Skip to main content

Alumni Confidential: Edward Goldring

May 30, 2023
Edward Goldring

Alumni Confidential
Edward Goldring with a light blue background, and a box on the left side reading,

In our latest Alumni Confidential interview, IGCC program and research associate Olivia Chioffi talks with Edward Goldring, an alumnus of IGCC’s Public Policy and Nuclear Threats (PPNT) Boot Camp who is currently the Korea-Pacific Program Fellow at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California, San Diego and a lecturer in the Department of Politics at the University of York. Ed reflects on authoritarian politics—with a focus on North Korean succession and elite purges—comparative research methods, and the benefits of an academic career.

You study authoritarian politics and have a particular interest in North Korea. How did your interest in this field first develop?

I used to work as a lobbyist in London in the private and charity sectors, and I’d studied politics as an undergrad and was doing a master’s whilst working in London, so I’d always been interested in politics. The first book I read about North Korea was Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy, which quite a lot of undergrads in the U.S. get asked to read, which is fantastic. Because I was working in politics in London, I knew what events were on the parliamentary calendar, so I started attending meetings of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea—not for work, just for my own personal interest. At those meetings, I got to meet with, and hear from, North Korean defectors, and also South Koreans who had been affected by North Korea’s policies. That led to me briefly becoming a trustee of a North Korean human rights charity.

Throughout this time, I’d been thinking about pursuing a Ph.D. in the U.S. After several failed application cycles, I realized I should write my application on what I was really interested in, and not what I thought Ph.D. programs wanted me to be interested in—so I wrote about wanting to focus on North Korea. I was very lucky that the University of Missouri took a chance on me. I give credit to my Ph.D. adviser, Sheena Greitens, for turning me into a comparativist because I realized that while I was interested in North Korea, I was more interested in authoritarianism all over the world. So, rather than focusing on human rights in North Korea, which is what had first drawn me in, I felt that authoritarian survival was the key issue to study, given that literally billions of people live under autocracy throughout the world, and this affects their economic, physical, and psychological wellbeing.

I’m sure being a comparativist means that your work is more generalizable than if it had primarily focused on North Korea. Do you find that to be the case? Has it been more difficult to work with a broader lens?

This is a big theme in the work I’m doing. The work I’ve published so far on dictatorships is very much comparative in terms of large-N work that looks at dictatorships all over the world using quantitative analysis. But I’m currently doing some dedicated work on succession in North Korea, and one of the pitches I’m making in that work—which is so far being received positively by scholars—is that North Korea is not this idiosyncratic or weird case that can’t be theorized more broadly and put into a comparative framework. We’ve seen scholars in the last five to ten years who have taken comparative theory and applied it to North Korea to help us better understand North Korean politics. But we haven’t seen people studying North Korea in order to better understand dictatorships in other contexts. So that’s one of the things I’m doing with my work on succession: I’m trying to argue that the trends we see in North Korea regarding, say, succession politics are actually very typical of what we see in other dictatorships when they prepare for and consolidate succession transitions.

Milan Svolik, in his book, The Politics of Authoritarian Rule, famously drew on Tolstoy’s opening line of Anna Karenina to describe dictatorships, where Tolstoy writes, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” And this is true; North Korea, like any other dictatorship, has its idiosyncrasies. But that’s also true of Turkmenistan, China, Russia, Cambodia, et cetera. There are still lots of generalizable behaviors we can examine in North Korea that we can then use to learn about politics elsewhere.

Your book manuscript, Purges: How Dictators Fight to Survive, examines the causes of elite purges and their effects on autocratic survival. What variables have you found that make autocratic leaders more likely to use elite purges as a tool?

The book manuscript makes three main arguments about why dictators purge elites. Given the focus of my fellowship at UC San Diego, I should emphasize that the theories I’ve come up with are motivated by qualitative case studies of elite purges in Kim Jong Il’s North Korea and Park Chung Hee’s South Korea. They’re two very different cases, but there are some commonalities in how purges come about in those regimes. The existing work on purges generally assumes that purges are used by a dictator to consolidate power—a purge being when a dictator removes an individual from their inner circle or from the ruling coalition—I think that’s true, but there are other reasons why dictators purge elites.

My book makes three main arguments: first, dictators purge elites to consolidate power; second, they purge them to punish them for disloyalty; and third, they purge elites to scapegoat them to alleviate popular threats to their rule. And then, the circumstances under which dictators purge different types of elites for those reasons vary. But, broadly speaking, I argue that these are the three core reasons for elite purges: consolidation, punishment, and scapegoating.

As their fellowships come to an end, IGCC’s 2022–23 Postdoctoral Fellows in Technology and International Security are now faced with the decision of whether to stay in academia or transition to a non-academic, government-focused career. It’s a decision faced by many engaged scholars. What made you decide to stay in academia and become a lecturer at the University of York?

I was motivated by the freedom to conduct research on what I thought was interesting and, hopefully, also important. There are, of course, other research-based careers, but I don’t know of many where you get quite the same freedom as you do within academia to research what you want to research, leaving aside strategic career incentives to focus on certain areas.

I’d also emphasize that the decision isn’t binary. It’s not just academia or government; we can also use the skills we’ve developed to pursue something completely different. For instance, if I wasn’t doing academia, I would probably try and transition to using the data analysis skills I’ve developed throughout my academic career to working in the professional sports industry, because that’s what I’m really passionate about. My point is that I think there are lots of potentially innovative ways that people can put to good use the skills and/or the knowledge that they’ve learned.

It’s also worth saying that deciding to stay in academia is one thing, but actually staying is something else. Like everyone in academia, I was extremely fortunate that a position came up when I happened to be on the job market that I was a good fit for. I’ve seen extremely capable people not have the same luck—who wanted to pursue an academic position and it just didn’t work out for idiosyncratic reasons—that have transitioned into government or think tank jobs. Having other options is really important in the academic job market because there are so many factors at play that we, as applicants, have very little control over.

You’re an alumnus of the Public Policy and Nuclear Threats (PPNT) Boot Camp. What was that experience like and what role did it play in your professional formation?

It was a really good experience, primarily to gain insight into aspects of public policy related to nuclear security that I wasn’t familiar with. I’m not an expert on nuclear weapons or nuclear policy, but I am interested in North Korean elite politics. I felt I had a professional duty to learn more about nuclear security, especially in the North Korean context. And so, for me, the opportunity for PPNT was getting to learn from physicists, engineers, and practitioners in nuclear security. These were all really fantastic experiences, and emphasized the value in my own research of engaging with people from different backgrounds and making sure the work that I do speaks to practitioners as well as academic scholars.

So, for instance, in the work I’ve been doing on succession, I’ve been lucky enough to spend time going to Seoul, speaking to practitioners—people who work in government think tanks or independent think tanks, and gauging their reactions to the ideas we’re developing. Similarly, we had great historians when I did PPNT, making sure that we were not neglecting the history of succession in North Korea, or the history of succession more broadly. That idea from PPNT really stuck with me: the importance of engaging with ideas and people from other disciplines.

What’s another ongoing or new project you’re particularly excited about?

The North Korea succession project is the one I’m really excited about, and that’s what has been the focus of my fellowship at UC San Diego. The question I’m looking at is: how do dictators manage elites to facilitate succession? I’m examining this question using the transition from Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un. I think it’s substantively very important, and idiosyncratic features of this transition allow me to make inferences about how a dictator’s decision to plan for succession affects their management of elites with greater confidence. To be a bit more specific on that, Kim Jong Il in August 2008 had a stroke, and observers of North Korea have pretty much uniformly written that it was after he had his stroke that he decided to plan for succession—that’s when he realized his mortality and the need to play for succession We’re therefore able to use the stroke as a plausibly exogenous shock to identify a period when Kim Jong Il wasn’t preparing for succession and a period when Kim Jong Il was preparing for succession, and then examine how patterns of elite management changed before and after his stroke to make inferences about what exactly dictators do when they try to prepare for succession.

North Korea obviously is not an easy country to get data on, so I collected data on the thousands of leadership events under both Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un—whenever the leader meets with either one or a large number of elites at, say, a children’s park, a factory, a missile test. With my co-author, we also collected biographical information on the hundreds of elites between 1994 and 2013 to determine what their roles were in the party or the cabinet or the military, and when those roles changed. We then analyzed how Kim Jong Il’s patterns of who he was meeting with varied before and after his stroke, and how patterns of who Kim Jong Un was meeting with as he consolidated power and secured the transition changed over time.

The patterns we see in North Korea of how dictators prepare for and then secure a transition are not special to North Korea. We can see similar things going on in cases like Turkmenistan, Cambodia, Uganda right now, Saudi Arabia as well with [Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman], and—in the not-too-distant future, given [Vladimir] Putin’s and Xi [Jinping]’s ages—probably in Russia and China, as well. So, I think this topic has enormous importance, and I’m excited to share with people what we can learn from North Korea and apply it to other dictatorships elsewhere.

This project sounds fascinating. I’m excited to read the book when it comes out!

You and me both!

One last question: do you have any advice for young scholars looking to pursue a similarly global comparative perspective in their research?

This isn’t a revolutionary suggestion, but I think the single most important thing is to read—academic research and academic theory, articles, and books. We don’t read enough books in grad school—but we should also read newspapers and blogs and listen to podcasts. For someone who’s interested in North Korea, there’s a great podcast on contemporary and historical North Korean politics. Just because they come from a different [non-academic] source, doesn’t mean they’re not valuable. And—I kind of don’t like suggesting this, but—Twitter remains a fantastic resource for where research gets published, months before it might be released on a journal’s website. For keeping up to date with research, Twitter is still essential. There’s a professor I really admire who says that he tells his grad students: it’s not enough just to read, but you have to read ahead. And that’s precisely what he meant: you can’t just stay up to date with what’s published in journals. You need to be going to conferences and reading working papers, because this helps you understand the contemporary trends or cutting-edge research methods that people are using and how you can integrate these ideas or methods in your work.

There’s one final thing I would add. As you can tell, I am a comparativist and I love the comparative side of what I do. But specialist knowledge, either on a particular country or geographic area of the world, is absolutely crucial. That knowledge could also be on a policy, such as being an expert on education policy, health, or water. This kind of specialized knowledge is crucial and specialist knowledge of, say, a country, can only enhance how you might use your comparative theoretical ideas, and vice versa—your comparative theoretical ideas will be informed by knowing all about, say, a country like North Korea. I don’t think either of those aspects should be neglected. The challenge is just finding the time.

/ / /