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Just what is the DPRK? February 19, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in International Politics.
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It’s a question that comes to mind reading about the United Nations report on North Korea. None of this will be news for those of us who follow these matters, this is, after all, a state that itself admits to kidnapping Japanese citizens (and mostly civilians at that – not that that should or does make a difference) from the coasts of Japan.

There’s much to consider – and much that some should think long and hard about, from the songbun system which seems arguably to be a perverse combination of collective and individual punishment, the use of food as a system of mass societal control, a network of prison camps, and a broad range of acts that the ICC argues ‘meets the threshold needed for proof of crimes against humanity in international law’. Where this goes next is a most interesting question. Probably nowhere given the local balance of forces and the blunt reality that the PRC will sustain the DPRK for its own geo-political reasons as long as it suits them. But on the other hand it offers a yardstick by which to measure future developments or lack of same.

This isn’t a leftwing state, the dynastic element alone is such that it precludes it from being so – and indeed the most recent events in relation to its governance where a non-blood relative was purged most publicly underlines that dynastic element even more forcefully. But if not left-wing then what is it precisely?

Interesting analysis too here:

The report concludes that many of the crimes against humanity stem directly from state policies in a country which, since it was formed from the division of Korea, has been run on a highly individual variant of Stalinist-based self-reliance and centralised dynastic rule. The inquiry found “an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”, with citizens brought into an all-encompassing system of indoctrination from childhood.

But I wonder is that missing the point to position it within that framework because – as with the point about dynastic rule – it seems to sit somewhere else entirely where the outward trappings of Stalinism – more a reenactment than a facade – are bolted onto a much older socio-political dynamic, none of which is intended in any sense to excuse or wave away those trappings – they were clearly used to pernicious and appalling effect. But there’s almost a sense that that was opportunistic, that they provided a methodology at a certain historic moment to acquire and retain power but that their function subsequently was subsidiary. Subsidiary to what?

The state appears to contain competing elite power centres, the Army and so forth, but state legitimation is embodied in a single ruling family and all is subordinate below that level. How much or how little agency that family has is – to some extent – beside the point, though all indications are that it has more than sufficient. That is the system, that is how it is run. That is for who it is run. There is even in the attitude towards the state founder an overt element of ‘the king is dead, long live the king’. Look again at the concept of songbun, an explicit approach that pits the majority of the population as being either ‘neutral’ or ‘hostile’ to those in charge. The state itself comes into implicit conflict with those it purports to represent. That is the logic at work there.

Where concepts such as solidarity or socialism fit into this is quite some question.

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Comments»

1. FergusD - February 19, 2014

Interesting question WBS! I assume that all the productive forces in the DPRK are owned and controlled by the state? That raises the question of the class nature of that state. Not a worker’s state, I think all here would agree, as envisaged by Marx or Lenin, i.e. a state where the proletariat holds state power, therefore presumably Trotskyist formulations of degenerated/deformed workers’ state, used to describe the USSR and the People’s Democracies/PRC, don’t apply. Surely we would all agree it isn’t socialist or communist. Maybe it is something new that we haven’t got a name for, or maybe, as you hinted at, it is something harking back to previous times – I think Marx called it Asiatic despotism (which seems harsh on Asians, despotism of this kind isn’t unique to Asia). It does kind reminds me of ancient Egypt, dynastic with a state controlled economy.

If the DPRK isn’t a “left wing” state, then what kind of revolution produced it? Was that a socialist/workers’ revolution? If so why has it turned out the way it has, appearing as a throw back to ancient times? Is this what happens to a Stalinist state when it doesn’t revert to capitalism (USSR, PRC etc) or undergo a political revolution to restore the workers’ state/socialism (as sadly never happened)?

No doubt most people in the capitalist (assuming the DPRK isn’t that – or does “state capitalism” apply here?) don’t think much about North Korea, expect to be a bit afraid of its crazy ruler. But when they do perhaps many see it as another colossal failure of the socialist project, the slide into despotism, economic failure and paranoia? Something the left (especially of the Leninist tradition) still needs to think hard about in my opinion (and I am in that category as an old armchair Trot).

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2. Johnny Forty Coats - February 19, 2014

Well, of course, the comrades of the Workers’ Party would be the best people to address this issue …

I don’t really see much merit in the argument that the Pyongyang régime is a facade “bolted onto a much older socio-political dynamic”. If I understand this phrase correctly, the suggestion would appear to be that the DPRK is a product of Korea’s indigenous political culture but that it adopted Marxist-Leninist forms in order to ingratiate itself with Beijing and Moscow.

In Korea we have something that students of politics only rarely have: genetic twins separated at birth. This allows the relative contributions of national culture and imported ideology to be assessed. Seoul has not always been a model democracy but the thinly disguised military régimes that prevailed until the 1980s resembled Brazil or the Philippines much more than they did North Korea. For more than 25 years now, South Korea has been a normal presidential democracy with constitutional transfers of power. The most recent election saw the return of a female president for the first time. It seems safe to conclude that there is nothing essentially authoritarian about Korea’s political culture.

Furthermore, the DPRK long ago lost the battle on the national question. In partitioned countries, the two fragments normally try to portray themselves as the legitimate inheritor of national traditions and present the other fragment as the puppet of a foreign power. Bonn won that battle in the case of Germany, Hanoi won it in Vietnam, and Seoul has won it in Korea. What is unusual in the Korean case is that Pyongyang hardly bothers to play the game. Despite the Juche rhetoric of self-reliance and the ritual denunciations of Seoul as a tool of US imperialism, there is no real attempt to portray the DPRK as the logical continuation of pre-colonial Korea. There is no encouragement of Buddhism, for example, and the architecture of Pyongyang looks to 1930s Moscow rather than to indigenous Korean models. As in Orwell’s “1984”, there seems to be a desire to erase any popular memory of history prior to the “revolution”.

The DPRK must be seen as a product of Marxist-Leninist ideology. This is not to say that Marxist-Leninist ideology will always lead to such an outcome; only that such an outcome is a distinct possibility. This conclusion is supported by such comparable examples as Enver Hoxha’s Albania (perhaps the closest parallel to the DPRK) or China in the era of the cultural revolution.

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Dr. X - February 19, 2014

You’re probably right that the roots of Juche have to be sought at least partly in the wider Leninist tradition. But then why didn’t most other Leninist states show the same ideological features (or extremity of demented evil) that the DPRK does?

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CMK - February 19, 2014

Vietnam came from the same gene pool and didn’t go the DPRK route, either.

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Pasionario - February 20, 2014

A paradox about the DPRK is how successful the regime has been at maintaining its power and repeatedly outfoxing the international community — extracting vast amounts of food aid whilst developing a full-blown nuclear weapons programme, not to mention periodically kidnapping foreign citizens. They’ve played their hand flawlessly in that respect whereas the chaps in Langley and Foggy Bottom have been left holding a pack of Jokers. Compare and contrast with Saddam Hussein. However bonkers and evil the Kims might seem to be, there is a method to their madness.

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Michael Carley - February 20, 2014

Something I hadn’t thought of until it was pointed out, and became obvious, is that it suits Japan to have Korea divided.

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WorldbyStorm - February 19, 2014

Not much time to comment but just to clarify when I suggest an older dynamic I don’t mean specific to Korea or Asia but do mean in relation to something close to autocracy, that a Stalinist style state was ‘captured’ by a single personality and then run dynastically thereafter. I’d agree the state was Stalinist initially but that the next part of the process was in a sense opportunistic retaining the trappings of the first part but voiding them of even their own meaning as it became increasingly focused on the individuals in the family and ultimately even shifting rhetorically from ML

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Bob Smiles - February 19, 2014

What is it? A bit of a kip by all accounts. You are really scraping the barrell if think it is a workers state

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WorldbyStorm - February 19, 2014

It’s a good thing nobody here so far seems to think it is a workers state. I suspect very few people genuinely believe that it is.

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workers republic - February 19, 2014

+1 and not to forget Pol Pot and the piles of skulls in the killing fields of Cambodia .Trotskyists will call these tyrannical states examples of Stalinism, but if Trotsky had become ruler of the USSR instead of Stalin I can’t see how it would have been any different in Albania,China under Mao ,Cambodia or North Korea. Incidentally one of my sons visited Cambodia and Laois a few years ago and the ordinary people there were living miserable lives. He lived in the Thailand for a couple of years in the rural north of the country and he found the people there were happy enough.
Basically it’s a matter of balancing freedom and equality.

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Michael Carley - February 19, 2014

“Incidentally one of my sons visited Cambodia and Laois a few years ago and the ordinary people there were living miserable lives.”

So true, so true.

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CMK - February 20, 2014

‘Laois?’ They seemed happy enough last time I was in Portlaoise but, I suppose, you can never tell. Maybe there was famine in the areas around the town?

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Lightweight - February 20, 2014

Really??? Laois is a grand country – if he never saw extreme poverty and exploitation in Thailand he didn’t look.

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Dr. X - February 20, 2014

A few years back I worked with an American lad who had gone backpacking around Indochina in the early noughties. He told me he had been shocked and surprised to meet people in rural Cambodia who still revered Pol Pot as a hero.

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Ceannaire - February 20, 2014

I don’t think even Trots would call the Khmer Rouge an example of Stalinism. They were a completely different ideology.

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3. Ceannaire - February 19, 2014

I just think of it as a category unto itself that essentially draws different elements from every kind of authoritarianism there is, which is why there is so much confusion as to what to call it. It incorporates Stalinism correctly termed in terms of the apparent gulags for political opponents, a dynastic succession as in a monarchy, and a religious-like reverence for the leaders that makes it like a theocracy. There is also a strong nationalist element, to justify disciplining the people in obedience to the state. So rather than one ideology, it’s a lethal cocktail of the nastiest elements of different authoritarian systems.

In terms of the genesis of the regime and its weirdness, I think you need to look at the total disembowelling of the country by US forces in the Korean war, when about a quarter of the population was killed and the country was bombed into the stone age. The sheer devastation was an easy justification for extremely centralised leadership and also made it difficult for the growth of an intelligentsia and so forth independent from the regime. The restoration of capitalism in Russia and China also meant they no longer needed to pretend to be good socialists in return for aid, and so allowed the quasi-monarchical, theocratic and nationalistic elements to spin out of all control.

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CMK - February 19, 2014

Your point about the US bombing the country into the stone age is most apposite. I don’t think it’s a co-incidence that the other Asian country to experience something similar – Cambodia – also ended up with a murderous regime. A regime supported, let it be noted, by the West and toppled by dastardly Vietnamese Marxist-Leninists!

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WorldbyStorm - February 19, 2014

This piece here which is written it would seem from a reasonably sympathetic point of view to the travails of the Korean people in both parts of Korea suggests about 12-15% of the population of the North were killed in the Korean war – a figure as it says equal to or slightly greater than that of the USSR. http://www.japanfocus.org/-charles_k_-armstrong/3460

CMK, I’ve always felt the Vietnamese did a good days work in that. A very interesting place even/particularly today.

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CMK - February 20, 2014

WbS, it was. Probably one of the few genuine ‘humanitarian interventions’ in history. And, the Vietnamese while they were authoritarian and controlling when they ruled Cambodia didn’t leave the country in rag-order and in turmoil a the great ‘liberals’ in the US/UK have done in Iraq and look like they’ll soon be doing in Afghanistan.

The Korean War is little discussed nowadays but it was arguably a pivotal event in the post 1945 world as it was the first ‘hot’ war of the gathering Cold War.

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workers republic - February 20, 2014

You make good points there Ceannaire. “a lethal cocktail” it certainly is, and one that the W.P.were able to swallow; I wonder what’s their position now regarding N. Korea?
The imperialist powers of the West acted shamefully supporting Policy Pot, Thatcher’s government sold landings that are killing children even today and the UN recognised Pol Pot’s government as the legitimate one after Vietnam’s intervention and punished Vietnam by sanctions for a long time .
China also acted shamefully, supporting Pol Pot and their puppet “Prince”.
Politics makes strange bedfellows ,indeed

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workers republic - February 20, 2014

Typo: landmines and Laos

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Ceannaire - February 20, 2014

The WP is still pro-DPRK. The “International” section of their website says “This Ard Fheis salutes the continuing struggle of the Workers’ Party of Korea and the Korean people for national independence, sovereignty and socialism. The Ard Fheis condemns the continuing campaign of aggression against the DPRK, congratulates the DPRK on the 76th anniversary of the Korean People’s Army which has defended the Korean people against Japanese and US imperialism and supports the call of the DPRK for the reunification of the country and peace on the Korean peninsula.”

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4. Logan - February 19, 2014

That is an interesting website, WBS. Ironic to read that in the late 1950’s North Korea was so dependent on the Eastern bloc for reconstruction, despite all the talk of the “juche” ideology; and were so sensitive about that fact later!
Of course, South Korea was also completely devastated by the war, so i think that any attempt make a direct causal link between the emergence of the Kim dynasty totalitarian system and the war devastation seems a bit forced.
it is obviously a bastard child of Stalinism and a kind of Korean fascism.
The fascist element is obvious from this account “Jee explained the camp guards’ policy towards women who returned to North Korea pregnant. The country’s strict rules over perceived racial purity meant most of these women endured forced abortions, lest their babies have Chinese fathers…”
(From the Guardian article on the UN Report: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/feb/17/north-korea-human-rights-abuses-stories-un-brainwashed)
Rather ungrateful when one considers that the DPRK is completely dependent on the PRC for its existence.

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Ceannaire - February 19, 2014

South Korea was ruled by a dictator at the time of the war and for decades afterwards.

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Dr. X - February 20, 2014

In his autobiography, Dennis Healey refers to 10000 members of the South Korean Labour Party who were deported to the north by the post-war ROK regime, on the principle that one socialist is pretty much like another. The SKLP were (according to Healey) all promptly executed by the Kim regime.

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Noddy - February 20, 2014

Seeing that the South Korean Labour Party was a front of the communist party I think Healy might be engaging in his normal level of BS

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5. Lightweight - February 19, 2014

“…there is no real attempt to portray the DPRK as the logical continuation of pre-colonial Korea…” – not sure about this. Lot of attempt for better or worse to link DPRK to ‘pure’ Korean culture.

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6. doctorfive - February 20, 2014

Was a few inches from the place along the northern border a few years ago. And could see in for miles of empty fields and mountain from part of the Great Wall (Someone else has uploaded snaps http://www.flickr.com/photos/kernbeisser/sets/72157616026067847/).

Our side of the river in China, a small town of three or four million, was on the up for better or worse. New skyscraper by the time we left etc. The urban bit on the Korean side was well in from the river and out of view but there was this

Never turned and looked like it never did. Pure Potemkin but not as depressing as the four story Tesco on our side.

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7. Colm B - February 20, 2014

As a member of the WP I did visit NK though that gives me no special insight other then an impression which confirms the view I’ve formed from subsequent reading.
I’m not fully convinced by any of the classifications of its social/economic system that I’ve come across (and it is important to try to analyse its nature) but I am sure of one thing: for workers, its one of the most oppressive, exploitative places in the world. Call me simplistic but that’s the most important thing for me as a socialist.

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8. roddy - February 20, 2014

Didn’t McGiolla say there could only one Korea and one people ,just as there could be only one Ireland and one people A N,Korean choir then belted out “a nation once again” and all was grand until word reached home and then furious back pedalling commenced .30 years of pandering to unionism had been briefly abandoned to pretend to be “anti imperialist” when they thought nobody was looking !

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