean mountain where his arrival was foretold by a swallow and he appeared under a double rainbow.

In reality, Kim was born in an impoverished town in the former Soviet Union where his father was leading a brigade of exiled Korean troops under Russian command. Kim's personality was the subject of a 2009 research paper by Frederick Coolidge, professor of psychology at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.

Coolidge and colleague Daniel Singer used interviews with a South Korean psychologist who had "advanced psychological training and intimate and established knowledge of Kim Jong-il."

The Colorado psychologists had previously developed a personality test of sorts for dictators and used it to analyze both Hitler and Hussein. Kim's score came out pretty close.

"For the personality disorders, it appeared that a 'big six' emerged: sadistic, paranoid, antisocial, narcissistic, schizoid and schizotypal," Coolidge and Singer wrote. "All three dictators also showed evidence of psychotic thought processes."

Caption: A fresco features North Korean dictators Kim Jong Il (L) and Kim Il Sung.